Nothing is more central to the Christian than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the research conducted by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) they found that churches that Grow Young are also churches that take Jesus’ Message seriously. Now as LCMS Lutherans, we recognize certain theological distinctions in how we understand what it means to take the message of Jesus seriously. There are a number of theological traditions that would claim to take the Gospel seriously and to place the message of Jesus in a central position. However, I would suggest that as Lutheran, and especially confessional, LCMS Lutherans, when we talk about being Christ Centered, we are speaking in a way unique to the boarder Christian church.

That said, it is important to note that contrary to the approaches to ministry and theological development pursued in mainline church bodies over the past century plus, sacrificing the centrality of Christ for the current cultural trends is verifiably not a winning formula. Not only would we end up passing off a faith to the succeeding generations anathema to the pages of Scripture and the ministry of Christ Himself, but in so doing we offer a variation on Christianity so indistinguishable from the broader culture, so as to offer nothing of substance to call people out of said culture to follow in the first place. Instead, Fuller found that churches who take seriously the teaching of Jesus and apply them in both preaching and practice offer a distinct alternative to the culture and something worth reshaping one’s life around in order to follow a Christ that calls us to take up our cross and follow.

Teaching the Christian faith in all of its Christ-centered truthful glory is a job that the church does best with the support of Engaged Parents. Young people go through a number of changes and challenges during their teenage years. Having parents prepared and engaged in the lives of their children, supported by the local church, provides the best possible support system for young people as they encounter questions while thinking through the implications of their faith on how they are and will live out their lives. Parent have the most influence. As a DCE, I know that there is nothing my ministry can do that will have a larger impact than the influence that can be leveraged through Engaged Parents.

When parents participate in worship together as a family with their kids, their teens learn one of the strongest and longest lasting lessons of faith. Similarly, when teens grow up seeing their parents reading the Bible, praying, and participating in other faith practices, they learn about the practical nature of living out the Christian faith and learn directly how to make those practices a part of their own faith life. Researchers like Christian Smith (National Study of Youth and Religion), FYI, the LCMS young adult study, and my own doctoral research all point to the powerful correlation between the faith of parents seen by their children and the developing faith life of those young people through throughout their teenage years and beyond.

One of the key tasks that the church is called to support parents in as they witness the faith to their children is helping those teens to Deeply Understand Their Baptismal Faith. Even before the message of Jesus was first proclaimed by Christ Himself, Baptism was front and center in preparing the way. John the Baptist, that cousin of Jesus who lept with the joy of Christ even while he himself was yet to be born, was the messenger whose Baptism prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. Youth, having many times been baptized years prior, need to be brought in remembrance back to the waters of their Baptism. Martin Luther recommended that we recall our Baptism daily as we wash our faces in preparation to face the day. Years ago on my internship, we used the theme of “Walking Wet” for a confirmation retreat. The point of this theme was to help the youth recall how their Baptism has a lasting impact on how they live out their daily lives.

The church supports young people in the remembrance of their Baptism when teaching is grounded in their baptismal identity. When the foundation of a teen’s faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit through Baptism, the typical ebbs and flows that challenge and disturb their growth in Christ may no longer be seen as insurmountable. If they understand that they are Christ’s through Baptism their confidence in exploring the faith and dealing with challenge that they might encounter in school and from their peers in the culture.

The encouragement provided by the church is to be done with Warmth, Challenge, and Grace. We know that there will be difficult questions that teens in our ministries will face. The question is will they feel as though they have to face those challenges alone. Young people need parents and others in the church who are willing and able to walk alongside them to encourage them to hear and trust Jesus’ word, even and especially when that message is difficult. Teens in our ministries are exposed to viewpoints that run counter to the message of Christ. Our job is to bring Christ and His message to these teens with love and grace, but to nonetheless bring that truth even when it risks pushing hard on the values of the culture that they have made their own.

For this reason, youth ministry is a messy affair. We cannot expect youth in our ministries, even those youth who have “grown up in the church” to be 100% aligned with everything that the Bible teaches. The culture has too much influence to assume that there will not be areas of challenge needed. Further, if we are doing our ministry well and engaging in outreach to youth who are new to following Jesus, or even just learning their first lessons about who Jesus is and what He did in His life and ministry, they will need to be loved and challenged with those elements of the message of the Gospel that are offensive to our culture.

Years ago I had a conversation with a young atheist teen who had been coming to our youth ministry. On that particular night he and a couple of friends had come to youth group when we were decorating the church for Christmas. As a group they asked to talk to me. He let me know that while he was not sure that he bought all this Jesus stuff, he liked how I taught. He then asked if it was alright that he and his friends were there if they did not believe in Jesus. I told him that he absolutely was welcome and encouraged them all to keep coming and asking questions. Jesus and His message is for all young people and when our churches make that Christ central, we share His love with Warmth, Challenge, and Grace that helps our ministries to Grow Young.

Find out more about this series here.