Ministry Fertilizer

It’s Not a Game
November 17, 2007, 12:37 pm
Filed under: Principles of Youth Ministry

My Pastor, Austin Gardner, sent me this article this morning and I believe it is great. I especially like the part about “expository preaching”. It is often said at our church we should be “people of the book”. That is a core value of our church and hopefully every church. For the last month I have been preaching through the book of Galatians. It does not feel like what I am used to in youth ministry. However, it has been some of the most exciting lessons we have had so far. The Word of God knows what teenagers need more then I could ever. One lesson was on salvation and a young man accepted Christ. The next lesson was on the call to preach and a young man has begun talk about his desire to be in the ministry!


I know the following article is much longer then my average post. However, it is worth the time!


It’s Not a Game

Taking Youth Ministry Seriously

Allen Cagle

Associate Pastor, Junior High Ministry

Do you realize that, statistically speaking, the three most important decisions that are

made in one’s life are made before one turns 25?

􀂃 Vocation

􀂃 Marriage

􀂃 Salvation

I am not one who puts too much stock in surveys and statistics. I think they are easy to

manipulate and often are twisted to meet one’s argument. However, there is a statistic

that is thrown out so often that I think it is undeniable. It is undeniable because of its

amazing consistency. That is the age of conversion.

I have heard, just as many of you may have, that up to 90 percent of the people who get

saved do so before age 22. That is a staggering number. Is it true? I don’t know. I did

some surveying of my own, in my circle of people with whom I minister. I found that in

our junior-high staff, of the 29 who answered the survey, 21 were teenagers when they

were saved. On our pastoral staff, 8 of the 14 were saved as teenagers.

If you were to take the number of people who get saved and break down their conversion

dates by age, you’d find that for every decade that passes, the numbers decrease. Is this


Numbers and statistics for the sake of numbers really are not that significant. And let me

be clear: I firmly believe in a sovereign God who can choose to save anyone at any time.

We had a glorious occasion at our church a few months back, when an 88-year-old lady

professed faith in Christ and was baptized. It was awesome! She told of her life before

Christ and how she had spent 80-plus years living for herself and for sin. God radically

changed her heart. I would love to have more stories like that to blow up these statistics!

So, of course God can save anyone.

I do believe that what we see, however, is that God uniquely uses the teenage years to

shape the direction of an individual’s life.

The teenage years are critical. They are shaping years; they are formable and moldable

years. If you ask the average adult what he was doing when he was 23 or 24, he would

pause to think. Or if you ask what happened at 31 or 32, perhaps an even longer pause.

Ask that same person to tell you about the junior-high years. “Oh, junior high!”


Everyone remembers junior high. Some would rather forget it, but we all have memories

etched in our long-term memory from these years. This is why I think it is so important to

minister effectively and seriously to teenagers.

The title of this seminar is “It’s Not a Game: Taking Youth Ministry Seriously.” We’re

finding fewer and fewer people who desire to truly invest in the lives of teenagers. The

thought of the day parallels the sentiment of Dorothy Fulheim: “Youth is a disease from

which we all recover.” Teenagers often are despised, often regarded as problems and seen

as being in a state of existence that must be corralled and contained.

I will be the first to recognize that ministering to teenagers is unique. It presents unique

challenges and unique needs in ministry. But as we think through how to effectively

minister to teenagers, we must remember that the teenage years historically represent

extremely fertile soil for ministry.

Some of you may have questions about the genuineness of some younger conversions,

particularly in the early teen years and even before that. That’s fine; I probably would

agree with you on many of your objections.

Somewhere between the ages of 11 and 13, it is as if the lights are coming on; this

obviously is associated with the onset of puberty. Students begin to understand sin and

accountability to God, they begin to respect pastors or hate them, and they begin to test

the limits of authority. They start to become vain, to realize the inequalities of life. Some

are short, some are tall, some are strong, some are weak. Life begins to change. The faith

of their parents is under examination, and for the first time (usually) they are starting to

realize that they do not necessarily have to embrace this faith that their family has held to.

“Is this my faith, or is it my parents’?”

The issue isn’t when people get saved; the issue is that this is a vital age at which to be


􀂃 They need help in thinking through these events in their lives.

􀂃 They need assistance in sorting out the changes that are taking place.

􀂃 They need guidance in navigating the difficult culture into which they were born.

The teenage years are supremely important, and we as youth ministers have the privilege

of immersing ourselves in this world and seeking to minister to this group. I want to try to

establish in our minds that teenagers are capable of being saved, capable of serving,

capable of understanding truth, and capable of growing in godliness.

I did a series with our students a few years ago on the teenagers in the Bible. Consider

what teenagers accomplished:

Joseph. At 17 years old, Joseph was a know-it-all punk. His brothers eventually had

enough of it, and they sold him into slavery. God, in His sovereign plan, placed Joseph

there and allowed him to excel in the kingdom so that he quickly climbed the ladder to a


place of prominence. He then ended up in a precarious situation with Potiphar’s wife. She

tried to get him to sleep with her. He refused her offer: “How then can I do this great

wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). Joseph was presented with the ultimate

sin opportunity, and he rejected it.

Daniel. He likely was junior-high age when he was deported to a foreign land with his

friends. They were hand-picked by the Chaldeans to learn the ways of the king in the

palace. They were put in a place where their commitment to God would be put to the

ultimate test. Daniel, probably at junior-high age, was placed in a situation with no

parental accountability. This was his chance to sow his wild oats, to pursue any course of

sin that he desired, yet we find a different story. We find in this teenager a resolve that is

a great example to all of us.

David. He went out to face the great Goliath as a shepherd boy. He did not focus his

attention on the seemingly insurmountable odds that faced him, but rather made this great

confession of his faith in God (1 Sam. 17:42–47):

And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a

youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a

dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.

The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of

the air and to the beasts of the field.” Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to

me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of

the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day

the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your

head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the

birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that

there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not

with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our


This teenager knew what it meant to trust in his God.

Josiah. After a difficult family background, he came to the throne at about 18 years old

and served the country well, in a God-honoring way.

And in the New Testament…

Mary. She was a teenager when she bore the Messiah. Her story is one of absolute trust

and obedience to God. She confessed this in a theology-filled monologue called the


And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my

Savior, [by the way, Mary needed a Savior] for he has looked on the humble estate of

his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who

is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:46–49).


Timothy. On Paul’s first missionary journey, this young man committed his life to the

Lord in the city of Lystra. This is the same city where Paul was stoned after being

worshiped—the interesting story is recorded in Acts 14. A couple of years later, on his

second missionary journey, Paul came back to the town of Lystra and took with him a

young man in his upper teens—Timothy. Timothy could even have been a witness to the

stoning of Paul and undoubtedly knew about what had happened. It was in this

environment that Timothy committed to traveling with Paul, Silas, and Luke on the

second and very dangerous missionary journey.

When we consider biblically how to understand teenagers, and then consider how

teenagers historically have been treated, it is almost embarrassing today how dumbeddown

our culture has become in regard to teenagers.

In talking to some people from other countries, and some who have grown up on the

mission field, so many of them don’t really understand why we think the way we do

regarding teenagers.

Richard Newton was an English-born preacher who pastored for years on the East Coast

in Philadelphia at St. Paul’s Church from 1840–1862. He was known for the children’s

sermons that he would give on Sunday afternoons, when he would ask that all adults

leave the room so he could talk to the children. These sermons have been compiled and

now are published by Solid Ground Christian Books. There are seven of these titles that I

know of, perhaps more now. I read through a number of these sermons and was blown

away by the depth of theology and understanding that he preached to these children. It

reminds me that kids can learn theology. And then junior-high students can learn

theology, and high-school students can learn theology.

I hope that the case has been made for taking seriously our jobs as youth pastors.

As we talk about how to go about this, it is important to keep in mind the distinction

between the corporate body and youth ministry. Youth ministry is an addendum, an

elective. Youth ministry is not the church. A church is commanded to meet together, to

remember the ordinances, to observe church discipline. There’s no verse for youth

ministry. If you open your Bible concordance and look for youth ministry, you will not

find it. Youth ministry is a way to minister to teenagers in an age-appropriate manner. It

gives us the opportunity to speak to them in the world they live in.

There are many who question the existence of youth ministry at all. They say:

􀂃 That youth ministry fragments the church.

􀂃 That youth ministry, and particularly the youth pastor, subverts the place of the

parents and the home.

􀂃 That youth ministry promotes constant silliness.

If this is what your youth ministry is doing, then I’m opposed to it as well. But I do think

there is a better way.


I think if we put some thought into the place of the youth ministry and how it fits

ecclesiologically, then it can be a very effective tool in the hands of the parents in

ministering to their teenagers.

Let’s talk about how to go about this.

Three Keys to Taking Youth Ministry Seriously

I will give some points, present some problems that are present, and then give some

solutions to those problems.

I. Get Serious about Expository Preaching

A. Problems

1. The Entertainment Age

Teenagers today are very interesting. We have an entire generation of students

who would rather communicate via e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging,

Facebook, or MySpace than they would have a face-to-face conversation.

They are digitized to death.

How often have you watched teenagers sit in the same car and text message

one another? We live in an entertainment-driven culture. If we were briefly to

survey the history of entertainment, we’d find that entertainment was only for

the elite not too many years ago. It is only in the past 200 years, perhaps even

less, that entertainment has been readily enjoyed by the average person.

Entertainment once was something for the elite. It was thoughtful. To enjoy

entertainment was to be one who appreciated the arts, classical music, and

literature. Entertainment has entered a new era. It has shifted to being about

gratification rather than edification, indulgence rather than transcendence,

reaction rather than contemplation, escape from moral instruction rather than

submission to it. (Gabler, Life the Movie, p. 16)

The church has been greatly affected by this cultural shift.

We live in a world now that lives not so much by logic and reason as by

emotionalism. Commercials don’t sell a product based on reason and

information; they sell an image.

Neil Postman observes: “The decline of a print-based epistemology and the

accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave


consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute”

(Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 77).

I think teenagers are particularly susceptible to this today. They will gravitate

not toward thoughtfulness and serious conversation, but toward entertainment,

whenever they are able. Whenever we have a camp or activity, the first

announcement that we make is to put the cell phones and iPods away. After

the gasps cease and they move on with life, they figure out that they can live

without these things.

They are in a state of constant entertainment.

Why is this a problem? This is a problem for preaching, isn’t it? We

understand that they are constantly being entertained, and we don’t think that

we can stand and preach to them and expect them to listen.

2. Desire for Immediate Results

Many well-intended youth pastors understand what we’ve been saying about

the serious nature of ministering to teenagers. They understand that a seventh

grader doesn’t lack in sinfulness but perhaps has lacked the ability to act on

this sinfulness as of yet. They know the world of immorality and the harm that

is out there for a teenager. They know these things and recognize the

seriousness of the moment, and they earnestly desire to minister to these


But instead of laboring in the Word of God and prayer, they turn to other

means. They desire to produce a program that will change the heart. They

make videos and dramas, organize pizza nights, and administrate great and

wonderful events, all the while neglecting the Word of God. I commend the

effort and ability, but they must deliver the Word of God in order to see a life


3. Assumption of Inability to Listen to Preaching

We assume that because of the nature of students today that students aren’t

able to sit through sermons. That’s simply not true. Students are able to sit

through sermons. They are able to comprehend, able to listen, able to engage

in serious subject matter.

I preach to a junior-high audience 35–45 minutes every week. There’s nothing

magical about the length of time. You’re not more spiritual because you

preach a long time or less because you don’t preach long. The point is that

students are able to engage in the text of the Word as it is delivered.

B. Solutions


1. Reliance on the Word of God

God’s truth is the lone means for spiritual life.

􀂃 Romans 10:17: “Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of


􀂃 James 1:18: “In the exercise of His Will he has brought us forth by the

Word of Truth.”

􀂃 1 Peter 1:23: “For you have been born again not of seed which is

perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring

Word of God.”

􀂃 Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of


God’s truth is also the means for sanctification.

􀂃 1 Peter 2:1–3: “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the

Word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.”

􀂃 John 17:17: “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.”

We must faithfully preach the Word of God and trust that God will use His

Spirit and His Word to produce spiritual life in the lives of the students.

Anything else is a fundamental distrust in the sovereignty of God.

2. Reliance on the Spirit of God

This goes hand-in-hand with the preaching of the Word. We must trust that

God’s Word will go out, and we must trust that the Spirit of God will activate

His Word in the hearts of people. This is the essence of Christian ministry.

1 Corinthians 3:12–18: “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not

like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might

not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their

minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant,

that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken

away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.

But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the

Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all,

with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed

into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes

from the Lord who is the Spirit.”


You can program the greatest event in the history of youth ministry. You can

have the greatest camp games ever. You can have the greatest drama every

produced. You can have the greatest pizza ever made. But you can never lift

the veil off the blind eyes of a single student. You must be dependent on the

Spirit of God to use the preaching of the Word of God to activate it in the

heart of the hearer.

Let me be clear on a few things:

First, I’m not opposed to being an engaging preacher. I’m not opposed to

using germane illustrations and applications; in fact, I would argue that you’ve

not really preached until you’ve done so. I would argue for engaging

preaching that is relevant to the lives of teenagers. This is why preaching to a

younger audience is more difficult than an adult audience. There is an extra

level of breakdown required. The work of exegesis is no easier; you just have

to spend more time sermonizing and working your sermon into something that

is understandable.

Secondly, I’m not opposed to topical preaching. That statement may not

make sense to some of you. I mean that I’m not opposed to a topical sermon

that seeks to exposit the Scriptures on a given subject. I have preached many

topical sermons and will continue to do so. This could cover the attributes of

God, or the Holy Spirit, or Christology, or a number of other sermons. The

point is that you’re explaining the text of Scripture.

Thirdly, I’m not proposing a style of preaching or teaching. If you have

group of four kids, it will look different than a group of 100. Just teach the


We must be men who are serious about preaching the Word of God in youth


II. Get Serious about Engaging Discipleship

Discipleship is integral to the life of any believer. This isn’t a need that is unique to

teenagers. We all are to be disciples, and all should be involved in a discipleship

relationship—both upward and downward.

Teenagers are at a crucial age. They are at the point where they are starting to think

through things; they are beginning to examine, beginning to learn, and the

discipleship process is of utmost importance in their lives.

A. Problems

1. Desire to Be Cool


Too often our conversations with students can default to nothing more than

catching up on the best movies, music, psps, and Xbox 360s.We want so

badly to be liked that we many times don’t engage the students at a deep level.

It is amazing to me that grown men and women can be scared to death of what

a 12-year-old thinks of them. But how often have we found ourselves in that

situation? You’re in the car with a student, and you desire to push the

conversation to something spiritual and find yourself nervous. How ridiculous

is that?

I tell our volunteer staff all the time: You’re not there to be their friend. A 13-

year-old is a better friend to a 13-year-old than you can be. You’re not a

parent, and you’re not a peer. You’re not there to be cool. You’re there to

push the conversation to a spiritual front and engage them in that.

2. Unwillingness to Confront Sin

This is closely related to the point we just discussed. We seem to write the

teenage years off as a stage, something that will be grown out of. Because of

this, we often find ourselves dismissing sin issues and hoping they go away.

This isn’t unique to student ministry, by the way.

This is a problem in the discipleship process. We don’t want to have the tough

conversations about

􀂃 Parents

􀂃 School

􀂃 Lust

􀂃 Modesty

􀂃 Worldliness

It’s easier to talk about ball games and make sure they’re not doing anything

really bad. What should we do?

B. Solutions

I think the answers to these problems are rather obvious.

1. Check your heart for the fear of man.

Fearing man over God means that you care more about what man thinks than

what God thinks. We must get over this in ministering to teenagers.

It is better to be thought of as un-cool than to abandon our pastoral



You need to have the conversation that Paul has with himself in Galatians

1:10: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying

to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of

Christ.” Paul is talking about the nature of the true gospel. He says if he were

going to make up a message, it would be one that squared with his Hebrew

roots. He sure wouldn’t make something up that keeps getting him beaten!

Paul says that man isn’t his concern with the gospel message; God is. The

implications of this apply to many areas of ministry and life.

How do you make decisions? Is it based on the fear or man or on the fear of

God? Let me ask you a diagnostic question: Are you becoming like the

students to gain influence, or are they becoming like you because of your


2. Allow Hebrews 13:17 to haunt you.

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your

souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and

not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

You will give an account for the souls that God has charged to your care. Do

you know your people? Do you care for them in a deep way? Do you pray for

your people?

III. Get Serious about Qualified Leadership

A. Problem

A few years ago, John MacArthur preached a sermon that he called “The Myth of

Influence.” The concept was that we often think that if someone very influential

were to get saved, he would be able to win many more to Christ.

􀂃 A famous athlete—if Kobe got saved

􀂃 A famous politician or actor—if Tom Cruise got saved

􀂃 A well-known musician—if only 50 Cent would be converted

If only God would save them, how many would then be converted? I think we

often fall into this line of thinking in youth ministry. We are often tempted to look

for the people who are the college athletes or the best dressed, who have the right

look, the biggest houses, the coolest cars, the boats, and the toys to come serve in

youth ministry. If you can play a guitar and have a Jeep, you’re our kind of guy.

Paul addressed this very idea in 1 Corinthians. In this letter, Paul wrote to debunk

this type of thinking. Check out 1 Corinthians 1:26–31: “For consider your


calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not

many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish

in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the

strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not,

to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the

presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made

our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore,

as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

God has chosen not the wisdom or the influence of the world, but rather simple

messengers with His truth to influence the world.

The last thing that we want is for youth ministry to become a personality cult.

Don’t write someone off to minister to students because of age, looks, or other

superficial things.

B. Solutions

1. Hold a high standard.

Whether you’re in a church of 5,000, of 500, or of 50, the standard of

leadership still applies. If a church chooses to hire an associate pastor who is

responsible for the youth ministry, he needs to be a qualified pastor, according

to Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. If there are volunteers who are able to help in the

ministry, they too should be qualified.

If I’m talking to someone who wants to be involved in student ministry, I tell

them that we’re looking for four things:

􀂃 Desire—If you hate 12-year-olds, don’t come to junior-high ministry.

􀂃 Availability—It is time consuming.

􀂃 Giftedness—We’re not looking for the next Spurgeon, but you need to

know where your giftedness is and where you can serve.

􀂃 Qualified—You must be deacon-qualified, according to 1 Timothy 3. (I

usually give them a copy of what John MacArthur says about deacons

in his 1 Timothy 3 commentary.)

2. Remember the power source.

􀂃 Romans 1:16—The gospel is the power.

􀂃 Acts 16–17—Why did Paul and Silas upset the city? They were run

out of Philippi. Then they went to Thessalonica and were run out of

there. Why? The gospel. Not personality.


􀂃 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show

that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Not to us—

but to God! It doesn’t matter if you’re cool baked dirt or un-cool baked

dirt. The point is the temporal nature of the container and the

indescribable power and preciousness of the gospel.


1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

Tremendous article, Trent. Thanks for posting it and passing it along to us. Thought that was funny about being afraid of what a 12 year old thinks. It is funny but often true. May God help us to put the boat out, engage in spiritual conversation, and be willing to challenge them to live for God!

Comment by Travis Snode

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