What John Teaches Us About Youth Ministry

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There’s a legend about John the apostle that’s tucked away in a book you may have never read—especially if you’re a children’s or student minister. Let’s face it, musty second-century sermon manuscripts aren’t top-of-shelf reading material for those of us who spend our days shopping at Costco for Goldfish crackers, leading early morning discipleship at Chick-fil-A, sanitizing toys in the nursery, or ordering pizza for Wednesday night gatherings. But let me tell you a secret: If you’ve missed this story, you’ve missed a treasure.

At the conclusion of one of his sermons, the second-century pastor, Clement of Alexandria, gives us a beautiful and early account of generational ministry. The story begins shortly after John, the beloved disciple, was released from prison on the isle of Patmos. By this time in John’s ministry he was an old man. Most evangelical scholars believe John wrote the book of Revelation from Patmos in AD 95–96. Even if the disciple was a teenager when he followed Jesus, he would now be in his 70s. He’s likely an octogenarian.  

Clement begins his story by telling us what John would do after his release from prison:

After the tyrant’s death [likely Clement is referring to the Roman emperor, Domitian], John returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus and used to go, when asked, to neighboring Gentile districts to appoint pastors, reconcile churches, or ordain someone designated by the Spirit. Arriving at a city nearby [probably the city of Smyrna in modern-day Turkey], he settled disputes among the brethren and then, noticing a spirited youth of superior physique and handsome appearance, commended him to the appointed pastor with the words: “I leave this young man in your keeping with Christ as my witness.”

Now that he’s in his later years, John serves the church as an itinerant preacher and traveling advisor. He moves around from church to church, sitting on ordination committees and helping church leaders settle disputes—not all that different from what a retired pastor might do today. As a wise senior saint, John was also on the lookout for young talent. And he found a handsome and spirited young man in the church at Smyrna. Seeing leadership potential, he commended this youth to the local pastor for training. Then, when John returned to his home church in Ephesus, the pastor took the young man home, raised him, and when he had confessed faith, baptized him.

Maybe the young pastor had an underdeveloped theology of discipleship. Maybe he was burdened with a particularly challenging church; we do know the church in Smyrna had experienced the trauma of heavy persecution (Rev. 2:8–10). Clement doesn’t tell us the local pastor’s motives. He just says that after the young man was saved and baptized, the pastor “relaxed his oversight.” And at that point, things went sideways. Clement described it this way:

Some idle and morally lax youths corrupted the young man with lavish entertainment and then took him with them when they went out at night to commit robbery or worse crimes. Soon, he joined them and like a stallion taking the bit in mouth, he dashed off the straight road and down the cliff. Renouncing God’s salvation, he went from petty offenses to major crimes and formed the young renegades into a gang of bandits with himself as chief, surpassing them all in violence and bloody cruelty.

The young student fell into the wrong crowd, and this bad company corrupted his good character (1 Cor. 15:33). It’s a story everyone in youth ministry has experienced. Leadership gifts in a young person can be both a blessing and a curse. The Holy Spirit can use charisma and confidence for good, but, if the young person chooses to indulge their sinful nature, that same potential can be twisted for great evil. More privileged kids, like the prodigal son, will chase a party and popularity. A neglected young man, like this one in Smyrna, may join a street gang.

Responding to a youth who has strayed from the faith

How should we respond in that moment when a young person begins to turn away from the faith? Certainly, the fallen youth bears some responsibility. But can we say each prodigal is just a “bad seed”? That’s what the pastor in Smyrna thought.

Time passed, and John paid another visit [to Smyrna]. Then, the apostle said, “Come now, pastor, return now the deposit that Christ and I left in your keeping . . .  I am asking for the young man and his soul.”

“He is dead,” groaned the pastor in tears.

“How did he die?”

“He is dead to God. He turned out vile and debauched: an outlaw. He is in the mountains, not the church, with a gang of men like himself.”

The rest of the story makes clear that this pastor’s “blame-the-kid” approach to a straying youth isn’t the right one. But allow me to ask the question again: How should we respond when a young person begins to turn away from the faith? Is it a time for self-reflection? Should we ask, “What did we do wrong? Was there something missing in our youth ministry model?” Perhaps. But I find John’s more active response to be much more challenging.

The apostle tore his clothing, beat his head, and groaned. “A fine guardian I left for our brother’s soul! But get me a horse and someone to show me the way.” He rode off from the church, just as he was. When he arrived at the hideout and was seized by the outlaws’ sentries, he shouted, “This is what I have come for: take me to your leader!”

When John approached and the young leader recognized him, the young man turned and fled in shame. But John ran after him as hard as he could, forgetting his age, and calling out, “Why are you running away from me child—from your own father, unarmed and old? Pity me child, don’t fear me! I will give account to Christ for you and, if necessary, gladly suffer death and give my life for yours as the Lord suffered death for us. Stop! Believe! Christ sent me.”

Think about that for a moment. As soon as he heard about the straying son, this 80-year-old pastor mounted a horse and rode into the mountains to chase him down! It reminds me of what our Lord taught us in Matthew 18:10–14:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Clement tells us that the young gang leader “stopped, stared at the ground, threw down his weapons and wept bitterly.” He flung his arms around the old apostle and begged forgiveness. John assured him that he’d found forgiveness from the Savior, and the Father rejoiced!

Brothers and sisters who serve in children’s or student ministry, this is your mission. Remember this story the next time you’re stacking piles of cotton balls for a preschool craft. Remember John the Apostle the next time you’re playing knockout with the middle school boys. This is your mission. You’re carrying the good news to the little ones, and you’re chasing them down when they stray. Believe this good news. And call the kids in your care to believe, because Christ sent you!

This post first appeared at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission blog.

Notes

Quotations from Clement of Alexandria, “Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?” inThe Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325, Volume II, Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire),ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Cleveland Coxe, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprinted 2001), pp. 603–604. The translation I’ve adapted here is from Eusebius: The Church History, A New Translation with Commentary trans. by Paul L. Maier, 4thed. (Kregel, 1999), pp. 111–12.

You Can Say That Again

If you've taught children (... or youth ... and sometimes even adults) for any length of time you will invariably hear, "I've heard that before!" Or maybe, as you've been preparing to teach one of those groups you've thought to yourself, "I've been through this already." Repetition gets a bad rap. While we may have heard the words before, we probably didn't apply them to our hearts and lives.

Here's what Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote on the topic of repetition in his commentary on 1 John,  Life in Christ:

"... repetition is the very art of teaching. Wise teachers always repeat themselves. There are certain things that can never be repeated too often, and although John is an old man, he is a teacher." 

As we are in the season of Advent, we need to be reminded again (and afresh) of the reason for this celebration. We must enter into this season with awe, worship, and submission; and that doesn't happen apart from being reminded again and again. It doesn't happen without repetition.

Teachers, repeat away! You can never hear the life transforming words of the gospel too much! Few of us were converted the first time we heard it. We have all been changed through someone's faithfulness to the message and their willingness to repeat it over and over again, in many different ways, on many different occasions.

I'll say it again (for emphasis), "Repeat away!"

Quote from pg. 205 of Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Life in Christ (Crossway, 2002).

Kids and church, part 2: Sound doctrine, food for God's lambs

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Jesus commanded Peter, “Feed my lambs,” (John 21:15). Once we see the necessity of the church feeding those who are young in faith and young in age (see my previous post), the obvious question is: What do we feed them? When a shepherd is seeking to feed his little lambs, he seeks the lushest pasture. He wants to help these lambs grow up to be big and strong. When it comes to feeding those who are either young in the faith or young in age, the answer is simple--though it's hard to carry out. The answer is doctrine. Our doctrine, that is, our theology or knowledge of God, should always be growing. With each passing year, we should know God better, know him more deeply, know him more personally. We need to grow in our understanding of who God is so that we can better understand how to follow him faithfully.

But doctrinal study is a difficult discipline for seasoned believers to grow in, let alone those who are young. And yet it is necessary. When I say that the lambs need doctrine, I don’t mean that they simply need to memorize definitions and theological concepts. What I mean is that they must understand those concepts and how to apply them. This is where it gets hard. Here's what I mean. Shepherds take concepts that are, by their very nature, complex and difficult to understand, and we seek to make them simple. Teaching complex realities simply requires creativity with our teaching methods while remaining faithful to the truth. It has been my experience that this is a difficult balance to maintain; I often err on one side or the other. The balance is necessary though.

Here are two ways to get it wrong when teaching doctrine.

Most of the time it’s not so much the difficulty of the ideas or concepts we are trying to teach that is the problem. Rather, it's our lack of preparation. We may be easily frustrated when students don’t understand what we are communicating and assume the problem is on their side. But if we're honest the problem is ours. As teachers, we haven't dedicated the time to fully understand theological concepts ourselves, so we're not ready to convey their meaning.

Another way we teach doctrine wrongly is when we "dumb it down" in order for youth or children to understand. This does an injustice both to the doctrine and our students. As teachers and preachers, we need to keep the truth simple without simplifying it. We should never change the truth to make it more acceptable or intentionally leave out harder concepts (e.g. the Trinity, or the atonement) that may take more time to digest and understand. Yes, this is hard, but it's what we’ve been tasked to do. As teachers, we must be faithful with the whole counsel of God.

Here are a few ways to teach doctrine well.

Instead of dumbing down truth, we should break it down. Instead of simplifying truths, we distill them by teaching doctrine in chunks and by making sure our definitions are clear.  

And, after breaking down doctrinal truths into digestible chunks, we must also help help young lambs put the pieces together. We need to help youth see how individual truths connect with the bigger picture, the grand narrative of Scripture. When we do this well, we help kids see that the individual doctrines are simply windows through which we view our big God, and we lead them to worship and glorify the God of doctrines.

Finally, it's important to remember that no truth has been fully learned until it has been lived. Young ones don't need to simply memorize a definition that is divorced from practice. They need to work doctrine into their experience. In order for this goal to be accomplished, we teachers must both understand the material we are teaching and understand how this doctrine applies to our students. This requires one major thing. We must know the sheep. Proverbs 27:4 says, "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds." There's a principal there for teachers. We must know our students personally and lead them to apply doctrine where they live. We must make it personal for them so they can understand the truth experientially. We must help those young in age or faith to see how specific doctrines apply to their particular stage of life.

May God help us shepherd them well.

Family Friday Links 3.9.18

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Our very own Jared Kennedy wrote for Sojourn Network's Blog this week. He wrote a blog entitled, "Helpful TIps for Grace-Based Classroom Management"   Jared writes, "Here’s the truth: The effective formation of our children requires a stable environment. For this reason, it’s important for a children’s ministry to supplement parental training by upholding high standards for behavior, respect, and discipline. I hope these four goals and nine strategies are helpful for you to that end." 

Jill Nelson at Children's Desiring God wrote a post on, " Communicating to Children the Self-Sufficiency of God." Jill writes, "One way we can help our children grasp this important attribute of God is to be careful with the language we use. For example, it would be in error to teach children: “God created people because He was lonely.” The implication being that God needed our fellowship. Or, “Jesus chose Peter to be His helper.” The implication being that God needs man’s help in accomplishing His purposes. Instead, use language in keeping with God’s self-sufficiency. For example, “God created people for His glory—to show His greatness and worth. He created us to be receivers of His goodness and love.” 

Kasey Fagan at Doorposts Songs website wrote a needed post about, 5 Things Parents Look For When They Visit Your Children's Ministry. Kasey writes, "I’ve been on staff at my church in preschool ministry for 13 years. When you’ve been in the same place doing much of the same thing for so long, it’s easy to get in a rut, stay in your bubble, and forget what it feels like to walk into your building and experience your children’s ministry for the first time. It’s eye opening to step back and think about what it must be like for that first time guest to walk in your doors, not knowing where to go or who to ask for help."

What have you been reading this week? Leave a link in our comment section! 

Thanks for reading.