This article is adapted from the newly released Sticky Faith by Kara Powell and Chap Clark, and Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition, by Kara Powell, Brad Griffin and Cheryl Crawford (Zondervan, 2011). The article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of Immerse Journal. Reprinted with permission.
The carpet suddenly looks so fascinating.
Or so it seems whenever I (Kara) ask youth leaders to describe the gospel to a roomful of their colleagues. As soon as I ask for volunteers to share their own description of the gospel, heads bow and eyes look down at the carpet.
No, it’s not because they are deep in prayer.
It’s because they are desperately trying to avoid looking me in the eye, fearing that if no one volunteers, I might call on them.
How do you define the gospel?
It’s a question we ask regularly when we speak about sticky faith, a major research initiative designed to identify steps that help kids continue on the path of a long-term relationship with Jesus. To try to understand students’ view of the gospel and the effects of that view on their faith both now and in the future, we studied 500 youth group graduates—kids like yours—as they transitioned to college. During the course of our research, we became aware that when it comes to sticky faith, there is nothing more important than students’ view of the gospel.
The gospel is not an easy term to define. If it were easy to define, then it wouldn’t be God-sized.
And yet as leaders—not to mention followers of Jesus—we need to keep wrestling with the meaning of the gospel until we pin down some answers. Our lack of clarity about the good news is mirrored—and magnified—in our students.
Or, as it’s been rightly said about preaching, a mist in the pulpit becomes a fog in the pew. Because of that, it’s important that we understand and then bridge the gap between students’ truncated view of the gospel and Scripture’s expansive view of the good news.
The Red Bull Rip-Off
Many of our kids—even those who have grown up in church—have surprising views of what it means to be a Christian.
You might think that asking college juniors who are youth group alum to define what it means to be a Christian would get you pretty straightforward answers. You would be wrong.
Of the 168 youth group graduates who answered our question, 35 percent gave an answer that didn’t mention Jesus at all. Granted, two-thirds of the kids who didn’t mention Jesus did mention God, but the number of youth who define Christianity without any reference to Jesus remains disturbing.
The most dominant theme in youth group graduates’ descriptions of being a Christian was that it meant “loving others.” Certainly, that is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching. In fact, Jesus declared that “Love your neighbor as yourself” was the second most important commandment (Matthew 22:39). But it comes after the first and greatest commandment, which is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
Even most atheist teens think it’s a good idea to love other people. And they are right. It is. But true sticky faith demands a bigger, Jesus-centered view of the gospel.
High school students seem to have embraced a Red Bull gospel.
We found that the average youth group graduate drinks more alcohol and has more sex in college than they did in high school. That shouldn’t surprise you. That finding in and of itself is not worth a major grant and six years of research.
But here’s some data that is. We also looked at the rate of increase in alcohol and sex in different types of students. Guess which type of kids showed the greatest rate of increase in drinking alcohol and engaging in sexually risky behaviors as they bridged from high school to college?
The teetotalers. 1
Yes, it’s the kids who didn’t drink or have sex at all in high school who get to college and come undone.
Many of the kids who said yes and no at the right times during high school had what we at the Fuller Youth Institute call a Red Bull view of the gospel. After all, Red Bull’s sugar and caffeine (as well as some other ingredients we can’t decipher) can get you through a few tough hours. But eventually you crash. And crash hard.
Similarly, our youth group kids often have a Red Bull experience of the gospel. It’s a gospel that is potent enough to help them make the right decision at a Friday night party in high school, but the Red Bull gospel and the support of other Red Bull gospel followers isn’t powerful enough to foster long-term faith.
Many youth group kids have adopted the gospel of sin management.
As we tell those same youth workers who stare at the carpet when we ask them to describe the gospel, many youth group kids have a superficial view of the gospel. They view the gospel like a jacket that they can take on and off based on what they feel like doing that day. If they’re going to church or hanging out with Christians, they put on their Jesus jacket. If they’re headed to a party or drifting toward spiritual apathy, they toss that Jesus jacket into a corner.
Our kids can stuff the gospel into a corner for many reasons, one of which is that they have somehow picked up that following Jesus means following a list of what to do and what not to do.
Do go to church and youth group as often as possible, read your Bible, pray, give money, share your faith, get good grades, respect elders, spend spring break on a mission trip, be a good kid.
Do not watch the wrong movies, drink, do drugs, have sex, talk back, swear, hang out with the wrong crowd, go to Cancun for spring break, go to parties.
If students aren’t good at following these lists, then this gospel isn’t only unappealing—it’s irrelevant.
For many of our youth group kids, the gospel has been shrunk down to fit inside the small box of what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management.” 2 In this gospel focused on behaviors, we’ve sadly let the gospel deteriorate into a list of good virtues, and then we slap Bible verses on them. We don’t blame them for tossing that gospel aside. Wouldn’t you do the same?
The Gospel à la Paul
This gospel of sin management couldn’t be further from the gospel described by the apostle Paul in his epistles. One of Paul’s pointed and concise explanations of the gospel in practice is in Galatians, especially the fifth chapter.
The first verse of Galatians 5, the crescendo of Paul’s argument that has been building throughout his letter, is considered by some to be the summative verse of all of Paul’s writings: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
In a surprising twist, the types of slavery that Paul goes on to describe aren’t the typical forms of slavery that we and our students might assume (e.g., all those “don’t” behaviors we talked about earlier). Ironically, Paul championed freedom from something that, up until that time, had been encouraged as a virtuous, even necessary, religious rite: circumcision. 3
Paul jumps into the debate over this controversial Jewish rite feet first and aligns with the Gentile converts who don’t think they need to be circumcised to follow Jesus. In doing so, Paul uses the rift in Galatia to demonstrate God’s intent and plan for his people since the beginning: It is not the work we do that makes us pure enough to please and come close to a holy God but what God has done and continues to do in and through us.
Paul describes our role in this in Galatians 5:5: “It is by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” In other words, it is God’s job to work in us and to present us as righteous, and it is our job to learn to trust God and let the process proceed. God is the one doing the work; our part is to trust.
Paul’s point in Galatians 5:6 that “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” is not limited to circumcision, or any of the other ancient Hebrew rituals. It also applies to our—and our students’—more contemporary attempts to climb the ladder of righteousness on our own through our self-imposed gospel of sin management.
When we teach a faith that is more concerned with working than trusting, kids might actually feel like they can sustain this performance style of Christianity (often motivated by a desire to please adults) based on how well they “live” the gospel…for a season.
But this gospel of sin management can only last so long. When kids inevitably reach the awareness—through failure, pain, insecurity or inner wrestling—that they do not have the power, capacity or even interest in keeping the faith treadmill going, they put their faith aside.
Teaching the Sticky Gospel
With a bit of thoughtful preparation, you can create space for the Holy Spirit to deepen your students’ love for the gospel every time you teach.
Explain your terms.
When students hear you talk about the Lamb of God or sanctification (which are both biblical terms) but don’t know what those words mean, they conclude that either they are stupid or their faith is incomprehensible. If being at your youth ministry makes students feel stupid, they are not going to want to stay around for long (would you?). If they conclude Christianity is over their heads, then they’ll be less likely to engage in personal study and ownership of their beliefs, both of which are key steps in the path to internalized faith.
One night after youth group, Jim Candy, the pastor of family life ministries at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, debriefed the meeting with his adult leadership team and worship interns. That night they had led their students in a worship song that proclaimed “Hosannah” multiple times. Jim wondered aloud with his adult leaders if their students knew what this word meant. All the adults said they were sure the students knew its definition.
Then Jim asked those same adults to explain what it meant. None of them could do it.
The point is pretty clear: Sticky faith means explaining to your students—and adults, for that matter—the meaning of important theological terms.
Teach with an understanding of the context of Scripture’s imperatives.
In the midst of my (Kara’s) search to understand the gospel, I printed out all of Paul’s epistles and read through them in one sitting, looking for connections between all God has done for us and all God wants us to do to show our trust in him.
Interestingly, Paul’s epistles by and large follow a pattern of starting with all God has done for us and then ending with the imperatives—the commands—of what we are to do in return. Reformation scholar Michael Horton describes this progression as moving from the indicative to the imperative. 4 In grammar, the indicative mood describes a state of being; in the case of Paul’s letters, it often occurs in the earlier chapters when Paul describes who we are in Christ. Having established who we are in Christ, we are then able to move into the imperative mood—meaning verb tenses that carry a sense of command.
When we teach, we often gravitate to texts at the end of Paul’s letters—to those meaty commands we want our students to follow. The problem with starting there is that that’s not where Paul starts. Paul wants his readers (both individually and corporately) to marinate in the power of trusting in God before calling them to fiery obedience.
Last year our youth ministry taught a series on Ephesians. I (Kara) volunteered to teach the Sunday morning lesson on Ephesians 5:21-33 and Paul’s now controversial passage about submission to one another in marriage. The other leaders seemed pretty pleased that I had volunteered. No one else was exactly begging to teach that particular passage.
At the start of my lesson, I walked students through Ephesians 2:1-10, pointing out that all of our life, as well as any impetus we have to obey God, flows from our acceptance of God’s grace and our resultant trust. This trust in God’s grace fuels our obedience and motivates our lives to be great big thank-you notes back to God for all he has already done for us.
That morning I did tackle Paul’s teaching on submission but not before I felt students understood Ephesians 2 as its precursor.
When you teach, how do you frame your invitations to obey God’s commands? If I was a teenager hearing your talk, would I think I was supposed to obey God because God said so? Or would I know that my obedience flowed out of my trust and the Holy Spirit’s work in and through me?
Engage students in case studies that help them figure out what it means to trust God.
More and more, colleges and graduate schools are adopting case studies as a central tool to help students learn and apply their new insights. 5 And for good reason. Case studies help students vicariously live out the principles you’re discussing by applying them to situations they are likely to face.
In order to help students grasp what it means to trust God, create case studies set in school, home or social situations. While they can be about any topic, the most interesting case studies are those involving complex scenarios, such as how to respond to a friend who is unsure about his or her sexual orientation, what friendships with non-believers should look like or whether it’s okay to go to a party with alcohol if you don’t drink. Regardless of the plotline, invite students to discuss a few key questions:
- What would it look like to trust God in this situation?
- If you were trusting God, what would you do?
- What would you say?
- How would you explain your trust in God to others involved?
- What would it look like to doubt God in this situation? Is that bad?
- What do you suppose God would say to you about this? What might God’s perspective be?
Trust as an ongoing teaching theme.
Even Jesus had to repeat things over and over and over and over. So, in the midst of your teaching topics, dream with students about what it means to trust God.
When you’re teaching about money, ask: What does it look like to trust God and give lavishly to the child our ministry has adopted through Compassion International or World Vision?
When you’re inviting students to go to Guatemala for a weeklong summer mission trip, ask: What does it look like to trust God with your time and the money you were hoping to earn that week at your job?
When you’re talking about social networking, ask: What does it look like to trust God with the number and type of folks you friend?
When you’re discussing partying, ask: What does it look like to trust God with your weekend plans as well as your friendships when it seems like everyone is going to that Friday night party that is bound to get out of control?
Unlock students’ imaginations and dreams about trust. You’ll likely end up surprised by their creativity and their courage.
Teach about recovery and repentance.
Your students—either before or after graduation—are going to blow it. They will make choices that they regret and commit sins that surprise even themselves. The question is not if but when.
When students (or adults, for that matter) are living with the gospel of sin management, their faith isn’t large enough to handle those mistakes. They’ve blown it. They might as well toss in the towel. As a result, they run away from both God and faith community—just when they desperately need both.
The gospel of trust is big enough to handle sin. Your job is to help students know that. Your role as their teacher is to let them know ahead of time that if Jesus can’t handle a little partying, we all need a new Jesus.
To help students understand that the love of Jesus (as well as youth ministry) is bigger than their sins, one youth ministry hung a large board on their youth room wall with the phrase “Nothing can separate you from the love of God…Romans 8” plastered across the top. Using different pieces of torn construction paper, students were invited to anonymously write whatever they wanted. What emerged were confessions, hurts, resentments, failures and questions. For the weeks that the board remained on the wall, their youth pastor periodically referred to the board as a place to start writing, and she also encouraged students to share what they wrote with one of the youth leaders.
More Caught Than Taught
When the students in our survey were college seniors, we asked them how their participation in their youth group had shaped them—both then and now. Youth group activities were rarely mentioned. Youth group talks were mentioned even less.
What was mentioned was the legacy of youth leaders—a legacy derived not from what the leaders said or even what they did but from who they were. Your own passion for trusting God will be more caught than taught. Students emulate better than they listen. As you live out your trust-centered faith, your life will never be static, stale or boring. You will be disappointed, discouraged and maybe even thrown around a bit at times. But as you faithfully hold on to the God who has taken hold of you, the life you live and model will be a beacon of hope and direction that no Red Bull gospel can hope to achieve. As you trust the gospel, and the Lord who saves, students catch on and fall in love with Jesus too.
- Krista M. Kubiak Crotty, Spirituality, Religiosity, and Risk Behaviors in High School Seniors Transitioning to College (Psy.D. dissertation, Azusa Pacific University, 2009). ↩
- Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 41. ↩
- The history of circumcision dates back to the opening chapters of Scripture. In Genesis 17, God initiated a covenant with Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrews; Abraham’s part of the covenant included: “Every male among you shall be circumcised” (v. 10). ↩
- Michael Horton, “Union with Christ,” 1992, ] In]http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/questions/horton/union.html. ↩
- Thanks to Meredith Miller for her collaboration on implications for teaching kids the Sticky Gospel. ↩