Jesus Wouldn’t Have Met Our Youth Ministry Standards



By Morgan Schmidt

By our standards, Jesus was a terrible youth pastor. And I want to be like him when I grow up.

I didn’t realize just how ill-equipped he is until I was reading through the stories of his last week on earth, in preparation for holy week. As I’m reading his final interactions with the disciples, it’s as if they’re just meeting him for the first time. Three years into ministry together, you’d think they would know who he was, what his mission is, what the gospel means, how that shapes their identity, and what it calls them to do in the future. You’d think they would have covered this ground.

They are still clueless. They do not have it all figured out. One minute they are convinced Jesus is from God, the next they are denying they’ve ever met him.

This is not good youth ministry, as the church sees it today. We have been obsessed with right answers and right belief, with sinners’ prayers and professions of faith. These are precisely the things Jesus never requested from his followers. John even writes that Jesus was intentionally using clouded and confusing language in his teachings, so that they wouldn’t quite understand what was going on.

The thing about Jesus’ ministry is that he was always on the lookout for faithfulness, for people who were willing to follow even when they didn’t completely understand. What was his benchmark for success? He never says, except something about loving God and loving your neighbor.

Jesus was clearly not out to make people Christians, or to get them to sign on some dotted line of dogma. It’s as if Jesus was more interested in helping people become whole humans on a journey with God, through faith and doubt alike, toward the way of love and the restoration of all things.

One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten for my work with students is that we “treat them like people.”

There is nothing new under the sun, just new arrangements of deep old things. This is not some sort of Gnostic secret wisdom that only the enlightened can attain. It’s for everybody because everybody already knows how to do it. We just need to give ourselves permission and then practice a bit.

We get so bogged down in everything that youth ministry is supposed to be, that we forget it’s as simple as treating teenagers like good human beings and reminding them that God thinks they’re good human beings too.

The other word for this is love…

After all, we’re not trying to make teenagers into mini clones of Jesus; we’re trying to help them figure out how to follow Jesus in their own way.

There’s plenty of holiness to go around.

And I think maybe Jesus knew this in the core of his being, and he didn’t need to worry about programs or right answers or that his disciples were even staying awake. They would get there, because they are image bearers of God and they’ve had a mysterious, transforming encounter with the person of Jesus. He didn’t worry about games, or fundraising, or how to structure a gospel presentation, or ask them where they thought they’d go when they died, or hit the right chord on his guitar to help them feel emotional just before asking them to pray the sinner’s prayer.

He spent time with them, told confusing stories about what the kingdom of God is like, reminded them of their dignity as human beings, and invited them to love their neighbors.

May we all be such terrible youth pastors.

(small portions of this blog post are from the author’s book, Woo: Awakening Teenagers’ Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus)