Editor’s Note: This is an overview of our “youth ministry course in a nutshell” series, Communicating the Gospel to Youth, taught by Rev. Andrew Zirschky as part of CYMT’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree program through Memphis Theological Seminary.
When Jesus spoke the Great Commission (Matthew 28) to his disciples and told them to go, teach, and baptize, he didn’t answer the question that was surely percolating on some disciple’s mind: “But, Lord, how?” Teaching or communicating the gospel appears to be a straightforward proposition until you’ve tried it a few times—especially with middle or high school students. Our context and culture necessarily inform our approach to communicating the gospel. It’s no surprise then that in different places and epochs the church has operated with radically different notions of what communicating the gospel involves. In order to put contemporary approaches in perspective, it’s instructive to consider some of the changing paradigms of the past:
In the 4th century communicating the gospel involved leading people through a lengthy catechumenate process in which they renounced the devil through seven exorcisms before experiencing the waters of baptism. Things changed, and by the 14th century communicating the gospel happened through “reading” beautiful stained glass windows that told the stories of the faith. But things changed, and by the 16th century, Luther advocated communicating the gospel to children through written catechisms to be memorized. In the 18th century John Wesley argued for strict discipline and simple piety at his Kingswood school in efforts to pass along the faith. But things changed, and in the 19th century, communicating the gospel came in the form of providing young people hope, basic education and the feeling of family in Sunday schools.
This brief history of Christian education and formation should remind us that whatever approaches, methods and strategies we use today, they’re likely to be far different than those pursued in the past. That’s a good thing, because our culture is different than in the past. While the gospel never changes (Galatians 1:8), the ways we communicate the gospel do change.
The word “communicate” comes from the Latin communicare, meaning to pass along or to share. We might be tempted to think we’ve communicated at any point that we’ve spoken the message we want to convey, but in reality communication isn’t complete until it is received. The street preacher shouting his gospel message through a megaphone to disinterested passersby has only communicated in the narrowest sense of the word. Likewise, the 7th grade Sunday school teacher whose students are checked-out while she drones on, reading lifelessly from the pages of the curriculum book, has only communicated in a narrow sense.
When we communicate we hope for results and implications for the people with whom we’re communicating, and not merely that the message be intelligible. Each of the historical approaches we just considered was born out of a particular cultural situation, but also out of particular ways of conceiving the effects of the gospel in the lives of recipients. If we are to take a lesson from history, we’ll recognize there isn’t a “right” way to communicate the gospel, but rather our approaches to communicating the gospel with be affected by our socio-cultural situation. Further, they’ll also be affected by how we conceive what the gospel and its implications are for our lives and the lives of others.
When we look at the contemporary practice of youth ministry, there are at least six distinct approaches to communicating the gospel that can be identified, each with its own understanding of the implications of the gospel for the lives of young people. It’s worth taking a closer look at each of these contemporary approaches because our ministries will be enriched when we are able to understand and employ a variety of approaches.
Unfortunately, many of us in youth ministry operate out of a single approach to communicating the gospel because that’s all we’ve ever seen or known. As a result, we think we’re creatively and effectively communicating the gospel when we try a new object lesson, discussion group tactic, or interactive game, when in reality all we’ve done is change the wallpaper of our old, worn approach.
In this Course in a Nutshell we want to open you up to a variety of new approaches that will not merely tweak the ways you communicate the gospel, but will open you up to seeing the implications of the gospel for youth in new ways. We’ll introduce you to six approaches: Instructional, Community of Faith, Interpretive, Development, Liberation, and Contemplative. In each session, we’ll explore one approach while giving you sample curricula so that you can catch a glimpse of the approach in action.
Click the links below to read the series in its entirety at CYMT.org.
Communicating the Gospel to Youth: A Youth Ministry Course in a Nutshell
- Instructional Approach
- Community of Faith Approach
- Interpretive Approach
- Developmental Approach
- Liberation Approach
- Contemplative Approach
Andrew Zirschky (Ph.D. Princeton Seminary) is academic director at the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and assistant professor of practical theology and youth ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary. He has more than 20 years of youth ministry experience. His book Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation is available through Abingdon Press.