Because I grew up in a Pastor’s home, we oftentimes had missionaries visit and stay with us. I remember listening to the stories and watching the slide shows they’d deliver during the all-ages Sunday School hour. These encounters shaped my understanding of “mission.” I rapidly learned that the Christian’s calling is to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), both near and far, by “making disciples of all nations.” And the proper way to fulfill the Great Commission, I came to believe, was to “share the Gospel.” In other words, it was the verbal pronouncement of the plan of salvation that was at the heart of missions.
As I got older, my adolescent idealism led me to see through the hypocrisy of many adults in the church who emphasized this verbal proclamation of the Gospel, but did so in a way that seemed largely void of the everyday actions that would back that proclamation up. The words of James resonated with me: “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:24). I remember how refreshing it was to hear one of my youth workers tell me that “Christianity is better caught that taught.” Showing wastelling. This led to a strong attraction to a quote attributed (erroneously we now know!) to Saint Francis about the missional power of actions: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
The reality is that to effectively reach out to the lost and to fulfill the Great Commission, we cannot separate our words from our actions. Our words inform, shape, and explain the spiritual truths and realities that lie behind and beneath our actions. Our actions bring credibility to our words. To have one without the other undermines our ability to present a compelling Gospel message to a world that longs for the Gospel. Since we are called to equip our students for a lifetime of mission, it is essential for us to prepare them for a lifetime of weaving together the inseparable bond that must exist between belief and behavior.
A youth ministry that fails to balance the proclamation of proper belief with a call to pursue and live out the resulting God-honoring behaviors is a youth ministry that is failing. What we must instill in our students is both a knowledge of the Gospel message (belief), along with how that message must inform and shape every nook and cranny of life (behavior). With God’s blessing, what will result is what my friend Steve Garber calls “The Fabric of Faithfulness” (the title of his book), where belief and behavior is woven together in a mix that not only brings glory to God, but which gives to the world a compelling vision of what it means to be remade by the Gospel for both life in eternity and life in the now.
As I look around at today’s youth culture, there are numerous aspects of adolescent life where our youth ministries must begin challenging and equipping kids to see how their beliefs speak to their behaviors. All of these are arenas where kids are able to speak and live their Gospel convictions to their peers. Here are just five of those areas that our kids must realize provide a compelling opportunity for missional living in today’s world. . .
First, there is their playing. Many of our kids are involved in athletics. Are we teaching them what it means to play to God’s glory as opposed to the glory of self?
Second, there is their studying. Every one of our students is engaged in academic pursuits and learning of some kind. Are we teaching them to study to increase their knowledge of God and His word as opposed to achieving good grades? Are we helping them see that academic achievements are not an end in and of themselves, but that they are a path to contributing to God’s work in the world?
Third, there is their posting. All of our students are growing up in a social media saturated world. They will be engaging with social media and technology for the rest of their lives. Are you teaching them to live out their faith on social media by endeavoring to bring glory to God rather than trying to solicit glory and attention for self?
Fourth, there is their relating. The way that we engage and converse with our closest family and friends can either be selfish, or it can be other-serving. Are you teaching your students to honor, love, and obey their parents? Are you equipping them to glorify God through their friendships? Are you teaching them to others not as objects to be conquered and used/abused, but as unique and valuable individuals created in the image of God?
Finally, there is their driving. Yes, you read that correctly. . . driving! There’s a reason why there are restrictions on new teenage drivers that are established by states and insurance companies. Are you teaching your students to see driving as an act of worship where they can bring glory to God through safe driving habits. . . beginning with putting their smartphone aside while behind the wheel?
The life of the Christian is one that is to be lived counter-culturally. And when life is lived intentionally in this way it offers a compelling witness to a watching world of their peers. Both their words andtheir actions speak loudly to a world that is groaning for redemption. Equip your kids for mission by nurturing them into playing, studying, posting, relating, and driving to the glory of God.
Guest Feature from Walt Mueller of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. Walt Mueller has been a regular speaker and contributor at the National Youth Workers Convention for several decades. Learn more about CPYU on their website.