“Do you wish one of the daily themes of the Youth Gathering had been ‘Jesus Changes Everything’?” one of my adult leaders asked me on the final day of our denomination's triennial youth gathering of more than 30,000 students.
She’d spent the week listening to me count the number of “Jesus” references made during the mass gatherings… A count which left me dismayed at the end of the week. It was night three before any speaker mentioned Jesus from the stage other than to quote a passage from Scripture that included his name. Sure, God was mentioned. The Holy Spirit was mentioned. Even the cross was mentioned.
But that’s not enough.
If our goal as pastors and youth workers is the formation of a Christian worldview in our teens, then it’s not enough to merely talk about God or even the cross. Instead, we must explicitly talk about Jesus – who is God – with our teens. It is Jesus that makes our faith distinct and so it is Jesus that we must emphasize (not to mention it’s also God’s work, through Jesus, that saves us – not just for eternal life later but for abundant life now.)
That’s what my research – begun at this very Youth Gathering six years ago and published in my first book, The Jesus Gap – taught me. Our teens – even our church kids – don’t know the basics of their Christian faith. They lack a basic understanding of what Jesus did and taught. Without that, they have no chance of understanding why Jesus mattered - both 2000 years ago and today. That makes their faith impotent. When their faith is tested in any way, they often find it lacking – unworthy of any significant place in their life.
Having diagnosed the problem six years ago, I’d hoped to see some improvement made on our denominational level at one of its largest events, even though as it turns out, the theme of the last day of the Youth Gathering ended up being “Jesus Changes Everything.” Here’s the thing though. I wasn’t sure it actually was until I checked the website later.
Every other day, the Youth Gathering theme was overt. It was addressed in multiple ways – not just at Mass Gatherings but in other facets of the gathering. But this – the most important one – wasn’t. It felt like a throwaway theme on the shortest day of the gathering, when most people were checking out to go home.
This is problematic because the fact that Jesus changes everything isn't some throwaway tenet of our Christian faith. It is the central tenet of our Christian faith.
Jesus isn’t the finale of our Christian faith. He’s the starting point. He’s the building block of faith – on which everything else stands or falls.
Talking about how Jesus changes everything is worth more than a 15-minute sermon from a denomination's Presiding Bishop (no matter how good that sermon was).
Fixing this would have been so simple. Instead of saving “Jesus changes everything” for the final theme of the gathering, I wish this would have been its starting point. Not only would that have centered the gathering on the One who is actually the center of our faith, but it would have also given teens a framework for understanding the rest of the gathering’s daily themes:
- God’s call changes everything.
- God’s love changes everything.
- God’s grace changes everything.
- God’s hope changes everything.
Each of these themes would have grown in their impact had they been rooted not merely in God our creator but rather in Jesus our savior. After all, God’s love is best demonstrated through Jesus’ work in the world and on the cross. God’s grace makes no sense without the cross. And without Jesus' resurrection there is no lasting hope.
Now maybe you think this is all semantics.
Consequential Christian faith is always rooted in Jesus – not just generic God talk.
As pastors and youth workers, it’s up to us to ensure that Jesus permeates both our teaching and our conversations with teens so that they can come to understand that Jesus really does change everything.
To learn more about what high school teens really believe about Jesus and what you can do in your ministry to strengthen their beliefs, order your copy of The Jesus Gap here.
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