Teen culture manufactures plenty of excitement and hype. Every new show or event is marketed as the greatest, coolest, most epic of its kind, ever. But what our pop culture lacks is anything that is genuine or meaningful. Young people don’t need a youth group or youth workers that competes in excitement; they need to see authentic Christianity.
Young people have a tendency to portray themselves as something they are not—we all do, in fact. As youth leaders, we are supposed to model exemplary Christianity. We know this so well that we can still fit the mold even when our relationship with the Lord struggles. This cripples our effectiveness in ministry to young people, because they have a keen awareness of what is real and what is not.
One marketer who has built a career selling to the “millennial” generation suggested the key to being heard is authenticity. She said of this generation, “They don’t waste time with companies or people who are not being real with them. This generation has seen it all. From televised wars to 9-11 to the hanging of Saddam Hussein. They know what’s real, and it takes them [about] three seconds to pass that judgment.”
In this instance, what’s true for marketing is true for ministry. If we aren’t real, we are wasting time. If your personal ministry and walk with the Lord is not authentic, you have put yourself at a tremendous disadvantage. The Holy Spirit will not work through us, and the teens will see right through our facade.
Ministering with authenticity means that we practice what we preach—that our actions match our message. When we compel our youth groups to live for the Lord, they will be watching to see if our relationship with Christ is serious.
The prime Biblical contrast is between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus was personal, helpful, honest, and transparent. The Pharisees were more concerned about the show and privilege of religion than actually helping anyone. They avoided heart issues and were comfortable with covering their own sinfulness.
Where does this leave us? Do we need to be perfect to be effective ministers? Thankfully, no, or none of us would be qualified. Hypocrisy is not when we sin. Hypocrisy is when we use religious activity to hide our sin.
Transparency and authenticity go hand-in-hand. We have to exercise careful discernment, but there has to be some transparency. Personal illustrations are a great way to show humility, be real, and allow the teens to observe our lives. They can learn from how we reacted to difficult situations, and how the Lord helped us to overcome temptation.
Authentic Christianity is also intensely practical. Our tendency is to teach and preach about Christianity at 30,000 feet. We give high end looks at big principles—following God’s will, giving glory to God, getting wisdom. These are important, but at some point we need to bring it down to a practical level. What do these concepts mean for them?
James breaks down an abstract concept, religion, with real world application. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). This was something the Christians to whom he wrote the letter could do that day. It was practical.
It’s easy to get stuck in the daily tasks of youth ministry, but remember, you are in the spotlight. You are an example to those you minister to.
While the danger of an unauthentic Christianity is great, remember that a real walk with God is powerful. Teens will sometimes hear whole books of the Bible preached with a single theme and remain unaffected. But then they watch a pastor, a parent, or a youth pastor live that principle, and everything clicks. The Holy Spirit can apply hours of Bible teaching in a single action.
Youth ministry not about being hip or cool or fun or crazy. Just be real. Walk with the Lord, and allow the young people to observe your life. The Apostle Paul embraced his role as an example. He wrote it this way in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.”