December 1, 2020

Jesus Isn’t Cool: Chanon Ross Challenges Evangelical Youth Ministry

Here’s the kind of column that I really wish could be written by more evangelicals: Jesus Isn’t Cool: Challenging Youth Ministry, by Chanon Ross. Here’s a sample:

One common strategy involves front-loading youth programming with fun activities, hoping to sneak in a little Bible teaching at the end. The point is not to do anything too weighty that would turn kids off. Keep it light; keep it fun. Large youth events, like Christian concerts, appeal to youth ministers with their ability to entertain kids while simultaneously conveying a positive, family-friendly alternative to things like MTV. This stuff works to a degree: as Smith and Denton show, “religion actually does influence positive outcomes” and religious teens tend to do better than nonreligious teens.

But teens don’t need Jesus to be crucified and raised from the dead to have positive outcomes and pursue family friendly alternatives to MTV. Values like being positive, encouraging and tolerant are already widely available in the culture. When kids realize this, and many do, they struggle to articulate the difference that faith makes. It didn’t surprise me that many teens told Smith and Denton, “I guess it’ll be more important when I’m older.”

One student I know didn’t want to wait to know this difference, so he participated in his church’s “40 Days of Purpose” campaign, hoping that an exploration of Rick Warren’s popular book The Purpose Driven Life would help. Instead, he reached this conclusion: “I don’t understand why you need God for a sense of purpose, self-esteem, or whatever . . . lots of people have that without God.” This young man was onto something.

I get a lot of comments that imply I am directing our attention away from the culture war and toward the Gospel as some kind of a sell out. Listen…I work with teenagers. Kids can get good values from lots of sources, religious and secular. The Gospel is something entirely different; something marvelously diffferent.

Christian faith takes root and begins to matter to teens when they discover the difference the details make. In the Christian story, we discover a fiercely loyal God who creates, loves, lives, dies, lives again, and calls teens into the passionate grace of the baptized life. That is something teens can get excited about and sink their teeth into, but these details are available only in the Christian story as told in the Bible and creeds. Seeing these details alive in the lives of other baptized people ignites youthful passion in teens more than any youth event or personal sense of purpose ever could. Living these details of the gospel is not supposed to be easy, or necessarily safe, but it’s what Christians do.

That Christianity is not supposed to be easy is another important detail that distinguishes Christianity from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. “The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not demanding,” say Smith and Denton. “Actually, he can’t be because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.”

You mean that a lot of “Extreme Youth Ministry” is “moralistic deism?” Yes. Let me explain something.

For years, I have listened to college students come and do programs in the OBI chapel. With only a few exceptions, they talk only about God and never about Jesus and the Gospel. The problems the Gospel addresses are not problems that concern them. Jesus in his roles as prophet, priest and king does not interest them. What interests them is a kind of benign “God is with me” sort of experience. Usually centered around some therapeutic need, and most comfortably expressed in very feminine terms.

I’ve decided that these students are reflecting what they have picked up in years of youth ministry. Despite the emphasis on evangelism in many of their churches, they often appear only marginally evangelized. I believe the problem is identified correctly by the author:

Teens respond to the message that their faith offers an alternative to the world. But this realization requires a community of adults who embody this difference. Explaining that life in the Body of Christ is different is insufficient. Adults must show how to live this difference. Where are the adults and trained ministers capable of leading youth and their parents into the particular story of God’s work in the world?

Communities of believers, not youth “programs,’ are what is needed. Communities that embody and underline the Gospel story and its outworking.

This is one reason I am devoted to what I do and WHERE I do it. We often get complaints from kids who want their youth groups back. They miss all the activities. The activities here: worship, work, school, living together, study, sports, relationships with people around the world and with adults who come to be a family in Jesus for these students.

One reason I believe my children are who they are is they have been totally deprived of an entertainment oriented youth program, and immersed in Christian community for their entire lives.

Read and pass on this excellent piece.


  1. In many ways Australia is waaaay ahead of what is going on in America.

    Australia is a godless, secular society. Although there are substantial amounts of Born again Christians, most Aussies rarely go to church – we do not have a church going culture like America does.

    I think America is in danger of becoming like Australia in the next 50 years in this area.

    Anyway, back in the 1960s and 1970s evangelical churches had youth groups that followed the same principles that many American youth groups have today… fun, frivolity and a bit of the bible tacked on at the end.

    As time progressed, however, it became clear that this style of youth work was not successful. Oh there were lots of happy kids that turned up each week to youth group, but very few of these kids went on to become regular church-goers and have any real form of Christian faith.

    In reaction to this, a number of Evangelical ministers wrote a book called “No Guts, No Glory” where they argued strongly for a radical overhaul of popular youth ministry. Their argument was that youth groups should be committed to teaching the Word of God and preaching the gospel – even if the kids don’t like it or want it!

    Their argument made Biblical AND practical sense. By focusing upon teaching the word and preaching the gospel (along with silly games – though not as many) there was a greater chance that young people would make a genuine commitment to Christ, and continue that commitment as they grew up.

    The new paradigm also changed the role of youth worker. Gone were the young, fashionable youth workers with their motorbikes and music collections. Instead, young men and women from the church began to lead those younger than them. In many Sydney Anglican churches, youth group members who grew up became leaders of the youth group they left. In the place of the youth worker came a seminary-trained pastor who trained and pastored these leaders.

    In addition to this, a week-long conference was held each year (The Katoomba Youth Leaders Training Conference) where young adults who were leading youth groups (or who had the potential to) were trained. This involved listening to two speakers every day expounding from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and daily seminars on hermeneutics, biblical theology and systematic theology. Very little time was spent on things like organising games.

    I’d love to say that the results of this have been spectacular, but it has not – at least not in a worldly, numerical sense. What it has achieved has been genuine commitment to Christ in youth groups in Anglican churches all over Sydney, as well as steadily growing adult attendances as these young people get older.

    All I’m saying is that Chanon Ross is on the right track. If you’re involved in youth work, teach the word and preach the gospel – even if people prefer pizza and games.

    No Guts no Glory (Matthias Media)

  2. A friend of mine once put it this way.

    “Christianity isn’t supposed to be fun. One of the reason I left [my old church] is because people would go around and say how fun youth group was. I’m not against having fun, but we can’t compete with the world in terms of fun. Frat parties and raves will always be more fun than anything Christian youth groups can make. We have to preach the gospel of Jesus, not this ‘everyone is happy’ variety.”

    And that’s totally right. When people raised Christian turn 12 or so, they start thinking for themselves and questioning the facts they were brought up under. It’s the parents’ and the church’s job to give solid teaching that helps people through high school and into college with a solid Biblical foundation…

    Or think of it this way…do you want college freshmen to be looking for fun or looking for Christ?

  3. Awwww your blog was a pleasant breath of fresh air.. Well done, I will visit as often as I can.

  4. I have thought and this is only my opinion that some folks in Texas who grew up in High school with Young Life/K-Life type groups now want these types of services in churches as adults and this is why my old church always felt like a YL meeting for adults all the time (and actually the pastor started out as a YL Leader and youth pastor)IT would start with announcements, have a cute skit, sing some raucus songs with GOd in the title, sing a slow song to get in the mood, hear a sermon that made us laugh, and go home feeling like you could win the HS Football game if Jesus was on your side.Some never got past the entertainment venue Christianity and want that same feeling every Sunday that they got in High School on Monday nights.

  5. Michael, I’m not sure if I agree or disagree.

    Isn’t part of this about teaching styles? You don’t teach pre-teens the same way you teach folk at Uni. Making it “fun” might not be watering anything down, it might just be good practice.

    However, I think you’re onto something here:

    “With only a few exceptions, they talk only about God and never about Jesus and the Gospel. The problems the Gospel addresses are not problems that concern them.”

    And, I’d want to add, the same could be said of many of our adults. The problem, at the end of the day, is not how they’re taught, but what they are taught.

  6. How can we expect the youth of the church to be educated, ie, discipled, when there is little of discipleship within the congregation… I still recall that after”walking down the aisle” at the age of 10, perhaps the only Christian education I received over the next five years was basically how to make a shoe-shine kit, and other such nonsence.
    If I were still active within Church and not living this hermit-monk existence, I would stongly recommend an indepth study of Oswald Chambers in conjunction with the gospels…

  7. Michael & IM readers: What are your thoughts on most youth group skits? Most depict JESUS as a helpless individual either longing for some teenager to “love and accept HIM” or in a really brutal fight against satan.

    On Wed. night at our community’s See You AFTER the Pole, a local church’s youth drama team did a skit to the song, “This is the air I breathe”, … and depicted JESUS as the one singing to the other skit participants !! Can you imagine The KING of KINGS and the LORD of Lords saying,

    “And I I’m desperate for you
    And I I’m I’m lost without you”

    That’s what I saw depicted a couple of nights ago.

  8. “That’s what I saw depicted a couple of nights ago.”

    That’s just… sad. I’m just glad to know that there are other Christians out there who are sick of the “God is my girlfriend” theology and the overemphasis on church being fun and entertaining.

  9. You know the perfect example Ive seen of this is large Christian events like Spirit West Coast or Creationfest. Its funny I realized as a youth worker a long time ago that we are filling our kids with the values of this world rather than showing them what it means to follow Jesus. This is an overentertained culture anyways, most of the kids today go home to their X box or PS2’s and Satellite TV deluging them with 200 channels of entertainment. It should be the job of a youth minister to teach them the values of Christ, worship,community,faith,love,grace and caring for the least of these.We should be showing them that Jesus Christ is real.

  10. she_pondered says

    Interesting article, although I think the teenager interviewed about the bullhorn guy was onto something. Comparing Jesus to a bullhorn guy seems off to me – Jesus was teaching people who already believed, either the Jewish God or many of the other pagan gods of that time. He was going against everything the traditional Jewish followers stood for, and that’s what was so “offensive” about it. Someone standing on a corner screaming at people he/she doesn’t know about burning in hell is entirely different – and I think the teen was uncomfortable with that and rightly so.

    The author talked about living out the Christian life as the best example (which has been echoed in several comments) and I agree. But exactly does that look like? How do you live out “resurrection, redemption, sanctification”?

    Maybe it’s by loving others – unconditionally. Maybe it’s by teaching that because we know this unconditional love is from Jesus, we can be transparent, redeemed people – honest about our world and our lives. Maybe it’s by building relationships with teens (and others) because we’re taught to embrace compassion, peace, justice, mercy, etc. This is more than the “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – it holds everyone accountable and it demands honesty – but it happens with a sincere dose of humility.

    If conveying this to the MTV generation requires a little creative entertainment, I’m all for it. If the message is genuine, it will resonate regardless.

  11. Beautiful post again, Michael.

    I grew up in this youth group culture, primarily through the Fellowship of Christian Atheletes. Early on in middle school I got involved with the group and just loved the small group of us that got involved with it. That summer I went to an FCA “leadership camp” that was full of the bubble-gum Top 40 style of Christianity. I was hooked and came to Christ there. I was shortly thereafter named president of the FCA at my school and led meetings that went from perhaps 7 or 8 kids to as many as 100 (now that I think about it, I was a church-growth fanatic emergent Christian leader at the age of 13!) and we played games, talked about how nice God is, all that jazz.

    But then the lack of substance starved me. Without the foundation in the most important parts of the Gospel–the uniqueness and the singleness–I started moving in the “every religion has some value” direction. Soon, this too was undermined, as a God that simply serves as a divine therapist seems to come up short when the therapy isn’t forthcoming. Crises in my life robbed me of my faith entirely and I became a raving atheist. It was only later, when I entered college, that I really started thinking about the deeper (and far more compelling) truths of the Gospel that I returned to my faith.

    All of this to say that focusing on the feelings and not the substance of the Gospel is a phenomenal way to ensure that when things start to feel wrong, people will abandon the Gospel. Paul tells us that when we suffer we complete the suffering of Christ. Show me a youth minister that spends time telling kids that being a Christian means suffering from time to time and I’ll be dumbfounded right before joining his church.

    Great post, Michael!

  12. My dear brother, Andrew D., ANYTIME i see the word “LEADERSHIP” used in a Christian context, I run again for the desert… Have we learned nothing about discipleship and the quite Christian concept of “SERVANTHOOD”? Our ideas and our lives are very much formed by the grammar and the vocabulary we employ. Charis

  13. Very helpful and useful for this discussion is the White Horse Inn broadcast: My Kids Are Bored In Church

  14. Benjamin Nitu says

    Thank you imonk for pointing out this great article.
    Tim has something related to this article:
    Making Christianity Better or Rock N’ Roll Worse?

  15. Fantastic article referenced. I’ve already passed the link on to a friend of mine whom I had a discussion with on this very topic recently.

    Essentially, a church in our area is using paintball as a form of outreach to the youth in the area. Now I’m all for paintball, but I’m not really sure how inviting everyone along for an evening of it counts as outreach in the traditional sense of the word. To the church’s credit (?), the price of admission is listening to a sermon, but I suspect that most teens are going to see this as a bait-and-switch con and will be left unimpressed and uninterested in both the church and what it claims to offer.

    My friend, who appeared to support the approach, which admittedly is a popular one, attributed it to the church’s desire to minister to teens’ need to be entertained. (Personally, I wasn’t aware that Gen Y and the Millennials were being castigated for excessive industry and seriousness, but I digress.) My own feeling is that the fields are ripe for harvest. Teens are looking for meaning, direction and guideposts — not just of the moral sort, but of the spiritual variety as well — and the church is uniquely positioned to bring them those things, if only we would remember the gospel we have been entrusted with, and rely on its power instead of the slick marketing techniques the world uses.

    Delivering the gospel in a way that teens will understand and recognize, such as Bible study, thoughtful discussion of popular media and prevailing issues, and (of course) involving them in Christlike ministry to the needy, would seem to me the best way to reach them.