Youth Ministry and Romans 12

In 2012, I was asked to visit a church that was struggling with their youth ministry and share some words of encouragement and advice to their youth leaders and potential youth leaders. The following is a rough transcript of that seminar.

Before beginning this morning, I'd like to share my credentials with you. That's not to say I have any credentials to really brag about; I want you to understand that I’m NOT a professional! I've never been hired as a youth pastor, and I have no official training -- no seminary, no Bible school.

The only credential I have, really, is my experience. I've been working with my church youth group for about twenty years. I've also worked as a camp pastor at several Christian camps that serve children and teenagers. I'm currently a math and science teacher at a small Christian academy.

Honestly, the best credentials you can have for youth ministry are these:

  • You know, understand, and live by the word of God
  • You’re down in the trenches doing the work.

Years ago, when I was first the youth director at my church, I decided that I wanted the youth group to study and memorize Romans 12:9-21.

12:9Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.10Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.12Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.13Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.17Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.Romans 12:9-21 (ESV)

Note: the language used in the text above is from the ESV Bible. However, I used the NASB in the seminar, so there will be slight wording variations in what follows.

I chose these verses because of the very simple, practical lessons in Christian living. No flowery language, no complicated theology, just straightforward stuff about the kind of life God wants us to live. We worked for many weeks memorizing those verses, and to this day there are some kids (now grown-ups) that if I got them started with "Let love be without hypocrisy..." they could continue from there.

Now fast-forward ten years, to me preparing for this seminar. I started by making a quick list of the things that I thought were important to teach. As I looked at the list, I had a sudden realization: most of the things I wanted to teach are in Romans 12:9-21.

The time I spent studying, learning, memorizing, and teaching those verses changed my perspective on youth ministry, and I didn’t even realize it!

If I had to stop this seminar in the next five minutes, with no time to give examples and illustrations, I would give you Three Difficult Steps Toward Having a Productive Youth Ministry:

  1. Understand and live by Romans 12:9-21.
  2. Teach and model for your teenagers how to live by Romans 12:9-21.
  3. Provide opportunities for your teens to live by Romans 12:9-21 with you.

But since I do have more time, I’m going to give you some more detailed thoughts about what you’ll find in Romans 12:9-21, as well as some stories that may help you visualize the points I’m making.

Let Love Be without Hypocrisy

In other words, have real love instead of fake love.

Fake love is recognized by words rather than deeds: 

3:18Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.1 John 3:18 (ESV)

Real love is recognized through sacrifice:

12:10Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.Romans 12:10 (ESV)

When you truly love someone, you realize that the things you want may not happen, because they are superseded by what someone else needs.

If you don’t have real love for the teens, be aware of this: sooner or later they’ll figure it out, because teens are great at recognizing hypocrisy.

C. S. Lewis wrote this, which I partly agree with: “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.”

I say “partly” because I believe it to be a deeper issue than just what we train ourselves to; it’s also a condition of the heart, and as such, must be confessed – as sin – to God.  “Forgive me, God, for not loving this teenager in the same way that you loved me.  I’m like the man in the parable, who was forgiven a great debt, but refused to forgive those who sinned against him.  Help me to not be like that man.”

And when you have confessed that, and prayed that, then by all means, go out and do what C. S. Lewis said: live in obedience to God by giving, sacrificing, and doing good to the one you are learning to love. And between the working of God in your heart, and the working of your obedience, God will change your heart.

On your handout you will find a series of practical questions which may help you to understand how a genuine love for your teens may manifest itself.

We practice it, then we encourage them to practice it.  And really, that’s such a broad subject that the practicing of love is encompassed in all the other things we do.

Abhor What Is Evil, Cling to What Is Good

For yourself, this simply means that you must have high standards and expectations for your behavior. 

In many of our conservative, evangelical churches, we have a tendency to focus on the don'ts of scripture -- don't do this, don't do that. But I think it's important to notice that this verse comes in two diametrically opposed statements. We're not just supposed to despise the evil, we're also supposed to hang on to what is good. We ought to be focusing just as much on the do's of scripture as the don'ts.

And believe it or not, when you’re living by this simple rule of hanging onto what is good and shunning what is bad in your own life, it’s okay to expect the same of your teens.

We have a tendency to not expect much of teens, but that is a dangerous mistake: we must have high expectations. Not to be burdensome or unreasonable, but to train them to be healthy and godly members of the church family and ministry.

Psychologists say that by the time a person is 22 to 24 years old, the patterns of behavior and attitude are essentially set – the person you are at 24 is who –barring a miracle – you will be at 42, or at 82. So we must help them develop godly traits now, and they need to understand that the time for that is now.

In the book “Do Hard Things” by Alex and Brett Harris, the authors write that the concept of “teenager” is fairly new; and it has become a way of procrastinating the growing-up process. Our society tends to expect nothing of teenagers. We need to throw away that way of looking at the adolescent years.

Have high expectations for your teenagers. They’ll actually appreciate it, because it’s a measure of your trust.

Occasionally I'll have a teenager bring up 1 Timothy 4:12 and say “See, this verse says you can’t look down on me.” Of course, I emphasize that I don't look down on them, but then I'll tell them to read it again. "The verse says that you should live in such a way that no one has reason to look down on you.”

We teach them godly behavior. We do it biblically. We teach with grace and compassion. And when they don’t follow the way we have shown them, we don’t throw away the grace and compassion, but we add to it the firmness to correct them when needed.

One year I had two teenagers in the group who were always stirring up trouble, or egging on other teenagers to do things they shouldn't or just generally being disruptive in youth group. Sadly, these were both "church kids." Every year our youth group hosted a "Winter Weekend" -- a teen retreat which was the highlight of the entire year. As we approached winter, I realized that I was having a hard time looking forward to the weekend, and realized it was largely because I was dreading being responsible for these teens and dealing with whatever shenanigans they might come up with.

After a great deal of thought, and talking with some of the other leaders, I pulled the two boys aside after youth group one evening to have a chat with them. I explained to them that because of their behavior, I was concerned about having them two-and-a-half hours from home for an entire weekend. So if they wanted to come to the retreat, I wanted to set up a meeting with their parents before I'd let them come.

One of the two boys immediately decided he wasn't interested in coming to the retreat. The other boy agreed to set up a meeting with me and his dad. I expressed my concerns to his dad (with the boy right there) and then said, "I'd really like to be able to take X with us, but we really need to have one of two things happen. I'd love to have you come along as one of our chaperones. If that's not possible, I need to know that if I call -- day or night -- and say 'Someone needs to come pick up X, then that will be done."

The father agreed to come as a chaperone, and X had a great weekend. For my part, I thought I'd done a reasonable job of balancing grace and expectations, and for X's part, he learned that we were serious about our expectations for his behavior.

Nor Lagging Behind in Diligence, Fervent in Spirit

Three qualities that (in my opinion) our society is not doing well at instilling into the younger generation: diligence, fervency, and serving anyone but yourself.

We easily learn apathy and indifference without having to be directly taught. Don’t believe anything too strongly, and don’t care too much about anything. Life is easier that way. And you know what? Maybe life is easier that way. But easy isn’t better. Life that’s lived with fervency and passion is an adventure. 

Bring diligence to your preparations. Faithful, deliberate, consistent study, planning, and preparation. And bring passion to the time you spend with your teens. Especially when you’re teaching. Often people teach teens with an almost apologetic attitude. But get passionate about what the scriptures teach, and let that passion show in your teaching. Get excited!

As before, if you don’t have passion for what you’re doing, don’t try to just act like it; take it to God and say, “Why don’t I have the passion, zeal, and enthusiasm for this that I should? Help me, Lord!”

Remember this: You can’t teach passion and fervency – it can only be caught. Don’t expect your teens to exhibit any more enthusiasm than you do.

Serving the Lord

Remember what I said about learning to live it, and teaching/showing your teens to live it? Here is something that is often missing from youth groups, and I consider it to be one of the most critical parts of a healthy youth ministry: A youth group must learn to serve the Lord together.

Many youth groups think that youth group is either a social club, or it’s a place to come and study the Bible.  Youth group is social, and you'd better be studying God’s word! But are you giving your youth opportunities to serve together?

In the handout you will find a list of suggestions for ways a youth group can serve together. This is not an exhaustive list by any means.

Notice I haven’t mentioned overseas missions trips. We’ve done those, but I’m a firm believer that we need to start small. The scriptures teach that God blesses those who are faithful in small things.

You’ve got to believe it’s important in order to convince them it’s important. Remember that fervency is caught, not taught. When I present our youth with an opportunity to serve, I never plead with them to be involved by telling them, "Come on, it'll be fun." Instead, I tell them, "I don't know if it'll be fun or not. But it'll be important."

Practicing Hospitality

Practicing hospitality usually is meant in the sense of opening your home to people. But in general it has to do with opening up your life in one way or another.

Let me tell you my two strongest memories of adults in my church from my childhood/teens.

One of my youth group leaders would invite me and some friends to her home to play board games.

When I was young, my pastor found out that my brother and I had never been to the jetport in Portland (this was back in the days when you could watch the planes landing and taking off from inside the terminal building) so he invited the two of us to ride to Portland with him specifically to visit the jetport.

There was nothing overtly spiritual about either of these things, but they made a lasting impression on me.  Why? Because someone wanted to spend time with me.

How much you invite the teens into your life is your choice, but the more you do it, the more powerful is your connection with them, because the bonds of love grow, and with it, your ability to impact their lives.

  • Have youth group at your home sometime, if you have room in your home.
  • Invite small groups of teens over for meals, or just to hang out.
  • If you’re going somewhere, invite some teens to join you. It doesn’t have to be spiritual.

How are we going to teach our teens to be hospitable? Here are just a couple ideas.

Every year our youth group hosts a luncheon for the "Spice of Life" group (the retired folks of the church). The teens plan it, they organize the food and the serving, the put together music and skits, and -- when they aren't serving in some other way -- they sit with their guests and get to know them.

We have done a similar thing for our church's children's program: we organized a sledding party for the younger kids, including snacks and drinks. We also strongly emphasized to the teens that this was not their sledding party. While they might do some sledding, their primary purpose was to make sure that the little kids had a fun time. This is great training in hospitality.

Associate with the Lowly

Cliques are a problem in most youth groups. Teens who are in some way alike tend to gravitate together. But scriptures tell us that Christ has broken down the dividing walls between us, and that we are to be one in Him.

We as youth group leaders have to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Don’t fall into the trap of just hanging out with the “cool kids.”  

I remember once as a teenager having one of my non-Christian friends visit the youth group. He was smart, popular, funny, and talented. I thought, "If only he would get saved, think of what God could do with him!" Many years later it dawned on my that my thinking was completely contrary to God's thinking -- God's love is not in any way dependent on what we have to offer him. He is not a "respecter of persons." And for that matter, I was doubting the soveriegnty of God if I thought he "needed" a particular type of person to do great things for Him.

God doesn’t work that way – fishermen and tax collectors were the backbone of Christ’s ministry team. 

I believe pretty strongly that the best youth group leaders are the ones who gravitate to the down-and-outers, and the ones the down-and-outers gravitate to, because that’s what happened with Jesus.

Of course, you're not going to just hang out with the less popular kids, but you should always be trying to bridge the gap. include the down-and-outers when you hang out with the popular group, and vice versa.

Remember, your goal is not just to associate with the lowly, but to teach your teens to do the same.

Who are the lowly? The lowly is anyone that you or your teens might not want to hang out with. For many, that list includes:

  • The elderly 
  • 6th graders (or any age younger than the teen cutoff age)
  • Special-needs kids

We have been blessed in our youth group to have some special-needs kids (one was my nephew). I have always watched with interest to see which kids go out of their way to include and encourage those young people; in my mind, those are the ones with the most leadership potential!

Conclusion

So where to go from here? If we had more time, we could talk about many more things from Romans 12. And that’s just these few verses in Romans -- there’s nothing “magical” about these! Here is, in a nutshell, your goal:

  • Understand and live by scripture.
  • Teach and model the scripture.
  • Find creative ways to help your teens live by the scriptures as well.

Handout

How Does Your Love Show?

  • Do I look forward to youth group events? (Or do I dread them?)
  • When my teenagers have a football game, a drama production, or a concert they are performing in, do I look forward to going to it? (Or do I do it because I feel obligated?)
  • When they call me in the middle of my favorite TV show, do I take time to talk to them? (Is my first reaction to make them call back later?)
  • Do I look for opportunities to spend time with them? (Or do I put in the bare minimum?)
  • Do I find myself talking to friends and family members about them? (Or is everything else more important?)
  • Do I think about them at times other than youth group night? (Or is it a case of “out of sight, out of mind"?)

A Handful of Ways Teens Can Serve the Lord

  • Helping with VBS
  • Helping CEF with tract distribution
  • Christmas caroling for senior citizens
  • Visiting nursing homes
  • Doing church services at nursing homes
  • Helping with yard work/firewood/cleaning for senior citizens/shut-ins
  • Helping with spring cleaning at church or a Christian camp
  • Serving in a puppet group, music group, or drama group
  • Volunteering in Sunday School, nursery, or AWANA
  • Making care packages for college students, military personnel, and others away from home
  • Raising/giving money to missions

What Does Romans 12:9-21 Say About:

  • Grieving
  • Prayer
  • Peacemaking
  • Difficult circumstances
  • Dealing with enemies
  • Humility
  • Unity
  • Being victorious (an overcomer)

Hungry for More? 

  • Read James 2 for more about associating with the lowly.
  • Read I Corinthians 13 for more about real love.
  • Read Isaiah 58 and James 1:27 for more about serving the Lord by serving others.
  • Read Proverbs 25 for some simple words of wisdom about good conduct. Can you find in this chapter the verses quoted by Paul in Romans 12?
  • What do you think about this C. S. Lewis quote? “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.”
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