So. . . what is most important in youth ministry? That’s the question I asked yesterday and will be answering this week here in this space. This question and the answer(s) I will share were occasioned by my youth pastor friend Jake’s invitation to speak at his ordination service at the beginning of this week. When Jake asked me to relate my sermon to youth ministry it was clear that there had to be some kind of charge not only to Jake, but to the parents, teachers, and grandparents in his congregation. . . really, to everyone at Jake’s church. . . including me!

For me personally, the First and Second Letters of Paul to Timothy have always resonated as both a directive and corrective for who I am as a follower of Jesus Christ, along with who I am called to be as someone who ministers to children, teens, and their families. Even though I’m now long out of my younger years, I still count myself in the company of the young Timothy as he prepared to take the ministry baton from his ministry mentor, Paul. On Sunday, I narrowed the focus of my brief remarks down to II Timothy 3:1 to 4:5. It’s in those words that we see clear directives regarding what’s most important in youth ministry.

Paul was writing to Timothy in a cultural setting and church setting that is remarkably similar to our own contemporary setting in both the culture and the church. In fact, it was and is a setting where it might be more accurately stated that the culture was in the church, rather than vice-versa. False teaching was woven in and through the church and people were being easily misled. The true Gospel of Jesus Christ was being tarnished, contaminated, and drained of Truth. The teachers people were embracing and following were dishing out heresy. . . and people, lacking clear discernment, were lapping it up! In fact, in II Timothy 4:3-4 we read that people will increasingly run from sound teaching. Instead, their “itching ears” will lead them to seek out and surround themselves with teachers who would spout out myths that would suit their own passions. “Tell me what I want to hear” rather than “Tell me what I need to hear” was the mantra of the day.

Sound familiar? If Paul was living in today’s world he would be experiencing deja vu. And as he told Timothy way back then, he would speak to us today about our need to stay true to the faith, to expose the errors and false teaching of the times, and to pass on the one True faith to the next generations. And the first step in that direction, as I see it in II Timothy 3:1 – 4:5 is this: There’s a world to know.

Paul instructed Timothy to understand “the last days.” What Paul was referring to here was not some time in the future. . . the kind of time that today’s “prophets” try to date by looking at the signs and telling us when Christ will return. Rather, he was speaking in the present tense about the very times they were living in back then, and the very times in which we live in now. Paul was speakingabout the time’s after Christ’s ministry on earth, which would be times of difficulty for those who proclaim and minister the true Gospel. Youth workers, parents, pastors, educators, grandparents. . . this is us.

Among the many things happening in this world Paul describes to Timothy and to us are two in particular that warrant our attention in this context. . .

First, the world is a self-centered rather than God-centered world. It is a pagan world marked by the embracing of evil and vice as actually being good and virtuous. Does Paul’s descriptive litany list anything familiar to you regarding today’s world? Paul’s list begins with “lovers of self.” Isn’t that what got our first parents in trouble back in the Garden? Didn’t they decide to love and follow self rather than loving and following God? They were tempted to be like God. . . or actually become God. When we move to the center of our own lives we are assuming the rightful place of God, and we dupe ourselves into thinking and/or functionally living as if we are gods ourselves.

Everything else Paul lists flows out of that love of self. Look at the list: money-loving and greedy, proud braggarts (have you looked at social media lately?), conceited, evil-speaking, rebellious (listed here in the context of parents, but generally speaking as well), lacking gratitude, irreligious and unholy, callous and unfeeling, unyielding and unforgiving (cancel culture?), slanderous, lacking restraint and self-control, brutal, hating that which is good, traitors, reckless in pursuit of their own desires, and loving pleasure rather than loving God. Perhaps it’s this last thing on the list that summarizes what seems to be so easily happening in the church: “having the appearance of godliness, but denying it’s power.”

What comes to mind for you as you read through this list? I can’t help but think about what Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah named as expressive individualism – that self-centered worldview where the highest value one embraces in life is being authentic to one’s desired and felt self. Carl Trueman is a good source for learning more on this is the concept is new to you.

I also thought about Jean Twenge’s new book, Generations, a fascinating and insightful read that looks at the what, how, and why of the shifts that have taken place in generations from the one known as “The Silent Generation,” all the way to today’s “Generation Z.” One of Twenge’s overarching observations is that we’ve moved from being more community-minded to being more individualistic. Hmm. . . “But understand this, that in the last days. . . people will be lovers of self.”

Are you seeing any of this? And, if so, how?

Second, there are a growing number and mounting tide of false teachers and false teaching. . . all seeming to be legit and therefore quickly embraced. . . but who are actually peddling heresy and opposing truth. . . and they are leading people astray. Paul is not just talking about the pagan world, but a church that is increasingly being influenced by that pagan world rather than living as a faithful and redeeming presence in that world. Would it be accurate to say that there is more of the world in the church than there is of the church in the world?

The takeaway for those of us who are doing youth ministry or any other kind of leading of kids is this: we need to be extremely careful regarding the voices we follow, and extremely diligent in maintaining our own faithfulness as we lead. One of the greatest issues is the presence and propagation of half-truths. When theological orthodoxy is compromised even just a little bit, we are entering into the dangerous playground of half-truths. Half-truths are actually more dangerous than complete lies, because the remaining nugget of truth is a Trojan horse which effectively transports the lie. J.I. Packer has said that “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”

Let me be open and frank about where we are seeing this in our world of youth ministry training/trainers, and in our own boots-on-the-ground ministry with kids. There are two places that come to mind quickly in today’s world. . .

First, there’s the way in which we have been seduced and nurtured into leaning into our desires and feelings as a guide for life. Objective truth which exists outside of ourselves has been jettisoned. . . in particular, the authority of Scripture. In it’s place we’ve elevated a “Follow your heart!” and “Here’s what I believe” standard. Have you spent any time listening to those who have embraced progressive theology? All of us need to stay on guard regarding this. Someone recently said to me, “If I had a best friend who lied to me as much as my feelings do, I would quickly get rid of that friend.”

Second, there’s the focus on identity. . . specifically the shift from believing that identity is something we are given by our Creator, to something which we create for ourselves. . . perhaps over and over and over again. Think about what we are seeing in terms of cosplay, gender confusion, etc.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that my friends David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock found in their research that only 10 percent of 18 to 29-year-old who grew up in the church and Christian homes are what we would call true disciples of Jesus Christ who are pursuing, embracing, and living out the Christian faith.

This is the big picture of the world we need to know. In my next post I’ll continue to share my thoughts on how to answer the question, “What’s most important in youth ministry?” If you’ve been reading II Timothy 3:1 to 4:5 . . . or any Scripture at all. . . well, you know the answer.

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