This is a guest post by David Hertweck who serves the Assemblies of God in the state of NY as their District Youth Director. He is also the 2nd place winner to last week’s creativity challenge (which won him nothing). David can be tracked down at Twitter: @NY_YouthMin or Facebook group: NYDAG Youth Min
Preaching Jesus as…?
In his book, Searching For God Knows What, Donald Miller describe a time when he shared a detailed Gospel message with a roomful of seminary students. He purposefully left one key component out of the presentation and asked the class to identify it. They couldn’t.
The missing part? Jesus.
Charles Spurgeon said, “The sermon which does not lead to Christ, or of which Jesus Christ is not the top and the bottom, is a sort of sermon that will make the devils in hell laugh, but make the angels of God weep.” Tim Keller says it less elegantly but more succinctly: “Until you get to Jesus, it’s just a Sunday school lesson.”
I’ve heard many youth messages and I don’t think I’ve heard one that doesn’t mention or reference Jesus at some point. Somehow, somewhere, at some point He gets an obligatory mention… even if it’s just in the closing prayer.
But is that good enough?
1. Jesus as an inspirational example.
The main idea: Jesus did it, you can do it!
The problem: This appeals to a student who measures their worth in terms of accomplishment, spiritual or otherwise. It works on the will but not the heart. If Jesus is only an example, then the average teenager is in a lot of trouble because, well… Jesus was perfect. Your teenagers need much more than an example to inspire them (or eventually crush them)… they need a Savior to rescue them.
The result: You might get teenagers to change their behavior but it will be in their own strength and with a hint of moralism. This is not the Gospel. Jesus did not die on the cross to give us a second chance to get things right. He did it because He knew we never would.
2. Jesus as a faithful sidekick.
The main idea: Jesus did it and He will help you do it!
The problem: This reduces Jesus from the central character of our story of our salvation to the silent partner who simply helps us live right. He is nothing more than the greatest tool in your toolbox. One more metaphor: Jesus gets the assist, but I get the goal. The Gospel is not that He helps us get it right but that He got it right in our place. Big difference.
The result: You may get teenagers fired up, but you may also make them self-reliant and filled with unhealthy expectations. If they think that all they need is a boost from their buddy Jesus to be ok, then they may not understand the depth of their own depravity. Grasping, on a profound level, how lost we are is the starting point to encounter Jesus.
3. Jesus as a jilted boyfriend/girlfriend.
The main idea: Jesus did it for you, don’t hurt his feelings and let Him down!
The problem: This appeals to the students’ emotions, fears and sense of guilt. Most people don’t want to disappoint or let down anyone, let alone God! But fear and guilt are not Gospel motivations; they are tools of the enemy.
The result: You may get emotionally driven responses, especially from students that want to please people. They will make all sorts of radical promises about never ever, ever sinning again. However, teenagers will eventually find someone else (peers, boyfriend, girlfriend…) who they don’t want to disappoint even more. That relationship will easily trump this type of change.
4. Jesus as a divine loophole.
The main idea: Jesus did it and you should too, but if you don’t He will forgive you!
The problem: This approach can be combined with any of the previous three. This weakens the message of the Gospel and the power of grace. C.S. Lewis said that grace is the distinctive term of the Christian faith. Either the grace of God is the most powerful change force for mankind, or we’re hopeless. The “get-out-of-jail-free card” approach to grace doesn’t communicate that.
The result: Some teenagers will come to see Jesus as nothing more than the great eraser. They do whatever they want and come to Him hoping He can hit the reset button for them. It makes them feel better, but it doesn’t invite them into the story of the Gospel. Eventually they won’t believe it; they’ll believe they’ve fallen too far. Or they just won’t be drawn to a grace that is strong enough to forgive them when their hearts wander, but too weak to truly win their affections.
So how do we preach Jesus as the center? As the beginning and the end? How do we preach the Gospel as the good news it is? How do we show that all of the Scriptures and all of history exist to reveal Jesus?
I’ve heard Tim Keller reveal his answers to these important questions:
1) Preach the principles in the text. Go ahead, point out how we should live, what type of character we should have and use the stories or the teachings to strengthen your points. (This is where most messages end!)
2) Explain why they’ll never do it. Don’t just go after the behavior but go after the root: the lack of belief or the lie behind the behavior. This is also your chance to critique both irreligion AND religion. Show how even the religious can be wrong in their hearts despite being right in their behavior.
3) Preach the One who did it! Show Jesus to be the one who kept the law and preach his supremacy over every issue. Make him beautiful to the listener so that the very affections of their hearts can be realigned.
4) Teach students how to rest in the truth of the Gospel. Teach them how to rejoice in the truth that Jesus both lived perfect for them and died shamed for them. Pray that the Holy Spirit will melt and move their hearts with the power of the Gospel. Trust in the truth that Jonah learned in the belly of the big fish: salvation is of God.
Question: What are the primary questions you use to evaluate your messages?