To keep students coming, many youth ministries use entertainment tactics to draw kids through the door. Brian Cosby argues for a completely different approach to youth ministry in Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture. He states, “I maintain that the ‘how to’ of being faithful in youth ministry—indeed, in all ministry—is demonstrated through the means of grace: particularly, teaching the Bible, administering the sacraments, prayer, service, and community” (p. 20).
Cosby’s thesis overflows from his Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. However, in a day and age when youth pastors use liturgical practices to “deepen” their students’ worship experience, Cosby’s is no faux-traditionalism. Far from going to tradition as a reaction against entertainment-driven youth ministry, Crosby’s critique of entertainment-driven youth ministry arises from the biblical commitments he has inherited from his theological tradition.
As Cosby works out his thesis, he reveals three underlying assumptions about youth ministry that part ways with popular alternative models. First, he implies that the building blocks for a faithful youth ministry have been provided in Scripture, namely, the means of grace. It is not the youth pastor’s job to invent a model for youth ministry because the Bible provides it. Second, when Cosby adds the qualifier, “indeed, in all ministry,” he diverges from philosophies of youth ministry that use the unique experience and culture of teenagers as their starting point. What students need is no different than what anyone else needs: the grace of God, found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Third, by framing his approach to youth ministry with the means of grace, Cosby distinguishes his methodology as one that relies on God for fruitfulness, over against other approaches that expect success to come from the methodology itself.
Cosby begins his book arguing that attractional youth ministries provide only a temporary and superficial antidote to students’ spiritual longings. A ministry that will truly minister to youth must therefore be modeled around the five means of grace. In the middle of his book, Cosby takes five chapters to demonstrate how the five means of grace shape youth ministry. His argument may be summarized as follows:
- Since only the Spirit of God effectually changes the sinner’s heart, the Spirit-inspired Word—preached, studied, and memorized—is central.
- Prayer is more than something we should do when tragedy hits; it is a practice by which God empowers, comforts, strengthens, and sanctifies.
- The sacraments regularly remind students of God’s gracious promise to be faithful, and his covenant love is demonstrated through the sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus Christ.
- Self-sacrificing, gospel-motivated service is more satisfying than entertainment.
- Participation in the community of believers “is a means of grace whereby God confronts our sin, feeds our faith, transforms our minds, and grows our love” (p. 96).
The author ends his book with a chapter about how to recruit and shepherd volunteer youth leaders, along with appendices on evaluating one’s youth ministry and shepherding families with youth.
Among the many strengths of Cosby’s book, two stand out. First, the five components of Cosby’s philosophy provide a simple framework to organize a student ministry around what benefits teens spiritually. A faithful youth ministry is a simple youth ministry. This should encourage pastors of smaller youth groups, showing them they can build a ministry that feeds students spiritually, even if attendance fluctuates and their budget is small. Second, Cosby’s book is a step toward spreading a gospel-centered philosophy of youth ministry. Those who (along with the author) have rejected entertainment-driven youth ministry have been left very few books on youth ministry to guide them. This book helps to plug that gap.
There are two ways Giving Up Gimmicks could have been stronger. First, it is not apparent why Cosby extends the traditional three means of grace to five. The author anticipates that readers familiar with the Reformed tradition might be surprised by this move when he states, “While the Westminster Assembly highlighted these historical three, the divines pointed out that Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation in all his ordinances” (his italics; p. 25). But this leaves the reader wondering why one would include only service and community in a “means of grace” model of youth ministry? Why choose these two as opposed to, or in addition to, other options? Cosby supports stretching the “means of grace” category to service and community by working through a few Scripture passages, but not all readers will find his exegesis convincing.
Second, Cosby devotes little attention to deconstructing entertainment-oriented youth ministry, something that the title of his book promises. Because he fails to interact with books espousing entertainment or programmatic strategies to reach youth, his criticisms of these approaches come off as straw-man arguments. Unfortunately, this will result in converting few entertainment-driven youth pastors to a more biblical, gospel-centered philosophy.
Despite these two weaknesses, Giving Up Gimmicks is a helpful book that should pave the way for further conversation on gospel-centered youth ministry. Whether or not the reader embraces Cosby’s overarching “means of grace” category, youth pastors will do well to focus on the five components of his approach. Cosby’s book will be a great encouragement to youth pastors who are fed up with the superficiality of gimmicky student ministries, as well as those who have shunned the gimmicks, perhaps even to the detriment of their youth group’s attendance.