Recently, there has been a proliferation of books, blogs, and conferences striving to be “gospel-centered.” This trend seems to be a response to a hodgepodge of secondary things becoming the primary identity, focus, and passion of many American evangelical churches. The center had become fuzzy. Probably no area of ministry needs to regain this clarity more than youth ministry. Several well-intentioned youth ministries focus on entertainment and morality. Pizza parties and promise rings are at the center. Statistics show that this has not been successful. A large percentage of church-raised youth are leaving home with a minimal understanding of Christianity and an even smaller desire to continue to be a part of it. While not guaranteeing numerical success, Gospel Centered Youth Ministry asserts that making the gospel central will fight against this trend.
Cameron Cole, one of the editors, is the chairman of Rooted Ministry, a network of online resources and a yearly conference seeking to “transform student ministry by fostering grace-driven and cross-centered leaders through rich theological and contextual engagement” (www.rootedministry.com). Many of the authors in this work are a part of that same network. The result is a helpful summary and application of the ministry’s core values. However, this does not mean that the perspectives are narrow. The contributors’ voices represent a diverse assortment of reformed evangelicalism. They have dwelt in settings that range from high church to non-denominational.
Within this diversity, all contributors share two core convictions. First, youth ministry ought to focus on “lasting redemption” (p. 25). Youth ministry does not exist to entertain or protect youth for just a season of life. Instead, the goal is for students to have a “passion for God’s redemption in Christ to continue for the rest of their lives” (p. 25). This first conviction leads to the second; that the gospel is “the change agent” that brings about lasting redemption. “God can accomplish the purpose of ministry to youth (lasting change) through the gospel as they believe in Jesus and follow him forever” (p. 31). These convictions shape every chapter and give focus to each topic addressed.
The chapters are organized into three sections, with each section intentionally building upon the previous. Part one lays down the “Foundations for a Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry.” Upon that, part two sets forth “Practical Applications for A Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry.” Finally, part three explores “The Fruit of a Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry.” The logical flow between these sections is one of the books biggest strengths. Throughout the fourteen chapters, many of the traditional loci of youth ministry are addressed: teaching (ch. 3), small groups (ch. 8), parent relationships (ch. 6), leadership training (ch. 9), worship music (ch. 10), retreats (ch. 11), and mission trips (ch. 14). Although the scope is broad, the three-part structure allows each chapter to fit comfortably alongside the others. The result is a neatly constructed mosaic assembled according to the pattern of the gospel.
The chapters all follow a similar outline. First they show the biblical and theological foundation for the subject. After making the connections between the gospel and their chapter’s focus clear, it moves to more practical considerations. This efficiently packaged combination of theological and practical insights is an extremely valuable feature of the book. Finally, after the theological and practical discussions, each chapter finishes with recommendations for further reading on their topic.
The power of these theologically grounded insights is best illustrated in chapter 6 (“Building a Foundation with the Parents”). It is telling that this chapter is placed within the first section and considered one of the foundations for a gospel-centered youth ministry. Mike McGarry, the chapter’s author, argues that “we must embrace a vision whereby the church and parents coevangelize and codisciple their teenagers” (p. 91). The family emphasis in passages such as Deuteronomy 6 is presented as evidence that a youth leader is not the one primarily responsible for discipling children inside the church (p. 92). Instead, youth ministry focuses on equipping parents as well as discipling students “rather than simply being focused on the youth alone” (p 95). The chapter is persuasive, but it obviously breaks the mold of most youth ministries. Thankfully we are given plenty of practical advice and encouragement for the long process of building this bridge.
Those strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, but some issues are still worth mentioning. In the introduction, Cole asserts that youth ministry is “a relatively young field” and that it just “concluded its first generation near the turn of the twenty-first century” (p. 17). It is conventionally agreed that youth ministry as we know emerged in the 1940s and 50s, around the same time as the modern teenager. Thus, it seems odd to claim that the first generation ended around the year 2000. This claim is never explained or defended.
Continuing along historical lines, it is unfortunate that none of the authors directly ask how youth have been raised and nurtured in the church through past generations. While the authors are right to focus on the battle to keep the gospel at the center of youth ministry, they never to turn to church’s historical resources to see how our predecessors in the faith have fought this fight. Something as prominent in the church’s history as catechesis never gets a mention. Even the book recommendations at the end of each chapter display a recency bias. Only three of the almost fifty books that are recommended were printed before 1990. In light of the discouraging statistics suggesting modern youth ministry’s inability to form life-long Christians, one might expect a stronger turn to the past for resources. While not dealing directly with “youth ministry” per se, works such as The Reformed Pastor, by Richard Baxter, Thoughts for Young Men, by J. C. Ryle, or catechisms from various streams of Protestantism all touch on topics such as pastoral ministry, expository preaching, evangelism, and discipleship.
One other potential problem with this volume is presented by the wide array of topics covered. This breadth might be daunting for some under-resourced youth leaders. The average American church has a modest budget and 150–200 attendees. In order to be gospel-centered, does each youth ministry need to go on an annual mission trips, staff multiple small groups, plan a winter retreat, and maintain a worship band?
These qualms do not devalue this book. It is thorough while keeping the most important aspects clear. Cole and Nielson have assembled a resource which is obviously useful for every youth leader. One would do well to read it through once and then revisit each topic in the appropriate season. Furthermore, any pastor who feels a responsibility to train their youth minister for faithful ministry should pay attention to this book. Gospel Centered Youth Ministry succeeds in articulating a gospel grounding for everything that happens in youth ministry. Yet it is also jam packed with the sort of solid practical advice and guidance most youth leaders are hungering for.