Ministry leaders are seeing a major problem among youth groups – an emphasis on behavior modification over the Gospel.
In a series featured on The Gospel Coalition website, several ministers discussed their concerns with how youths were being taught in the church, namely with messages aimed more at keeping them out of trouble.
"Many youth pastors preach moralism over the gospel in order to protect students from self-destruction," said Cameron Cole, director of youth ministries at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala. "Unfortunately, law-driven ministry often yields the opposite of its intention; law and pressure often inflame rebellion."
Cole doesn't see a lack of Gospel teaching in youth ministries when it comes to salvation and justification. He believes youth pastors may even be "more faithful" than senior pastors in "helping their flock understand Christianity as saving relationship rather than cultural religion."
But when it comes to sanctification, or the process of being set apart for holy use, youth ministries are getting it wrong, Cole believes.
"Youth ministry often focuses on emotional exhortation and moral performance," he observed. "A legalistic tone frequently characterizes the theology of sanctification in youth ministry."
According to Brian H. Cosby, associate pastor of youth and families at Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, Ga., such teaching has led to widespread belief in "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" where "we are supposed to be 'good people'" and where God is more like a "cosmic therapist" or "divine butler."
But Cole understands why youth ministry tends to focus on legalism and behavior.
Simply put, "youth pastors want to see changed lives," he noted.
"Wanting validation for their tireless labor, youth ministers occasionally focus on behavior modification as a means of providing tangible proof of the efficacy of their ministry. A kid carrying his or her Bible to school, signing a chastity pledge, or sporting a WWJD bracelet may appear like signs of spiritual progress – the fruit of ministry labor for a youth pastor."
Cole cautioned, however, that "if these actions come out of a student misunderstanding Christianity as a code of behavior rather than heart transformation through the Holy Spirit, then they do not necessarily reflect lasting life change."
Parents aren't helping the situation either. Wanting their children to be moral, parents sometimes view "the church exclusively as a vehicle for moral education, rather than spiritually forming them in Christ, and put pressure on youth and senior pastors to moralize their children," Cole pointed out.
The Birmingham youth director stressed the need for youth ministry to be viewed not as a venue for entertainment and moral teaching but as a serious teaching and discipleship ministry.
And youth pastors, he stressed, need to view themselves as sowers who plant Gospel seeds for harvest down the road.
Quoting Mark Upton, a former youth worker and current pastor at Hope Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., Cole said, "If anyone asks you about your ministry, tell them you will let them know in ten years."