Gospel-Centered Teaching in Youth Ministry (or, “Do Youth Ministries Teach Moralism?”)

I think most youth pastors have come against the criticism that we primarily teach moralism (do this, don’t do that) rather than emphasizing the Gospel and biblical studies.  I don’t have tons of time today, so I’ll try to keep this short.

“Most youth ministries only teach moralism.”  I’m extremely thankful for the ministry of the Gospel Coalition and I have been richly blessed by their blogs and other resources, but as their influence grows I feel like I’ve heard this criticism a lot lately, and it’s really frustrating.  Sure, there are probably lots of youth ministries that’s true of, but I’d wager most of those youth ministries belong to churches who preach moralism rather than the Gospel.  So this has gotten me to thinking about how I see Law & Gospel working itself out in my own ministry.

Very simply put: “Law” refers to the commands of Scripture, the “Do this” and “Don’t do that” parts.  “Gospel” refers to the promises of God revealed in Scripture and is the root of the Christian life because none of us can keep the Law completely.  Since we are all Law-breakers, we are all under judgment because of our sin and we are completely reliant upon God’s grace to forgive, justify, and redeem us.

I agree with the Lutheran Formula of Concord’s view on Law & Gospel when it declares that the Law of God has three functions:

  1. that “thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]”
  2. that “men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins”
  3. that “after they are regenerate. . .they might. . .have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life”

Briefly summarized they are:

  1. curb
  2. mirror
  3. guide

So in our youth ministries when we teach about God’s will on sexuality or music or friendship, we are not simply teaching moralism.  We are teaching according to the threefold function of the Law.  However, we must be sure that the Gospel is kept central as we teach the Law, because the Law never saved anyone.

You only need to read Romans 7 to recognize that Gospel-centered ministry still affirms the Law and teaches that we should not covet or commit adultery, etc.  There are some who speak and write as if being Gospel-Centered means you don’t teach the Law, but I believe that’s a fast-track to Antinomianism (which, sadly, is already very much alive and well today).  If we do not help our students come face to face with their own sin, we do them no good by presenting the Good News when they’re numb towards the judgment they are living under.

That being said, I’m afraid there have been times when I’ve found myself talking about various aspects of the Law in a way that does not point to the Gospel but to moralism.  Moralism is much easier to teach than it is to teach in such a way that constantly points to Jesus Christ.

In Youth Ministry may we reestablish the Gospel as the center, but teach the Law as a Curb, Mirror, and Guide in order that students might live radically Gospel-Centered lives in their schools, homes, and wherever else they spend their time.

4 thoughts on “Gospel-Centered Teaching in Youth Ministry (or, “Do Youth Ministries Teach Moralism?”)

  1. David Axberg June 7, 2011 / 1:34 pm

    It may all come down to the imputed righteousness of Christ. The scriptures are clear on that the law is not for the righteous but for the unrighteous. Do we teach this in our homes, churches and places of work? The only way to confirm receiving that righteousness is through living a gospel centered life. I would say that most students know their earthly fathers and know where the lines have been drawn. Out of a love for Dad they would not want to cross those lines because that would be a very selfish thing to do and consequences occur. The down side is that we are fallible fathers which means we are battling sin daily also. Our lines should be aligned with the law of God but to often we are more strict or more lenient than God’s Word is, and that causes us to exasperate our children.

    God Bless Now!

  2. Anonymous April 1, 2014 / 12:12 pm

    am just an up coming youth pastor so i need your prayer and support thanks

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