Introducing and Teaching Hope In Youth Ministry

Jonathan Hobbs
October 12th, 2020

I have worked in youth ministry for twenty years.  In that time, there have been 10 suicides of adolescents in schools near churches that I have worked. 

That might not sound like a lot until you understand the next part of the statistic.

Seven of those ten have been in the last 6 years.

Three have been in the last 14 months.

I once heard Tim Keller speak about how Western Civilization’s evangelistic strategy for most of 20th century was to basically “remind” people about Christ. 

We “shook” people to “revive” the Spirit in them… and the Spirit moved.  This WORKED. 

In fact, we named this practice “revivals” and we had a good amount of them.  This is the approach used by so many of our evangelical heroes of yesterday.   However, Keller’s point was that things have changed and we can no longer rely on this strategy.  We cannot “remind” people of the Jesus they never knew.  We have to introduce them to Jesus.  We have to teach and inform people about Jesus.  This might sound like common sense, but I still see a lot of evangelical preaching that leans heavily on “revival” and not enough on “introduction.”  

Recently, the devotional book I use had me read 1 Corinthians 13, My first thought was “seriously”?   I’ve read it about a thousand times. But as is so often the case, something new stood out to me.  The well-known chapter ends with the well-known verse, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”  I stopped and thought about how people might see our “jobs” as people in youth ministry. 

I think that most people NOT in youth ministry would see my job as that of teaching faith.  I have a suspicion that most parents understand my job that way.  But since I’m a rebel, I would push back and say, “No! I teach faith and love.”  I talk a lot about how our youth group is a place of safety, care, authenticity, and acceptance.  We’re a family.  

Sure. I teach faith.  And, I teach love.

However, in 20 years of ministry, I don’t know if I’ve ever spoken directly about hope.  

If anything, my approach to hope echoes the 20th century model of evangelism.  I have simply tried to “remind” people of the hope they have.  I’ve tried to “revive” the hope that is already inside of the teens in my audience.

But we can’t “revive” hope in people that don’t have it.  I have to introduce to it.  I have to teach it.

Ten suicides in the last 6 years tells me that there is a major need for hope in my community.  Presently teen suicides are approaching epidemic levels in our country, so I am going to assume that there is a major need for hope in your community and context of ministry as well.   

If we want to put this concept into fancy theological terms, we are talking about the need for a realized eschatology. Meaning, we are finding our hope in Jesus Christ in the here and now and not just something far off in the future.  One could even argue that we are really emphasizing something called a proleptic eschatology. Meaning, we are looking forward in time to the hope we will have, but living into that hope now.  

So how does a youth minister “teach” hope?  I offer this:

Identify every person’s desire for hope. 

We all want to be more than the sum of our parts.  Every human who has ever walked on the planet desires purpose.  “Is there more to life than this?” is a question found (in some form) in writings from every period of history.  Everyone wants to be going towards something.  Everyone wants their life to matter.

Call out false hope.

We need to specifically and regularly call out how so much of that which the world is presenting to our teens as “the point” or “hope” of life is that which leads to a dead-end disappointment.  Don’t use broad strokes in your teaching. Call out specific things.  Follow the logical outcomes of putting your hope in popularity, money, sports, dating, etc.  We have to show them the emptiness

Call out the comparison game.**

I do not think technology is inherently bad.  However, we must acknowledge that information moves fast, and there are no signs of it slowing down. Yes, this means that good news travels faster than ever. But it also means that the evidence of humanity’s sin problem gets around the globe at a record pace.  Teen suicide rates are up more than 30% since the dawn of social media. While I agree that correlation does not equal causation, it is important we examine how those two rising numbers appear to be connected.  The comparison game is now more alive and instant than ever (See CS Lewis’ “First Things and Second Things” for more on this).

Point to Christ.

You know this, but if you’re like me, you skip directly to this step and miss an important part of the process of communication.  No one cares about answers to questions that they are not asking.  Yes, Jesus is the answer.  But most of our students think they have a hope. So, they aren’t asking about how Christ is our true hope.  It’s important that we connect the dots.

I think it is easy to focus so much on the details of life that we miss the big picture.  Indeed, we “cannot see the forest through the trees.”  As faith leaders, we must help our students see the bigger vision.  Students must understand they are part of something so much bigger than themselves and that they are part of God’s plan for this world.   We need them to understand that the hope of the cross is not simply something that is far in the past or far in the future. It is a hope for right here and now.  It is for you and me.

I want my students to be able to honestly sing, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”  

But…we have a lot of work to do to get to that place.

**One could legitimately argue that this is really a subset of point #2, however I felt it needed to be addressed specifically – especially since so many people that I have interviewed about this topic point to this phenomenon.

Jonathan Hobbs

Jonathan is the Director of Family Ministries at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, Pennsylvania. He has worked in professional ministry for more than 16 years, including churches in New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. He has spoken and/or led worship for multiple camps, retreats and events around the country. He took karate in high school because he thought it would help make him cool. He was wrong. Jonathan and his wife, Carolyn, have two beautiful daughters, Kaylin and Julia. He loves golf, can juggle two balls skillfully, and does a halfway decent impression of Kermit the Frog. He's also a big fan of the Oxford comma. His first book - "Don't Do This" - is an exploration of failures in Youth Ministry and what lessons we can learn from them. He was also a contributing author of "Youth Ministry in this Season of Disruption" and is currently co-writing a book about using experiential worship environments in Youth Ministry settings.

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