Let me start off by asserting I believe in the exclusive claims of Christ.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12
I do not believe that all roads and religions lead to the same God.
However, I do want to argue and propose a more inclusive approach to our youth ministries.
In his own ministry, Jesus found an interesting balance between exclusivity and inclusiveness.
His teachings were often hard and blunt.
In fact, he turned off many of his early followers with seemingly difficult commands and impossible requirements.
”On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (taken from John chapter 6)
Jesus certainly did not make it easy to follow him…in a sense.
Those who were stubborn of heart, proud, arrogant, or wise and “religious” in their own eyes found Jesus a rather troublesome character.
He taught about denying oneself, carrying your cross, and then following him (even to the point of death).
He taught that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle (pretty difficult and rather bloody), then for the rich to inherit God’s kingdom.
In fact, in many ways much of Jesus’ teachings were contrary to what had been traditionally taught and accepted. In many ways they were more difficult.
Lusting was put on equal footing with adultery. Anger = Murder. You judge someone, God will judge you. His followers were expected not to hate their enemies and seek revenge, but rather to pray for them and love them. Not very easy to buy into and follow I would imagine!
However, at the same time, his radical message of love, grace, and forgiveness was open to all who would believe and receive.
He showed no favoritism nor excluded anyone based on their past or religion. In fact, it appears the only group of people Jesus had little patience for were the so-called religious elite. If Jesus purposely excluded anyone, it was these guys (although many of them chose to follow his way). Jesus was not a stumbling block (I know that Paul says he was to the Jews), but this was not done intentionally since his heart was for them to believe and receive.
They (the religious folk) made Jesus a stumbling block because of their stubborn hearts, narrow theological views, and obsession with their religion.
Where along this spectrum is today’s church and youth ministry?
Are we making the gospel message difficult to accept to those not in the fold?
Are we intentionally, or even unintentionally, putting up obstacles and stumbling blocks to those not yet knowing Christ?
Are we making following the Way of Jesus seemingly impossible?
Are we making our youth groups an exclusive, hard to get into, club for the religious elite?
I personally believe that God’s heart is for all. He loves all of his creation and children equally and fully.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. -John 3:16-17
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” -2 Peter 3:9
“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” - 1 Tim 2:3-4
I will now lay my cards on the table. I am not a Calvinist. I suppose if you are and reading this, you may not agree with the premise of my argument. However, I also don’t want to spend time debating and defending particular theological viewpoints or doctrines. (I know you can just as easily pull out specific Bible verses as well)
What I simply want to say is that Jesus was for the people, not against them, but sadly it appears that his church acts in direct contrast.
We do a bang up job of telling others they are not welcomed or wanted in our particular community and sometimes in our faith!
If they don’t line up with our particular views on atonement, the Bible, abortion, drinking, politics, war, Sunday dress code, etc..they are either told they are an outsider or certainly made to feel like one.
How do you think prostitutes felt in the presence of Jesus?
How to the sexually impure or sex addicts feel in today’s churches?
No wonder why the majority of people are not flocking into our doors every week! We have an incredibly attractive message to offer; a message of hope, new life, freedom, forgiveness, yet our exclusive and country club like attitudes often get in the way of people both hearing and receiving the message.
How big is your welcome mat at youth group?
I want my church and youth group to be a place for all students. I want everyone to feel safe, comfortable, accepted, and wanted regardless of their political, religious, or sexual views.
Now, don’t hear me wrong. (or i suppose don’t read me wrong) I am not advocating for a “whatever one believes is fine” approach, nor do I want to condone beliefs and practices contrary to God ‘s will for our lives. But in my experience, transformation is more often a process of discovery and spiritual maturity. We need to get these students in our doors first and keep them as a part of our family.
Back to the prostitute question.
Certainly there is an aspect of being unworthy while in the presence of God. And clearly, being in the presence of Jesus changed the prostitutes and “sinners” from the inside out. I doubt they remained entrenched in that lifestyle after they met Jesus. But even if they did, I do not believe Jesus would have loved them less.
And besides, the point here is that while they were still “sinners”, they were obviously made to feel welcomed and wanted in the presence of Jesus. He ate with them, taught them, and befriended them. (one of the many reasons why the Pharisees despised him and wanted to kill him)
How are we doing with that? How is our approach compared with Jesus?
I love communion, because at the foot of the cross there is equality. We all remember and realize that in the end we are sinners, saved by grace and daily in need of grace. No one is better than the next at the Lord’s table. It should remind and challenge us to view our youth ministries the same way.
All are welcome. All are wanted.
We should not put stumbling blocks in the way of students approaching Jesus just as they are. He will then work in and through them over time to conform them more into his image and likeness.
Now, if a student completely disagrees with my view (and the Bible) that Jesus is the only way the heaven, etc.. then that is where he or she is at. There is not much I can do except to pray and love.
Our youth ministry must still exist for them. If they continue to feel loved and want and show up and displayed respect for our beliefs, it probably means that God is doing something (maybe very slowly) in their life. I believe God to be constantly at work in his children.
We are not to compromise the gospel, but at the same time, we are not to intentionally make others feel like outsiders.
If our youth ministry can begin to shift towards the inclusiveness of the gospel and Christianity, I believe more and more students will experience the love of Jesus and transformation of communities will take place.
Let’s say “Welcome Home” to “sinners” and “strangers” alike, and warmly welcome them into the family and kingdom of God.