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What I wish I’d known about goofy youth ministry and performance preaching

Adam Ramsey » Mission Preaching Church Leadership

When I first started serving as the lead guy in a student ministry and regularly preaching, I was 20 years old and didn’t have a clue. Here are two things I learned the hard way that may save others some pain.

What I wish I’d known about student ministry

 “Adam, what you build it on, you will have to maintain it on. Build it on what matters.”

These simple words simultaneously rattled and refreshed my ministry paradigm. Less than a year into pioneering a student ministry, I had sat down for lunch with a more seasoned student pastor who gave me the best advice I had heard in my short ministry lifetime.

In an effort to be attractive or cool, many student pastors in their early years (like me) can start building their student ministry on the shaky foundation of hype, lights, goofy games, and preaching that is 90% entertainment and 10% Bible. Instead of empowering young people to live as missionaries, these kinds of ministries usually end up entertaining consumers who fade away with the last song of their senior prom night.

What you build it on, you will have to maintain it on. Build it on what matters.

There’s nothing wrong with a sweet setup, epic games, or a few funny jokes. But those things are sauce and seasoning, not the main course. They might attract, but they will never amaze, and they come and go faster than the latest iPhone.

To mobilize this generation, the great and magnificent calling of every youth leader is to amaze their young people with God.

Build into them the values you want them to take into the rest of their life: an identity rooted in the gospel, a hunger for God’s word, a passion to worship and pray, a love for one another, and a heart that burns for God’s mission.

The magnificent calling of every youth leader is to amaze their young people with God.

Our young people need us to show them that the greatest cause to live for, the greatest joy to be known, and the greatest need of their generation is still Jesus. Build your ministry on the only foundation that will last.

What I wish I’d known about preaching

Your identity is in Christ, not your last “performance.”

I began weekly preaching when I was 20 years old. Though I thought I was doing

a pretty decent job at the time, looking back at those early sermons now makes me shudder like a hipster at a Taylor Swift concert, and I am thankful for God’s patience with me as he continues to help me grow as a communicator of his word.

But what I found was that the better I became at speaking, the more I received feedback from people who told me that I “preached up a storm,” “killed it!”, or some other weird cliché Christians use to affirm their preacher. The growing number of speaking invitations validated my deluded estimation of my own ability, and I gradually began to rely on my gifting while losing sight of the Giver. The affirmation of those who told me I “killed it” was becoming louder to me than the affirmation of my Savior who was killed for me.

I gradually began to rely on my gifting while losing sight of the Giver.

After adding the inevitable pressure, common to every preacher, of preparing another message—every seven days—that will change everyone’s life forever, I soon realized the idolatry that was taking place in my heart: I was preaching for my identity instead of from it.

I wish someone had told me early on that my identity isn’t based upon my ongoing labor as a preacher, but in Christ’s finished work as my Redeemer.

I was preaching for my identity instead of from it.

Young preacher: Preach the gospel to yourself often. Preach it to your own heart before and after you preach it from a microphone. God accepts you because of Jesus—period.

Your good sermons don’t impress him more, and your bad sermons don’t cause him to love you less. A heart that is rising or falling with your last “performance” reveals a misplaced identity in your imperfect work for Jesus, instead of his perfect work for you.

God accepts you because of Jesus—period.

Ultimately, to the extent you are defined by people’s praise, you will be destroyed by their criticism and your inability to live up to your identity-illusion. Stop striving for an approval you already have.

Learning to rest in the finished work of Jesus will empower you to boldly, joyfully, and continually preach his gospel, week in and week out. Preach not to become somebody significant in God’s family—but because in Christ, you already are.


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