Several heads were bowed during the Sunday morning youth service at my church. Not to pray – but to gaze at the cell phone screen that was buried inconspicuously between their legs. I continued with the sermon. And my heart sank.
Scrolling through Instagram, my eyes came to rest on an image of students from the local Christian college. Their party cups were full. “Living for today,” it read. And my heart sank.
“Who else needs prayer for that?”, I asked the group of high school students. Hands went up and eyes turned down. Nearly all of them. Pornography had a hold. And my heart sank.
In-between the excitement of youth group events and summer camps come times like this. Youth ministry is a rewarding call, but one, like all others, that entails trials, frustration, and questioning. Perhaps that is why it is rewarding. Nevertheless, it is often difficult to come to terms with the behavior of today’s youth. We long for revival – but what should we do in the waiting?
I am encouraged by the godly example of one of America’s greatest youth pastors: Jonathan Edwards. Although known mostly for his theological brilliance, Edwards had a particular affection for the youth of his town and regularly spoke to them directly from the pulpit. Although living in the 18th century, it is perhaps encouraging to know that the young people of Northampton behaved in many of the same ways as today’s youth. Edwards often noted their indifference to spiritual matters, their affinity for coarse talk, their notion to “put off” religion, and their struggles with sexual immorality. In fact, these issues were of growing concern to Puritans that felt as if the very foundations of their society were giving way to dangerous “modern” norms… Perhaps you can relate.
Restoring a Vision of Youth
In order to push back against the moral erosion that plagued younger generations, Edwards first sought to restore a godly vision of youth. He saw youth as a time specifically designed by God for great joy, full of hopes and promises. Using captivating imagery, Edwards suggested that young people are like flowers in full bloom. It is a time of great beauty and wonder, he said, “when persons are want most to rejoice in the good things of the world.” Youthfulness should indeed be free of the burdens of life and the weight of adult responsibilities. Fascinatingly, however, Edwards believed that God ordained this carefree time in life specifically so that young people could seek conversion. In other words, young age was God’s natural counter to the detrimental effects of original sin. Extrapolating on Ecclesiastes 12:1, Edwards writes, “And God has so ordered it that we should have a free and convenient opportunity in the beginning of our lives so that we here may soon get out of that miserable condition in which we were born.”
As Christian adults struggle with the behavior of today’s young people, may we, like Edwards, not lose sight of the glorious vision and purpose that God has for youth. Youthfulness is not a hazy, undefined time between the joys of childhood and burdens of adulthood, but rather a specific time – even the best time – to be relentlessly pursued for the glory of God.
Edwards also had a keen ability (that was unique for his time period) to see through the outward behaviors and tendencies of youth, to the ultimate longings and truths that motivated them. As a result, Edwards sought to redirect these longings to what he believed would be most beneficial. He suggested to youth that spiritual joy could be obtained through holy living. Young age was carefree not so that youths could seek worldly pleasures, but so that they could more fully experience the joy and true pleasure that can only be found in God. Edwards notes that “vice destroys the sweetness of outward enjoyments” – there is even more enjoyment in store for youth when God’s gifts are used correctly in their proper context. Profane talk among youth revealed a desire to keep company through the power of words. However, talk that can “kindle warm, holy affections in each other’s souls” is even more powerful because it promotes one another’s profit and includes Christ himself in their company. Throughout his sermons, Edwards paired the innate longings of youth with their godly purposes.
Edwards’ sermons to young people are a strong reminder that youths are not simply rebellious – but are rebellious in their quest for happiness and meaning. Youth are quick to latch on to what they think is good for them. Therefore, youth ministers, parents, and leaders should continue to not only highlight the inadequacies of worldly pleasures but more importantly, the goodness and joy that comes when God is the most profound desire of our hearts (Romans 15:13).
Waiting for Revival
Jonathan Edwards was certainly not a perfect theologian, minister, or man. However, his purposeful vision of youth and understanding of youthful desire can serve as models for us as we navigate the frustrations and disappointments that often come with youth ministry. Edwards held tightly to a godly hope for the young people in his congregation and prayed fervently for revival.
And revival did come. After nearly five years of stagnation, Edwards experienced a youth revival in the town of Northampton that gained him international fame.
I do not know if God will do the same for your youth ministry, but I hope that he does. However, I do know that he has done it before and he can do it again. So, let us be active, prayerful, and expectant in our waiting. And in the moments when our hearts tend to sink, may they be resurrected again by the living hope that comes through Christ Jesus who can do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20, ESV).