Being Incarnational in Youth Ministry – a theology

An assignment completed in 1998, as part fulfillment of the requirements of the Youth Ministry Major at Baptist Theological College, South Africa.

NOTE, July 2010: This article could probably do with updated references to popular culture. If you’re going to use it, please make the effort to replace references to TV shows, movies and music with more up to date references. For example, if Jesus were around today, I’m sure he’d have a Facebook account, and would be happy for any and everybody to be his friend.

1. Introduction

In his book, The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren devotes a chapter to Jesus’ model of ministry that attracted crowds. His purpose is to show that a strategy that aims at large numbers is Biblical. In doing so, however, he also makes some important general comments regarding the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Towards the end of His ministry, Jesus instructed His disciples, saying “As the Father sent me into the world, I am sending you” (John 17:18; 20:21). Jesus is our model of operating in the world. But Jesus was God – so how exactly can He be our model?

It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the exact nature of the incarnation (becoming man) of Christ. However, the basis of this paper is that the incarnation involved Christ, who is God, becoming fully human, yet without compromising his full divinity (John 1:14, Phil. 2:6f.). This being the case, let us examine some implications of Christ’s example for youth ministry.

2. Implications of the Incarnation

All of the implications of the incarnation are beyond enumeration or expression. The fact that God Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Sustainer of all life, should reduce Himself to a foetus in a virgin peasant girl is beyond understanding. That the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should subject Himself to human care as a helpless baby, grow up in Roman-controlled Palestine, and walk from one end of Israel to another, followed by a rag-tag team of social outcasts, eventually submitting to the cruel nails of crucifixion, simply to identify with me, is too great a thought to grasp. Yet, it is possible to glean some principles from Jesus’ earthly life, that can be applied to youth ministry. Just as Jesus took on Himself the form of a human being, we must take on the “form” of a young person. The following sections work towards a theology of Incarnational Ministry, which will explain how this can be achieved.

2.1. Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

The central fact of the incarnation is that while we were still sinners, Christ came to save us (Rom. 5:8). He did not wait for us to find Him. He did not wait for us to ask Him to save us. He took the initiative to come to us. So, too, we must make the initiative to go to where young people are, and make the effort to understand them and the world within which they function. “We cannot stand aloof from those to whom we speak the gospel, or ignore their situation, their context” (Stott 1992:349).

Notice, however, that in taking on human form, Jesus did not relinquish His divinity. Neither can we ever fully become young people again. In fact, that would not be incarnational. Our aim must be to understand, imbibe and function within the world of the young people, integrating and identifying with them, while still remaining adults, in an adult world, with age-bought wisdom. We cannot be what we are not. We must not act childishly, or try to function as a teenager – our bodies and minds will not allow this, in any event. The level to which we can identify with young people will be determined by the specific situation we find ourselves in, but the fact remains that we must identify without losing our distinctiveness as an adult.

2.2. Where You Go, I Will Go

As we have just explained, the incarnation involves God coming to man. “Hence, the underlying thrust of the biblical witness concerns a movement by God towards man. The Father sends the Son. The Word becomes flesh. God was in Christ. At root, to save us God came not in his full glory as God but rather as a man; as a baby… as a condemned criminal on a cross. He hid His glory, he limited himself” (Letham 1988:334). Being incarnational does not merely involve some intellectual identification with young people. It requires us to physically be with the young people. This will require us to go to the places they frequent, such as rollerblading rinks, movie theatres, bars, clubs, small group sessions, shopping malls. We are to go out into the “highways and byways” (Luke 14:23) and become “friends of sinners” (Luke 7:34). We cannot wait for the sinners to come to us; we must
go to them.

2.3. A Penny For Your Thoughts

John Stott refers to a book written by James Sire, The Universe Next Door (1992:359), emphasizing the fact that we must make
every effort to understand how the people we are trying to reach actually think. Due to many influences, including lateral thinking, made popular by deBono, video and computer games, and the Internet, young people these days actually process thoughts and information in a very different way to their parents. They do not process information logically and sequentially, but rather through a complex matrix. This will influence how they grasp new ideas. In order to effectively communicate with them, we must learn to think the way they do, and to structure our message in such a way that they can actually understand it.

Although He had all the vast stores of heaven’s knowledge available to him, “with many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:33-34). He did this because he was talking predominantly to illiterate peasants. So, too, we must use language and idiom that reflects a clear understanding of young people’s cognitive functioning.

2.4. In The World, But Not Of The World

Stott emphasizes the fact that although Jesus came into the world, and experienced our temptations, He did so “without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He refers to it as “holy worldliness”:

On the one hand, [Jesus] came to us in our world, and assumed the full reality of our humanness…. He fraternised with the common people and they flocked around him eagerly…. He identified himself with our sorrows, our sins and our death. On the other hand, in mixing freely with people like us, he never sacrificed, or even for one moment compromised, his own unique identity. His was the perfection of ‘holy worldliness’ And now he sends us out into the world as he was sent into the world (John 17:18; 20:21). We have to penetrate other people’s worlds, as he penetrated ours – the world of their thinking (as we struggle to understand their misunderstandings of the gospel), the world of their feeling (as we try to empathise with their pain), and the world of their living (as we sense the humiliation of their social situation…). (1992:244)

This is one of the greatest struggles we will have, stuck as we are in sinful bodies. We must constantly ensure that we keep ourselves pure, yet we must not be scared to enter the dark world as a shining light. Our only hope of power is the same source of power Christ had: the Holy Spirit, who will “protect us from evil” (John 17:15-19).

2.5. Don’t Push Me

Incarnational ministry must be voluntarily entered into. It must arise out of a deep desire to minister for the Lord in this way. If it is done any other way, or if it is forced, it will lose it’s effectiveness. If we do not willingly become like those we are trying to reach, we will be seen to be fake. This, too, will sometimes be a struggle, but the Spirit can give us the power to say with Jesus, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

2.6. Mad About You

The command to love is repeated over fifty times in the New Testament. Love must be the underlying motive of all incarnational ministry. 1 Cor. 13 is a model of the ministry Jesus had on earth, and it is our model as well. Specifically, “it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:7-8).

This does not mean that we condone everything that a young person might do (cf. 1 Cor. 13:6). Jesus, again was our model. He practised “accepting without approving” (Warren 1995:216), in the examples of his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30), His acceptance of and banqueting with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), and his wonderful restoration of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Notice that he always urged them to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11), but always did so from a context of love and acceptance of the intrinsic worth of the person. We would do well to love unconditionally, as Jesus did.

2.7. Another Day In Paradise (?)

Phil Collins recorded an album entitled, Another Day in Paradise. In the title track, he chastises those who turn a blind eye to the suffering that they see around them every day. Jesus did not turn a blind eye to the poor, the sick, the social outcasts, the homeless. In fact, Luke 4:18-19 indicates that a primary purpose of His ministry was to reach out to hurting people in practical ways, and meet all their needs: emotional, physical, mental, financial, and spiritual.

“People crowded around Jesus because he met their needs – physical, emotional, spiritual, relational and financial” (Warren 1995:219). Jesus often began by meeting a felt need, even asking the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matt. 20:32; Mark 10:36, 51; Luke 18:41). We cannot be content to say, “be warm and well fed” (James 2:16). We must “show our faith by what we do” (James 2:18), proactively caring for people’s real needs.

2.8. All I Need Is A Miracle

Mike and the Mechanics recorded a song entitled, All I need is a Miracle. The chorus repeats, “All I need is a miracle, all I need is you”. The song is about lost love, and reflects the pain that besets this world. “In every non-Christian (and many Christians too), even in the jolliest extroverts, there are hidden depths of pain. We can reach them only if we are willing to enter into their suffering” (Stott 1992:360). Entering into their suffering means empathising in a way that goes beyond a cursory blessing. We are the only Jesus this world will see. Jesus has elected to make Himself known through our hands and our lips. He uses us to show His compassion to a people who are crying out for love.

2.9. Tell Me The Old, Old Story

An important part of Jesus’ ministry was teaching. He followed the principles laid out in Deut. 6, by making teaching a part of His everyday life. Wherever He went, He made use of teachable moments, using a style that was practical, simple, and aimed at the listener’s level of need. “The deepest kind of teaching is that which makes a difference in people’s day-to-day lives” (Warren 1995:230).

In particular, Jesus’ example is His use of the technique of story. In fact, the whole of Scripture is dominated by the use of story – it is God’s chosen vehicle for revealing Himself and His ways. Ford has argued strongly that today’s young people need to be reached by means of narrative (cf. 1996:227ff.). A story that is both told and lived, is a powerful witness to the world. We need to work hard at making our teaching practical and relevant to the young people we want to reach. Our desire should be to be like Jesus, who “amazed” (Matt. 7:28), “astonished” (Matt. 22:33), and “delighted” (Mark 12:37) with His teaching.

2.10 Friends (are Friends Forever)

Jesus was the “friend of sinners”. As we see Him interacting with people, He didn’t use every social occasion to attempt to evangelise people. Neither did He coerce or cajole people into the Kingdom. Although the conversion of people was always at the forefront of Jesus’ mind, he did not fill every contact with people with evangelistic battering. Instead, he concentrated on building relationships.

Relating his own relationship with two non-Christian friends, Kevin Ford explains, that “friendship isn’t based on whether or not they respond to our gospel…. My Christian faith doesn’t get in the way of our friendship, and I think the reason it doesn’t is that [they] know that our friendship is real and human – not programmed or scripted to produce a certain result” (1996:256). Sometimes this will break our heart, as people refuse to accept our Lord as their Saviour. Jesus understands this. When the rich young ruler came to Him, Jesus “loved him”, yet let him go away (Mark 10:16-22).

2.11 Kodak Moments (Four Weddings and a Funeral)

Jesus made the most of significant moments in life. We have records of Him attending both weddings and funerals. The movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral, depicted a series of relationships that develop through four weddings and a funeral, and how these life changing moments are times when people are receptive to change. We, too, must make ourselves available to people during traumatic and euphoric times of their lives, sharing in joy and sadness, establishing lasting friendships that can have a positive influence.

2.12 Laugh, And the World Laughs With You

Jesus had fun. He came “that we might have life to the full” (John 10:10). Young people like fun. They like life. They need to see a Jesus who is fun. We miss a lot by reading the Bible through serious eyes. Many of Jesus’ parables include more than a hint of a smile. The dramatisation of the Gospel of Matthew on The Visual Bible video series brings this out graphically, as Jesus often laughs with his disciples. Dean Borgman, of the Center for Youth Studies, in an address to the students of the Baptist Theological College, Randburg, South Africa, highlighted the juxtaposition of John chapters 1 and 2. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, … and the Word became flesh and lived among us, … and the Word went to a party in Cana”.

2.13 The Gravy Train

In two senses, Jesus connects with Generation X on the issue of authority and “the system”. Firstly, Jesus did not come to implement a “system”. He was not wanting to impart a written code of truth. Jesus is The Truth (John 14:6). In a political world that places much emphasis on transparency, God made Himself vulnerable and accessible, to the utmost extent possible. His incarnation is the very best possible way for God to show that He is primarily interested in relationships.

Secondly, Jesus was actually opposed to “the system”. The religious leaders of the day were the subjects of the most scathing remarks Jesus ever made (e.g. Matt. 23:33). He opposed the religious system of His day. We are not necessarily called to actively denounce our own church leaders, but we must speak out against traditions that are detrimental to young people entering, getting involved in and enjoying church life. Sometimes this will cause ructions between us and the established church. Although we should do our best to maintain peace and unity (Rom. 12:18), we cannot compromise our belief in the Biblical injunction of Jesus’ model of incarnational ministry (2 Tim. 2:2).

2.14 Just Do It

Jesus took risks. He consistently broke the rules of propriety in his culture. The modern generations of young people are risk takers. Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It” sums up the attitude of many Generation Xers. The proliferation of extreme sports, like paragliding, bungee jumping, mountain climbing, and the like, is an indication of this generation’s need to be “on the edge”. The young people of today also respond to extreme attitudes and thinking. They must be shown that the Christian lifestyle is radical, in every sense of the word. Matthew 5-7, the sermon on the mount, and “Christian manifesto” is a radical way of life, that challenges society’s norms and goes against the grain of modern lifestyle. It is an attractive Gospel for those who want to “Just Do It!”. As Jesus did, we must be teaching and living out this manifesto.

2.15 I Have A Dream

Martin Luther King’s dream of national racial unity is still this generation’s ideal, but the frustration of seeing the dream remaining unfulfilled has forced a pragmatic response. Generation X is more likely to concentrate on breaking down racial, gender and economic barriers within their own community, rather than concentrating on the macro environment.

Jesus demonstrated the same approach. In fact, He is remarkably similar. Although desiring complete racial unity (Gal. 3:28), He realised the limitations of His own situation, and thus concentrated on the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:24) – His own immediate community. “For a generation seeking authenticity in a society and church notorious for its racial divisions, a racially diverse body of believers goes a long way toward authenticating the gospel.” (Tapia, Andres – Cover Story, Christianity Today, 9/12/94, quoted at

2.16 No More Secrets

Scripture shows us that Jesus was the same in private and public. This goes to the heart of integrity; and integrity is the heart of our ministry. The measure of ourselves is not what we do while people are watching us, but what we do when no-one is looking. Jesus’ example is one to follow, especially in His relationship with the Father. When we make the effort to cultivate a deep and meaningful relationship with God in private, this will naturally shine out of us in all we do.

2.17 We’ve Never Done It That Way Before

“Fulfilling God’s purpose must always take priority over preserving tradition. If you are serious about ministering to people the way Jesus did, don’t be surprised if some of today’s religious establishment accuse you of selling out to culture and breaking traditions” (Warren 1995:238). Jesus’ example calls us to break the “rules” and minister to people where they are.

3. Conclusion

Jesus gave up all that He was entitled to, as Creator of this universe, and humbled Himself, taking on the very nature of a servant (Phil. 2:6-8). If that is what He did for us, how much more should we be prepared to sacrifice for Him? We must be ready to sacrifice our dignity, our pride, our status, our lives, for Him and His work, so that we may bring the good news to a dying world, who will not listen.

After all that we have said about imitating Christ’s incarnational ministry, the ministry of John the Baptist should also be an example to us: “Christ must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). As much as Christ is our model, we are not Christ to our young people. Only Christ can truly be Christ to them. Our role is to be prophets who point the young people to Jesus by the very nature of our existence and ministry (cf. Maas 1996:46). We are but pointers along the way. We are called to set our lives in a place where they can be seen by those who need it most.


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Fowler, James W., Robin Maas, and Robert Wuthnow. Christ and the Adolescent. The 1996 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture. Princetown: Princetown Theological Seminary, 1996.

Letham, R. W. A. “Incarnation” In New Dictionary of Theology. Eds. Sinclair B. Ferguson, and David F. Wright. Leicester:
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Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

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