Are you teaching teenagers the Gospel or Moralism/Motivationalism?

But we refused to give in to them for a single moment. We wanted to preserve the truth of the gospel message for you.  Galatians 2:5 (NLT)

From the church’s beginning until today, there has waged a battle to preserve the truth of the gospel message. Every generation, every culture and every heart finds ways to pervert the Gospel. The Gospel is the proclamation that Jesus became man, lived perfect in our place and died shamed in our place. His life and work makes repentant sinners entirely accepted and approved (righteous) before a holy God. It’s a complete work of grace. Tim Keller says it this way: “we are sinful beyond belief but loved beyond hope.”

One of the constant threats to the Gospel message is the moralistic message and motivational message.

Moralistic messages begin and end with:You SHOULD!”
Motivational messages begin and end with: You CAN!”
But the Gospel message begins with You MUST but you CAN’T!”

Thankfully, it doesn’t end there.

In youth ministry there is undeniable pressure to get teenagers to behave. The problem is there is nothing more exhausting AND dangerous than convincing unconverted teenagers to behave like Christians. This problem is exacerbated by the truth that it is possible to leverage lesser motivations (fear, pride, guilt) to manufacture behavior change–even spiritual activity. You can build and grow a youth ministry on moralism and motivationalism!

There are so many reasons our hearts default to moralism.  It offers us control.  We can measure ourselves.  We can measure others.  We aren’t truly indebted to the grace of God – there’s a limit to what He can ask of us.

There are four primary responses in the mind and hearts of students when they hear moralistic/motivational preaching:

DEFIANT: “I never get this right and I don’t care.”

DESPAIR:“I never get this right and I never will.”

DETERMINED:“I never get this right but I will now.”

DESENSITIZED:“I never get this wrong/I always get this right.”

In each response, the teenager is focused on self. The radical call of Christianity is away from self-reliance and self-salvation of any kind. We must die to every last ounce of hope in ourselves that we have! The beauty of Jesus is seen when we recognize the full Gospel message:

“We MUST! We CAN’T! He DID! In Him, we CAN!”

Youth workers, let’s be careful in our teaching and preaching that we’re not simply giving GOOD ADVICE instead of sharing GOOD NEWS. Let’s remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:16 – the gospel is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes!

Question: Why do you think it’s so normal to give GOOD ADVICE rather than the GOOD NEWS? Share thoughts here and David will respond.

Guest Post: David Hertweck served as senior associate pastor of Trinity A/G in Clay, NY for over eleven years. He served as the lead pastor of inside-out student ministries and element young adults ministries and as a worship leader. He is an ordained Assembly of God minister. He presently serves as the District Youth Ministries and Chi Alpha Director.

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  • Justin Adour

    First, let me say I appreciate this post. This, in my opinion, is the singular issue among, not only youth ministries, but many churches in general. Great post.

    Second, to answer your question, I can only speak from a couple of my own observations and experiences.

    First, we live in a very individualistic, me-centered culture that is bent on convincing me of my self-worth. We have a hard time believing that we are so sinfully vial that we deserve nothing more than God’s wrath for our idolatry. Christians with a regenerate heart have a hard time believing this, let alone those with unregenerate hearts. So, when influences are constantly pointing me to my self esteem, my ability to “make my dreams come true”, and how my happiness should be the supreme motivator in my decision making, it causes me to place too much emphasis on my own ability to find purpose in life. Unfortunately, this influence LEECHES into the churches teachings on finding fulfillment. “Do these 3 things to find your best life now”, “Live these 5 sermon points and you’ll find blessing” .The problem is these rarely seem to address the issue of my inability to accomplish anything significant in my own strength and understanding.

    Another reason, is what you said about measuring. There can be a lot of pressure on youth pastor to “produce”. There are those in the church that believe a disciple of Jesus should look and act a certain way. Therefore, a prescription of rules to follow are given in order to “speed up the process”. A youth pastor can’t wait years for a student to become noticeably sanctified. The full change, some think, needs to happen over the course of their next series or rally. So, giving certain rules to follow can help their measure success.

    Ok, on this topic I could go all day, I’d better stop there :)

    As always, I REALLY appreciate your posts. Such great reminders for me as a teacher and preacher. Keep them coming!

    • David Hertweck

      Yes! Great insight Justin.

      I wonder too if this day and age of so much information only helps us lie to ourselves about our own level of depravity. What I mean is this: we now know every heinous crime and unthinkable act that is done by anyone anywhere almost immediately. We have more examples than ever of the capabilities of depraved humans. But I think we comfort ourselves with those examples by saying things like: “I could never even think about doing that…” OR “What kind of a monster does….” We feel very civilized and well behaved and etc…

      Helping students wrestle with their own lostness is something we’re not great at in our society for all the reasons you laid out. But it’s the starting point for encountering Jesus.

    • Brandon Scholes

      I’m going to have to agree with Justin.
      The want to see rapid results has seeped into our churches. It can be
      quite crippling to any one pastor or ministry. When I’m faced with
      this I have remind myself of one thing and I continually ask myself
      two things.

      Reminder: Just because students don’t
      outwardly respond the way I want them too, it doesn’t mean they’re not inwardly responding.

      Questions: 1. Was my message Christ
      centered? 2. Am I allowing for growth outside the message?

      Really it goes back to Dave’s post about asking all the right questions….Thanks Dave!

      • David Hertweck

        Spot on Bubba!

        Ultimately we need to trust that the Holy Spirit is revealing the person and work of Jesus to our students and that the Father is drawing their hearts. But as you know, that truth doesn’t lead us into fatalism or passivity…rather it energizes us to be faithful proclaimers of the good news!

        Keep giving your students Jesus with your words and with your life friend.

  • bill krill,

    How true your words; amen, amen! For me, the way to keep my messages rooted in the Gospel is to be reading it…daily. Jesus gives us the relationship model of ministry right there in the Gospels, I figure I cannot improve or dare alter it.

    • David Hertweck

      Good thought Bill. Best way to be ready to share the hope of the Gospel is to be preaching the Gospel to our own hearts on a daily basis. Thanks for your comment.

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  • Jay Beerley

    Boom! Love it! The greatest of news!!!!

    • David Hertweck


  • Wick Anderson

    Moving our students beyond “self” definitely requires depending on the love and Spirit of God – that brings freedom. May we be guiding our students and their families into lives that depend on His powerful presence…

    • David Hertweck

      For sure! Love that your prayer is not just for students but for their families also.

  • Brandon

    Great stuff! I know I felt this pressure when working in youth ministry. Especially since parents think you are successful if you just help change their Kid’s behavior.

    • David Hertweck

      Right on Brandon – a pressure we all feel. Helping clarify and define true spiritual growth for parents is a big part of youth ministry.

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