Youth Ministry’s Tendency Toward Legalism

Editors’ Note: Everyone has an opinion about youth ministry. Parents, pastors, and the youth themselves have expectations and demands that don’t always overlap. But the rash of dire statistics about the ineffectiveness of youth ministry has prompted rethinking in these ranks. So we devote one day per week this month to exploring several issues in youth ministry, including its history, problems, and biblical mandate. The Gospel Coalition thanks Cameron Cole and the leadership team of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry for their help in compiling this series. Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, will host their 2012 conference from August 9 to 11. Speakers Ray Ortlund, Timothy George, and Mary Willson will expound on the conference theme, “Adopted: The Beauty of Grace.”


I have walked for ten years with Allen, who was my closest Christian friend in high school. During our senior year we were “on fire” for God and set out to walk with Christ throughout college. After our freshman year, I watched my poor friend weep often about why he did not experience Christ in a real way. His youth ministry had sold him a message that faithful obedience before God would yield an experiential intimacy and spiritual euphoria, which he failed to encounter. In spite of tireless religious striving, Allen felt as if his pursuits resulted in a tumbling spiral into a deep, dark void.

Not surprisingly, Allen became disenchanted with Christianity and the church. Only after ten years of courageous waiting and honest reflection has he been able to re-engage church without resentment and wounding. He synopsizes his youth ministry’s message with a story, which his youth pastor used to tell kids. The story basically involved a sad man, sitting in a corner, disappointed and hurt by his children, who he wished would come pay attention to him. The youth pastor explained that the man in the corner was Jesus, who remained displeased with his children when they failed to spend time with him or when we disobeyed his commands. In sum, we are a disappointment to God unless we perform spiritually.

Based on my experience in youth ministry, if I had to identify the greatest theological problem in the field, it would be the absence of the gospel in teaching on sanctification. Most youth ministries faithfully preach justification by faith in Christ alone. In fact, I may even credit youth ministers with being more faithful than senior pastors in helping their flock understand Christianity as saving relationship rather than cultural religion. However, in the space of sanctification, youth ministry often focuses on emotional exhortation and moral performance. A legalistic tone frequently characterizes the theology of sanctification in youth ministry.

So why does youth ministry tend to be legalistic?

1. We want to see results.

Mark Upton, a former youth worker and current pastor at Hope Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, offered these wise words to me when I started youth ministry: “If anyone asks you about your ministry, tell them you will let them know in ten years.” Like any ministry profession, youth pastors want to see changed lives. At the same time, youth pastors need to view themselves as sowers, planting gospel seeds for harvest down the road. (I know this personally as in times of despair I just want to see the kids “do something” to affirm that my ministry has worth.) Wanting validation for their tireless labor, youth ministers occasionally focus on behavior modification as a means of providing tangible proof of the efficacy of their ministry. A kid carrying his or her Bible to school, signing a chastity pledge, or sporting a WWJD bracelet may appear like signs of spiritual progress—the fruit of ministry labor for a youth pastor—but if these actions come out of a student misunderstanding Christianity as a code of behavior rather than heart transformation through the Holy Spirit, then they do not necessarily reflect lasting life change.

2. Kids are as destructive as nuclear warheads.

All kidding aside, kids have skewed filters for risk management and make destructive decisions. Very few youth pastors go through a year without the death of a teenager in the community where they serve. Many youth pastors preach moralism over the gospel in order to protect students from self-destruction. Unfortunately, law-driven ministry often yields the opposite of its intention; law and pressure often inflame rebellion.

3. Parents want moral children.

A gospel-centered youth pastor in South Carolina once told me that parents were his biggest opponents to him fully preaching the gospel. After several years of teaching the radical grace of the gospel, parents complained about a lack of concentration on drinking, sexual abstinence, obedience to parents, and “being nice.” They viewed the message of grace as antinomian and as a license for kids to pursue hedonism. Parents rightly want moral children, as do youth pastors. Sometimes, families view the church exclusively as a vehicle for moral education, rather than spiritually forming them in Christ, and put pressure on youth and senior pastors to moralize their children. Many parents view the law alone as the catalyst for holy living, rather than law and grace, and want the youth ministry to embrace this same theology.

4. Many pastors are young in their faith and theology.

When I first started leading Bible studies as a volunteer, my messages usually included a reminder that we needed Jesus for salvation and then a list of moral directives. Over time, as I started to grow in scriptural and theological knowledge, I started to see the gospel of grace and the Holy Spirit as the drivers of sanctification. Tremendous mentoring from all of the pastors at my church and their encouraging and funding my seminary classes played the most influential role in this maturation.

Many youth ministers are young, both in age and in their faith. Given all of the other responsibilities that adult pastors must juggle, nurturing the theological and spiritual development of the youth pastor can be overlooked. Furthermore, churches often view the youth department as entertainment and relationships but not a serious teaching ministry. If churches fail to take seriously the theological development of their youth pastor and to view youth ministry as a teaching and discipleship ministry above all things, then the message likely will lack biblical or doctrinal depth and contain a law-driven message.


Also in the series on youth ministry:

  • Aimee Byrd

    Much needed topic. Thank you.

  • david bartosik

    ha! “If anyone asks you about your ministry, tell them you will let them know in ten years.”

    You say results like its a bad thing. Results/success/goals….all good. Maybe the challenge would be clarifying what healthy goals and results and successes will look like.

    I want successful ministry… me find those parameters and boundaries that make it acceptable, but don’t tell me that wanting results are bad.

    Stoked for more theologically saturated youth ministry posts :)

  • Mark Soni

    Exactly my thoughts. I believe preaching the Gospel to a regular congregation should be done the same way to the youthies. Its the power of the Holy Spirit that produces fruit in the lives of children, and to teach them rightly and Biblically is our prerogative and will make a fruitful ministry.

    The author made an excellent point in that its sometimes frustrating when you don’t see immediate results of ministry in the lives of youth. Its a faithful reminder that the youth pastor, youth workers, and church staff pray for one another in accountability and in encouragement, and to remember that discipleship is a slow roll: Peter struggled during Jesus’ ministry, wrote God-glorifying Epistles later in the NT.

    What I love about the Gospel is that in all levels of life is that we have a Shepherd who understands all our sorrows and pain, especially through the troubles of youth and growing up. Sharing the Gospel and how His grace is extended to the youth group will have more in-roads than just teaching kids to be upstanding, moralistic people. When teaching moralism, what ends up happening most of the time, and I know this has happened in my life, is to see disappointment in myself when I come up short when I face the sin in my life, thinking that a true risen Savior would keep me from such troubles and sins.

    Rather, to teach that our kids are born sinners, cannot perform the standard that God laid out for us, but with vigor display that Christ can alone is our righteousness, will show kids that conquering sin was already done on the Cross and Resurrection, the work is finished. This Gospel touches the inner Civil War that all youth battle with in this stage: self-image, sexuality, education, how to choose friends, dealing with mood swings, and how to ferocious warriors towards Holiness while most kids choose hedonism.

  • Dean P

    David, I don’t think that Cameron was saying results in of themselves are bad. I think he was talking about the desire to see immediate results immediately. Even from scripture many great Biblical figures went many years without seeing any noticible results and many like Moses never even saw the Promise land. But despite this they had faith in God working and moving via The Holy Spirit and Divine Providence within the fullness of time.

    • david bartosik

      thats the hope man, hahahah, “immediate results immediately” :) made me smile, but as I read it…..he says the results mentality is rooted in legalism. MAn I hope I am preaching the gospel, but I am desperately pleading with God to bring kids as I am pouring into leaders, making celebrity appearances at the students games, and truly valuing these little guys….but man I pray the lord of the harvest to bring results. I want success. and I want to praise God when it happens knowing it had nothing to do with me. I want to listen to Jesus words when he says about the bread and fish…..bring it to me.

      • Jander Talen

        Don’t pray to be successful, pray to be faithful.

        • Bob Kundrat

          I agree. Pray to be faithful. Success is hard to quantify from a human perspective. There have been times I thought success was occurring only to realize that there little depth behind the external success I was witnessing. Other times I thought there was little success only to find out that even though the external changes were not what I’d hoped, though conversation with individuals I found a great deepening in the people.

          Bottom line…success is not always easy to determine. If I strive to be faithful and let God bring the results then I’ll be less likely to become discouraged or dissillusioned.

      • Luaniua

        David, did you just call yourself a celebrity? Take a look at your own words, you listed all the things you’re ‘doing’, and then say, “I want to praise God when it happens knowing it had nothing to do with me”. Sounds like legalism to me. It seems like you’re measuring ‘success’ by numbers in your youth group, instead of by the intangible work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives – work that WE can’t see, and sometimes even the kids themselves can’t see until, as the author put it, years later.

  • David Misson

    Man alive! I was just thinking a week or so ago… wouldn’t it be rad to have some great posts that are specifically directed at youth ministry by youth ministers that are gospel centered. Thank you TGC for getting people to do that. Much much appreciated!

  • luken pride

    Great article. I struggle a lot in the youth ministry I work for. I want to call them to holiness… I was actually raised in the opposite extreme, where grace is assumed to mean we should not strive for holiness. But I want to summon them to strive for holiness the right way. I guess where I grew up youth ministries were so anti-holiness… anybody who tried to live for God was obviously out of touch with reality and not “balanced.” But the other legalistic extreme is what I’m in danger of when I leave grace in justification and don’t bring it into sanctification. Of course, we don’t make sanctification all about grace by telling kids “it’ll just happen.” But we need to remember what sanctification is about, heart change… even though chagned actions may help lead to that, we need in every command to live a holy life to point them to the why (to enjoy God more) and the how (by the power of the SPirit, given to us by Christ’s death.) I don’t want to give up on calling students to holiness, nor give up on defining the gospel as grace from first to last. Thank you for your help, and I totally agree but just remember that many of our experience is quite the opposite, the youth ministries we grew up in pretty much discouraged us from putting more than the smallest amount of effort into pursuing a holy life!

  • Kellee Halford

    This is great!I was beginning to think that I was going crazy because I refuse to “spoon feed” the youth with whom I work and because my perspective on youth ministry is about the Theology and not the Methodology. I find not only are parents a hinderance to effective youth ministry many of the more “seasoned” peple in leadership because they have become comfortable with activities focused moralism but not teaching the gospel pure and simple.

  • Matt Herron

    This was a much needed post, so I want to thank the author and also the Gospel Coalition for taking the time to post these articles and be willing to address this situation.

    As a youth pastor myself in the suburb part of Omaha, Nebraska, it is a tough area to minister in. During this year, God has really taken me on a journey that has led to what I have been teaching and approaching in youth group during the week and on Sunday mornings in Sunday School. Through many certain sermons and books that I have taken the time to explore, the Lord has really shown me that I cannot “assume” that people just know the gospel. It is a horrid mistake so many churches make that think the Christians and even non-Christians just “know it.” I have gone back and concentrated on teaching basics and in depth as appropriate for the level of teenagers the nature and character of God. I truly believe that when people understand the nature and character of the tri-une God, a lot of those issues such as dating, sex, drugs, etc. will not have to be constantly taught so much or even addressed as much publically in teaching settings because the closer people are drawn to their redeemer, a lot of these issues will not be so gray for them.

    • John Carpenter

      excellent comment of yours. You might like the recent book by Matt Chandler “The Explicit Gospel”.

    • Luaniua

      Yes! I have found this, too.

  • Brandon Schmidt

    Great Post!

    One thing I would add to Point #3: Parents want moral children, but not all parents want to train their children to be moral. Rather, they outsource the oversight of their child’s spiritual growth to a Christian school/youth group.

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  • brian

    Christianity has sold a lie to people that by obedience or faith they will experience something supernatural. This is a tragedy. You should not expect a supernatural occurrence or deeper relationship, it technically negates the purpose of faith. If someone becomes discouraged because they haven’t experienced something deeper then they are hardly any better than someone who requests proof of God from the onset. A man who loses faith never really had faith, and a man who requires proof of God never had faith either. Strong faith would be belief despite being faced with the reality that you may not have a deeper relationship or supernatural occurrence.

    Why do Christians teach that faith is a belief in something seen? What type of person joins a team only on the condition that they have a flawless season? God does not grant supernatural occurrences to people who expect it upon entering a covenant. On that note, it is ironic that Christianity teaches that legalism is bad, yet they want their followers to be moral. The gospel preached in the NT is not different than the gospel promised in the OT (Jeremiah 31). Your followers would be more strengthened in their faith if the magnifying glass was taken off them as individuals and applied to people who truly need guidance from God.

    • ken kline

      This is awsome. Yet I know of pastors that want to add pornography to their church constitutions. The focus on sin is the farthest thing from the gospel. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned , every man to his own way. Yet the LORD layed on Him the iniquity of us all. It is true ; focus on the “good news” of the work and life of Christ , along with the writting of scripture on our hearts will truely allow the Holy Spirit to work , and change the lives of us all.

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  • Chet

    We are very intentional with the Gospel and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit through sanctification. For example, we do not focus on abstaining from a sexual act until marriage; we focus on the lifestyle of purity that honors God. It is not about doing but about surrender. However, this was not always the case in my previous youth ministry years. My message when I was young was very programmatic and performance based. It was only through my own journey with Christ that I came to see how damaging works based, moralistic idealism damaged the youth. I was also buying into the message some big youth conferences were spewing about social ministry without the Gospel. Finally, I felt responsible to be the main one to disciple our youth instead of the parents as Scripture commands in Deuteronomy 6. Now we have more of a focus on equipping parents to be better disciple makers in their own home. I realize now more than ever that I am a product of God’s grace. I look back over my 20 years in youth ministry and see vividly how patient God has been with me. I am thankful that my inexperience and lack of serious Bible exegesis didn’t do more damage to the students and parents God placed in my path to pastor. I think I heard Matt Chandler once say that if our youth can handle the work load in school including calculus, they can handle serious exegesis of God’s Word.

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  • Mark Wilson

    I always find it interesting when people are pronouncing youth ministry a failure and separate it from the church itself. Have your congregation stand up sometime if they received Christ between the ages of 12-18. Then see who’s left. Without youth ministry that would be your congregation. Youth ministry may be one of the only places keeping church alive. I think the core of the article is correct and most churches and youth ministries focus on behavioral change. I think what you see is a product of the church being lived out through its youngest pastors who still think they are good by some merit of their own. It takes a while for maturity to come in this area, it took a while in my life and I have been working in youth ministry since 1992. As a US church its not just youth ministry that preaches legalism, its the US church. You are holy if you give, serve, share, and don’t… Youth ministry cannot be separated from the church culture its connected too.

    • Mark Wilson

      One more thought, we have a ministry that has about 60% of our students each year that start out unsaved. As the year progresses half of that group generally professes Christ. Within a week of experiencing the grace of Jesus Christ those same kids are now judging their friends for the same actions they were participating in a week ago. Its human nature to legalize things. It was always fun and meaningful to have the conversation with students if the way they are treating their friends was the way they received the grace of Jesus Christ. I think we need to be clear about the nature of the Gospel and work at combating what comes natural to us all. We all think we are holy like the rich young ruler and salvation never comes that way.

  • Rob K

    “If churches fail to take seriously the theological development of their youth pastor and to view youth ministry as a teaching and discipleship ministry above all things, then the message likely will lack biblical or doctrinal depth and contain a law-driven message.”
    Confused by this statement! If a churches youth ministry is teaching and discipling students biblically, then how does that come off lacking biblical and doctrinal depth? Then, how is it law-driven?
    Also we teach truth and grace more than we do law and pressure! Students have enough pressure on them these days, so why give them added pressure for making them think theyhave to live a certain way. If you are faithfully teaching God’s word, applying to my life first and then to theirs, then as they begin to grow spiritually they will understand what it means to “strive to be holy.” And to say “look for results in ten years”, well, that’s not entirely true either! Afterall, if a person commits himself/herself to following Christ then they will constantly be growing, right! I love seeing former students walking and growing with the Lord as adults and I look forward to seeing my current youth continue to grow and walk daily with God.

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  • lander


    Is there something particularly “bad” and “legalistic” about Silver Ring Thing?

    If so, I missed any reference to it in the article, and no case was made for singling out this ministry.

    Yet the picture on TGC front page screams out Silver Ring Thing is legalistic.

    Your choices are: 1) make a case for it being legalistic, 2)remove the picture, 3) or leave the damaging inuendo as is.

    • lander

      Dear editor,

      Does TGC aim to have articles with journalistic values similar to CT and World? Reforming the shallowness of Youth Ministry is a worthy goal, but it cannot be accomplished with shallow journalism.

      The primary visual accompanying the article entitled: “Youth Ministry’s Tendency Toward Legalism” focuses attention on Silver Ring Thing (SRT).

      Legalism and MTD is a serious charge and the TGC visual innuendo is clear: SRT is a prime example of what infects the church. The author makes no mention of SRT and I suspect he didn’t pick the visual. It is not obvious to this reader why a ministry that claims to run Christ-centered abstinence events is the one named example of Legalism/MTD.

      Legalism/MTD is a serious and widespread infection. Please either demonstrate why Silver Ring Thing is the prime visual example of a youth program infected by Legalism/MTD or remove the visual.

      A more thorough journalism, beyond surface generalities and citing a study or two, would have described why SRT is an example of a good desire gone wrong. Is there no gospel clearly presented at SRT events? Do they take the spotlight off Christ? Do they focus on sanctification by self-effort apart from the Cross and dependence on the Spirit? Is it merely helping those who already practice abstinence boast in moral superiority over others? Does it produce pride, hypocrisy, surface conformity? Does the author think SRT proclaims an inadequate/false gospel?

      I have no personal connection to SRT. Their stated aim is Christ-centered abstinence. Are they falling short in their goal? Should their events be by-passed? If not, then why associate the visual with the assertion of legalism. CAN YOU NOT SEE HOW DAMAGING THAT IS?

      Furthermore, imagine the college sophmore who made the SRT vow several years ago who reads the article that associates a covenant she made with legalism. If it is legalistic should she take off her ring and have a fling?

      I’m not advocating for SRT and certainly not interested in pumping life into MTD. But you associated a popular ministry with legalism and did not demonstrate it and have not, for the sake of love and truth, helped it reform.

      Who is shallow? Youth ministers who are just startinbg out and figuring it out or their older brothers with advanced degrees?

  • JS Park

    I hope these articles do not continue to “beat up” youth pastors.

    I’d like to add that in the Asian-American culture, there is a huge performance-driven ethic that drives the youth into academic gymnastics which is completely at odds with Gospel-preaching. This isn’t to say that I’m against the parents — but it’s difficult when parents are essentially saying “Straight A’s or else I don’t love you” while the Gospel qualifies us before we were even born. Also, when Asian-Americans are absolutely obedient to morality and feel life-is-good as long as school-is-good, then they don’t see a need for grace. It’s the opposite quandary for your #2.

    All that to say: Legalism is not simply the fault of zealous youth pastors. Your article touched upon this in #3 but you’re certainly covering one slice of an Anglo-Saxon demographic. I hope you would consider cultural and generational aspects of the issue. But overall it’s an excellent article and I appreciate your investment in a much-maligned ministry.

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  • Mike

    As a youth pastor, one of the things that I love to see is seminary trained and ordained youth pastors. I am seeing it more often, and I think that it lends more credibility to the position. I tend to agree that youth pastors are typically young in life and in faith and their spiritual development can be overlooked. Part of the reason is that youth pastors tend to be so busy. Not only do they have their own families, but they are like a third parent to so many kids, going to games and performances and other things. On top of the normal duties of a senior pastor (Word and Prayer), youth pastors are event planners (retreat, fellowship events, mission trips, and so much more). This creates a hectic schedule with little room for spiritual development.

  • Neil

    “Based on my experience in youth ministry, if I had to identify the greatest theological problem in the field, it would be the absence of the gospel in teaching on sanctification.”

    The problem is systematic and is not limited to youth ministry. What happens in this system is that passively sets in because the legalistic good works supersede the power of the Holy Spirit. Anyone (not just teenagers), who are constantly told they need to be proactive in the ministry are not being led by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel is the power to save and if a person surrenders to the truth and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, they will become a new creation and the spiritual gifts they receive will begin to show in their lives.

    “Like any ministry profession, youth pastors want to see changed lives. At the same time, youth pastors need to view themselves as sowers, planting gospel seeds for harvest down the road.”

    Every believer is called to preach the Gospel. The one-pastor system has created a false pretense that if you are not a paid professional there is no onus to preach the Gospel. Most youth pastors have a two to three hour window per week to speak truth into these young people’s lives and then expect results. When they fail to see spiritual growth, they resort to gimmicks that add to the legalistic fire.

    “ Many parents view the law alone as the catalyst for holy living, rather than law and grace, and want the youth ministry to embrace this same theology.”

    The greatest models of sanctification must come from the parents who are believers and not by a youth pastor. Again, the problem is much deeper than people care to consider. Youth need sold out parents who exemplify the model of Christ. If the youth pastor is the only Christian model the teenager sees in a week, then that pastor needs to trust in the seeds sown and must rely on the power of the Gospel.

    “Many youth ministers are young, both in age and in their faith.”

    Again, this is not just limited to youth ministry. 20 and 30 something’s coming out of seminary are never prepared for what they will face. They are expected to perform right from the start and if there is no spiritually gifted Elders to help nurture their theological and spiritual development, they are in for a very trying time. This is another reason the system is to fault.

    This article makes a lot of great points and it really only scratches the surface to a greater problem of the system itself. The Gospel must be preached every week within our churches and the body of Christ must gather together with the gifts obtained by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit needs to pour from spiritually gifted believers and must not be covered up by legalism in order each believer is sanctified and edified for the glory of God. The problem is deep and anyone felt to go into ministry believes that road runs through a seminary or bible college. What of the power of the Holy Spirit? (John 14:26;Acts 5:32;10:45; Romans 5:5; 1 Cor 2:13; Eph 1:13; 4:30)

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  • MRS

    This article “beat up” youth ministers? Really? Great stuff by a great dude.

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  • SRS

    Point 3 – He didn’t explain it deeply enough. Yes moralism has been a substitute for transformation, wrongly so. But … teaching/preaching moral behaviors that flow out of a grace transformed heart is good. One is not a legalist to tell a young (or older Christian) about drunkenness as sinful behavior. Likewise about sexual impurity. The law has its place to serve as barriers for behavior, more so, to expose the sin to the heart. The Gospel teaches we don’t live by law, nor do we prescribe lists of behavior as a standard of being right with God. Grace saves, grace transforms, grace keeps, but we mustn’t be timid and write it off as legalistic to challenge, knowing we who challenge are only saved sinners as well, with the hope of quickening their drifting spiritual life, or wonder of wonders, to the saving transformation for their souls. To student pastors… don’t quickly categorize or write off parental concerns. Some have lived, taught, wrestled in private many hours and years to godly ends long before you breathed your life upon the souls of our children. The times are intense with licentiousness, the opportunities for the Gospel amazing. Let’s labor together, listen deeply to His Word and our sanctified hearts in expression to its teaching, and look for God to do great things. Thanks for listening.

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  • Carrie Brown

    succinctly written and challenging to our tendency to value “moral” above all, even believing the gospel.