For years the model in youth ministry was to pursue the shock effect, eat copious amounts of greasy pizza, play games, and if possible connect Jesus through that with a simple message. Attendance in youth ministries was seen as the prize to pursue, from not only church leaders but also youth ministers. The idea seemed to have been, “If they come, we have reached them,” or at least that’s how it seemed to many of us (28). Moving from one high to the next was a never-ending pursuit, mirrored in the culture-at-large by the constant stream of “I’m bored” posts on Facebook. More so, youth ministries were segregated from the greater life of the church, removing the students from regular contact with senior adults and even their parents. The strange irony is, through Cosby’s experience in youth ministry, students are hungry for truth, doctrine, fellowship with the church, and challenging discipleship. This book is a response to the entertainment culture in many churches, with a plea for youth ministries to be foundationally about the gospel and to redefine “success” from numbers to faithfulness in ministry.
Cosby’s book is well-organized, with the middle chapters structured around the “means of grace” that he lays out in Chapter 2 as foundational for student ministry: the Word, sacraments, prayer, service, and community. He defines them as the ways that God works as he sees fit for the building up of his church (24). They are not ways of achieving salvation, but instead are seen as ways to build up students to be conformed to the imago Christi. For Cosby, the centrality of every youth min- istry is the gospel, which he outlines as justification by faith. Service and ministry are seen then, not as paths to heaven by themselves, but a means of “strengthening our faith in His sufficiency, not ours” (31).
The Word preached and taught stands against a culture that is driven by what it can see. The response has been to diminish the role of exegetically-driven preaching and replace it with a casual story time with Scripture references throughout, even with visual cues on the screen behind the speaker. The premise is that because students are visually-saturated, this should be reflected in how they are taught. Cosby, however, is quick to point out that many students are able to memorize songs, so the transition to memorizing and treasuring Scripture should be natural.
Prayer is likened to the need of teenagers for authenticity, honesty and relationship, which are promoted in culture as coming from entertainment. The difficulty for many students is that they are exposed to passionless public clichés which robs students of intimacy with God and leads to burnout. Prayer is more than something done before a meal or trip; it is intercession, supplication and ultimately doxology (55). Entertainment starves students, but prayer as a means of fellowship with God and personal transformation leads them to the all-satisfying Christ.
One critique of Cosby at this point is his treatment of the “memorial” view of the Lord’s Supper, which he considers to be the prevalent interpretation of the Sup- per among Protestant evangelicals today. His premise is that the diminished view of the Supper among youth, and the church in general, comes from the acceptance of this view. The memorial view, in my opinion, is not at fault for the Supper being sidelined in churches. Instead, as Cosby points out, it comes from a diminished view of the Word preached and taught. The treatment of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 in itself demonstrates the significance of the Supper, with deadly consequences for its irreverence. If the Word is rightly divided, taught, and applied for what it is as the authoritative, inspired revelation of a holy and sovereign God, then a light treatment of the Supper is inexcusable.
Service and community are two means of grace that Cosby introduces that are not typically seen under that term, but are appropriate for the purpose of his book. Service is a means of grace whereby God grows our faith, extends our love, and brings us joy and peace (77). Community is a means of grace whereby God confronts our sin, feeds our faith, transforms our minds, and grows our love (96). These two confront the same product of entertainment, entitlement, with the biblical ethic of humility. Service to the “least of these” provides a model for Christian living, rather than the pursuit of shallow joy and ultimate meaninglessness. It removes the constant desire for the high points and replaces it with the ethic of giving, which is best demonstrated by serving and ministering together. Community is supplied in the local church that cannot be found in any parachurch or civic organization or Facebook group. It provides safety among those whose identity and eternity have been found in Christ to be free from hypocrisy, judgment and condemnation. Cosby uses the idea of the “D-Group” as a model for biblical community in student ministry (105-109) that is built on solid content, small size, age/ gender division, consistent meeting, trained and called
leaders, and an emphasis on discipleship evangelism. In the last chapter, Cosby lays out the wisdom of a leadership team and some practical steps on how to build a leadership team in a student ministry. With the common perception that the average youth minister stays at a place of service for around 18 months, there is a great need to apply these principles to avoid the pressure that comes from a “Lone Ranger” mentality of ministry leadership. Building a team spreads decision-making, praise/blame, and creates a collective wisdom base greater than any single leader. There is also a section on purpose and vision in student ministry that serve as a way to unite the team and give a clear picture of where the ministry is headed. The last paragraph in the book bears enough weight that it deserves to be copied here:
With all my heart, I plead with you not to be tempted with success, professionalism, or the fading fads of our entertainment-driven culture. Rather, pursue Jesus as the all-satisfying Treasure that He is, and feed His young sheep with the means God has provided. May the gospel of Christ fill your heart with grateful praise and guide your steps toward your heavenly home. (124)
This book is an incredibly helpful tool for youth ministers, regardless of theological persuasion. Though Cosby is writing from a Reformed Presbyterian background, his principles transcend doctrinal convictions and get to the heart of the issue: youth ministry can be far more than what many settle for. The individual reader will have to wrestle with Cosby’s theological persuasions and come to their own conclusions of agreement or disagreement. That said, it must be emphasized that Cosby is orthodox in his theology, holding to the primary doctrines that unite Christians under the gospel of justification by faith.
The book is organized in such a way that his prescriptive steps can be easily applied to a current ministry context. The appendices allow for the student minister to both examine himself and also his relationship with church officers and parents. Again, his language may be confusing for those outside Presbyterian circles (but ultimately I found it very helpful in terms of understanding polity and pointing out my own blind spots), but the core is universal: youth ministry is not done in a vacuum, it is done within the context of a local church and alongside the God-given parents of the student.
This is a book for any youth minister who seeks to make an impact that transcends the gratuitous use of the word “epic” in the entertainment culture to truly give students something epic, Jesus. In a world that seeks to replace substance with cheap thrills, this book offers something that is more satisfying and ultimately what students are looking for in their lives. The students in churches are tired of what has been pushed at them by not only MTV but also their youth ministry. Give them what they want, challenge them, teach them the Truth, and let the Holy Spirit do what a fog machine and light system cannot: make them into disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
[Editor's Note: This review originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 4.1.]