Three Things Jonathan Edwards Teaches Us About Youth Ministry

Youth ministry is hard work. Culture is in a constant state of change, and these changes are always widening the gap between younger and older generations. As a result, the vast array of youth ministry literature is constantly reinventing itself to meet the evolving needs of a rapidly changing culture. What worked for Gen Y ten years ago does not work for Gen Z today.

If this is true, what tips can we possibly learn from a wig-wearing pastor who lived 300 years ago? Believe it or not, Jonathan Edwards might be able to teach us a thing or two about youth ministry. That’s because the strategies he implemented are based on timeless biblical truths and not just on recent trends of contemporary culture. Here are three things that we can learn from Edwards about youth ministry.

Preach: both depravity and grace

What adolescence would be complete without a bit of rebellion? In Edwards’ time, teenage rebellion reached new heights as a result of the Enlightenment. Many people defined the “self” according to inherent human goodness, assuming that we are somehow worthy of God’s love.

In Edwards’ time, teenage rebellion reached new heights as a result of the Enlightenment. Many people defined the ‘self’ according to inherent human goodness, assuming that we are somehow worthy of God’s love.

Edwards’ strategy was to bring young people back to a true understanding of the “self” that recognised its inherent sinfulness and need of saving grace. He pursued this through what became known as “terror preaching” which emphasised the fear of God and awareness of the horrors of sin. As harsh as his methods may seem to us today, Edwards always followed his “terror news” with the gospel message: salvation by the grace of God toward each individual. Through this strategy, he aimed not only to bring young people back under the moral authority of the church but also to the enjoyment of God.

While Edwards vehemently opposed the idea that humans are worthy of God’s love, he was not completely against an idea of self-love—but only in relation to God’s benevolence. For Edwards, self-love outside God’s grace is not only sinful but also illogical; for if not children of God, we are but utter sinners. Real self-love can only be grounded on God’s love towards his children.

Today we can imitate Edwards, not necessarily through constant “terror preaching”, but through the faithful preaching of biblical truths about human depravity and more importantly, God’s grace. As I observe, many young people in this generation sense that they can never be as high and lofty as the world says they are. And this realisation can bring them to the beauty of grace; that in Jesus, God loves them unconditionally not because of their glory but because of Christ’s.

Discipleship: both head and heart

During Edwards’ lifetime, the Great Awakening significantly affected young people but not always in godly ways. Those involved in the revivals emphasised an emotional religious experience which at times became disorderly and rebellious. They rejected rational preachers and sermons lacking emotional hype. Students rebelled against their tutors, children their parents and congregations their pastors.

Edwards embraced the revivals’ emphasis on the affections, while also prioritising biblical truth. He believed that God’s work in discipleship touched the whole soul—both the understanding and affections. Edwards may have judged the genuineness of a conversion by the convert’s subjective sense and enjoyment of God’s beauty. But this experience stemmed from the objective revelation of God’s word and itself produced objective fruit. Although he was open to subjective signs, “such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength,” he also considered objective changes as signs of true conversion: reluctance to sin, greater love for Scripture, and love toward God and others.[1]

It is easy to see the impact of the Great Awakening on evangelicalism today. Pastors from more conservative backgrounds are often hesitant to embrace subjective experiences or emotionally-driven worship. However, the gospel penetrates the heart not only the mind, and the Holy Spirit enables us to worship God with a new heart. On the other hand, it is important not only to embrace subjective experiences of the Holy Spirit but also the objective fruit that He bears. This means that discipleship is crucial for youth ministry. It is not enough for us to serve teenagers a diet of emotional highs. They need the deep knowledge of God’s beauty found in his word that carries them through the ups and downs of the Christian life.

It is not enough for us to serve teenagers a diet of emotional highs. They need the deep knowledge of God’s beauty found in his word

The Church: both children and adults

In Edwards’ time, children were considered less capable of spiritual maturity than adults. But Edwards’ emphasis on the conversion of the whole soul—not the mind alone—made spiritual equality possible. Because of this conviction, he made it his mission to preach the Scriptures to children and young people in plain, accessible language.

Unlike his predecessors, he allowed repentant children and teenagers to partake in communion, treating them with the same respect as adults. He also designed sermons specifically addressed to children and young people. For example, Edwards preached a sermon titled “Children Ought to Love the Lord Jesus Christ Above All,” which was directed entirely to children, ages one to fourteen, with only a nod to the rest of the congregation.

Despite his insistence to treat young people as spiritual equals, Edwards also put them in their rightful place—that is, under the nurturing care of their parents. He always saw parental authority as a crucial cornerstone for youth spiritual development. He reminded parents that they were the means through which God brought their children into being, so if they cared about their children’s material fulfillment, they should care “infinitely more” about “the welfare of their souls”.[2]

Today, many parents and pastors are quick to offer their advice to young people. We love to say, “In my day…” Edwards teaches us to serve young people first by listening to them, their needs and feelings. Today’s youth feel excluded from the wider church family because of our focus on the spiritual discipleship of adults. We will do well to imitate Edwards by taking care of our youth, listening to them and presenting the gospel in a way that is accessible and relevant to them in the digital age. At the same time, we need to realise that as pastors and churches, we are merely partners with parents in the discipleship of their children.

Edwards may have lived over 300 years ago but his three-fold approach to youth ministry is relevant as ever. The sinfulness of humanity might not change but neither does the saving grace of God.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “The Distinguishing Marks,” WJE 4:228-230.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, Sermon on Eph 6:4, No.891 (February 1747/1748).s