How Do You Talk About Sin with Adolescents? Thoughts from Andrew Root’s New Book

I grew up in a conservative church in the buckle of the Bible-belt. While my vein of conservatism wasn’t as constricting as some people I’ve come to know have experienced, I still share a common bond with them because of the way sin was talked about. Case in point: euphemisms.

Most youth workers probably draw the line with uttering the s-word, f-word, h-word and others that form the alphabet-soup vocabulary of exiled words in and around the youth group. In my childhood youth group, though, another set of words were exiled: shoot, darn-it, heck, gosh and others straight out of an episode of Leave it to Beaver.

This second list were bad, immoral words that somehow were also sinful words. Thus by voicing words that merely sounded like other exiled words, we were being bad, immoral, sinful. Of course along with these words were added a number of other acts: smoking, listening to “secular” music with a beat, watching PG+ movies (though my parents aided and abetted breaking that rule!), sex before marriage, and others. The problem, though, with how such acts are often framed is that sin becomes merely a moral issue rather than a theological one—and a whole host of acts are thrown in the mix, confusing what sin is.

How do you talk about sin with your own adolescents? Do you tend to talk about it morally or theologically? What’s the difference?

We’ve been exploring a crucial new resource by youth practitioner Andrew Root, A Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry. Last week we explored how you can talk about the cross in your youth ministry. Today we look at how to talk about sin. In his new book Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry, Andrew navigates this question with theological depth, pastoral care, and practitioner precision using his winsome method of narrative theology.

Nadia, Andrew’s fictional youth worker protagonist, is confronted by a pastor after giving a talk on the cross. He suggests she missed the mark on the cross because she forgot about “missing the mark.” Andrews problem, though, is that Pastor Marin (and others like him) “views sin only through the lens of morality: Sin is having sex, drinking, smoking, lying, and cheating…Pastor Martin saw sin as the things that we do.” (94)

Andrew makes a crucial point: “But if we define sin as simply doing bad things, then it becomes hard to disentangle what is truly sinful and what we might simply find distasteful.” Which means we can find ourselves labeling sex and cheating as sinful along with baggy jeans and hip-hop music. (94)

More crucially, such a definition makes the the cross out to be a tonic akin to NyQuil in order to cure me from my bad things: “When the cross is a tonic, then God is only as active as the NyQuil in my cupboard; I partake of it when and if I think I need it, but let it sit when I don’t, allowing its expiration date to come and go.” (95) Andrew rightly notes it’s no wonder the faith of adolescents can be summarized as moralistic therapeutic deism, the notion that God exists to make me happy and make me good.

How then should we talk about sin?

We’ve noted that Andrew sees the point of youth ministry as participating in God’s actions. The cross itself is wholly about God’s action in the world. Likewise, Andrew defines sin theologically: “Sin is living outside of the act of God.” (96) Rather than merely bad behavior, sin is “the reality of death that is the consequence of our seeking to live outside of the action of God, outside of relationship with God.” (97)

For Andrew the problem of sin is not doing bad things like smoking, having sex, or sayin “shoot.” The problem of sins is about having to face death and all his friends, like depression, isolation, rejection, and fear. (96)  Andrew gives a helpful example to illustrate:

Kari ended up doing a bad thing. She cheated; she did a sinful act. But her doing this bad thing was an outgrowth of a more fundamental reality, the reality that if she didn’t get an A, it felt like a death. Kari did a bad/sinful act because she was afraid of death, because failing to achieve good grades brought her face-to-face with nothingness. (98)

When you talk about sin in your youth ministry you can push the significance of the cross beyond mere moralism, which Andrew says perfect kids ignore because they’re already good, and hurting kids find hollow because they feel they can’t be good. Instead, Andrew encourages youth workers to talk about both the cross and sin so kids see how the active, moving God “takes on the fullness of the human condition of death, making God’s action again inseparable from human existence.” (101)

As with the cross, it is also your privilege to cultivate experiences to help your youth encounter this God who takes on their sin, the nothingness existence of your youth so that death in all its forms might be broken. Because as Andrew writes, “The cross becomes freedom because it conquers death, because it takes death’s sting. (1 Cor 15:55).” Amen.

What is one thing you can do this week to talk about sin, about this nothingness and death in all of its forms in your youth ministry? How can you help your adolescents see and experience the God who actively experiences sin and death in order that we might live and “find ourselves again swept up in the fullness of the action of God?”

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Jeremy Bouma is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds the Master of Divinity and Master of Theology; and writes about faith, life, and everything in between at www.jeremybouma.com.

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