What if the real question in communicating the gospel isn’t how it’s communicated, but in fact is the very gospel that we’ve communicated? To take a liberation approach to communicating the gospel to youth is to take seriously the gospel as a liberating message. The Good News is not merely liberation from individual spiritual bondage to sin and guilt, but liberation from the temporal effects and limited perspectives that are bound up with sin. A liberation approach recognizes that sinfulness extends beyond the human heart and takes root in social structures. A fallen nature characterizes the condition of individual humans, but also the collective condition of humanity. The principalities and powers of which scripture speaks are not necessarily some kind of ethereal demonic forces, but are rather visible and real forces at work in our world oppressing, dehumanizing, domesticating, and degrading the lives of people who bear the imago dei, God’s very image.
Unfortunately, we become blind to these forces of injustice that silence us and lull us into compliance. Yet, when Jesus Christ, God incarnate, breaks through into our world he begins a process of unmasking the powers that bind, sets the normal expectations on their end, and opens eyes and ears through announcing the Kingdom of God which operates on principles and values quite contrary to our social norms. Jesus’ parables alone illustrate this upending of expectations: The outcasts are invited to be guests at the banquet, the worker hired late receives a full wage, the Samaritan becomes the compassionate hero, the widow and her single coin become the model of generosity. In Jesus’ world those who want to be first shall be last, and last shall be first. Those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose them for Christ’s sake will find them. Over the course of reading the Gospels it becomes quite apparent that the domesticated, socially-acceptable Judaism practiced by the Pharisees is repudiated by Jesus in favor of a faith that challenges social norms—not out of some kind of revolutionary spirit—but motivated rather by love for God and a rejection of the oppressive tactics of the spiritual elite.
There are many who would say that Christ would be shocked by the comfortable, domesticated, and socially-acceptable form of religion that today calls itself by his name. Could it be that much of youth ministry preaches and practices a Christian faith devoid of challenge to the cultural, political, social, and ecclesial status quo? Are we too quick to God-bless a social world full of practices that dehumanize, enslave, oppress, and ultimately stand in contrast to the gospel of Jesus?
A liberation approach to communicating the Gospel answers “yes” to these kinds of questions. It seeks in the course of communicating the gospel to not merely tell people about a happy, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Jesus, but rather to proclaim the Jesus who questioned the social and cultural establishment and critiqued the religious practice of the day.
If the instructional approach seeks to bring understanding, the community of faith approach seeks to make apprentices, and the interpretive approach seeks to narrate the lives of youth, then a liberation approach seeks to awaken youth to the reality of a world that seeks to oppress, commodify, silence, and dehumanize at every turn. Further, it invites youth to not merely hear and accept the gospel of “recovery of sight for the blind” but also to participate in proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18) as we refuse to “conform any longer to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:1).
Far from the individualization and spiritualization of the gospel as a message of personal salvation and self-improvement, the liberation approach seeks the awakening and action of youth as members of the Christian community.
A liberation approach is rooted in awareness. The dehumanizing structures that pull us away from faith and dependence, and which make us complicit with forms of oppression, are constructions of which we are largely unaware. Further, we tend to accept the status quo of society without questioning and adopt the interpretive lenses and suppositions of our culture without reflecting on these very “ways of seeing” in light of the gospel. The liberation approach seeks to awaken youth. For example, the way we tend to view gender roles, or even read the Bible’s account of gender, tends to be heavily influenced by particular culturally influenced ways of conceiving men and women. A liberation approach seeks to help students step back and see the ways in which our conceptions of the ideal man or woman are constructions that may dehumanize or oppress others. While an instructional approach lesson on money might focus on helping youth understand and apply God’s intention for giving and generosity, a liberation approach would likely focus on exposing the American cultural value of “getting the best deal” while showing how our pursuit of this cultural value through our love of rolled-back prices at Walmart results in the oppression of impoverished workers around the world. Thus, a liberation approach “pays attention to the distance between much in current culture and the norms of human life set forth in the gospel. When seeking to critique culture, youth ministry is more about challenge than about comfort.”
Second, a liberation approach seeks to move youth to meaningful action. Far from the trivial actions in which youth are often engaged (fun, games, fundraisers, youth group), we should look to involve youth in actions that uncover injustice, that are public, and which give youth true voice and value. In such a way, the gospel comes to penetrate their lives but also becomes actualized in our world through the transformative efforts of teenagers.
Here are two sample lessons utilizing the liberation approach that can be adapted for use within your own group:
Click the links below to read the series in its entirety:
Communicating the Gospel to Youth: A Youth Ministry Course in a Nutshell
Awakening Youth Discipleship (David White, Michael Warren & Brian Mahan)
Youth, Gospel, Liberation (Michael Warren)
 Michael Warren, Youth, Gospel, Liberation, 10.
 Michael Warren, Youth, Gospel, Liberation, 27.
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