Help! There are Pharisees in my Youth Group!

Last month, I dealt with the temptation to pull our children out of youth group due to the influence of non-Christian peers [Help! There are Pagans in my Youth Group!].  Thankfully, in a Biblically sound youth ministry, there are also many of our covenant children, growing in grace as young Christians.  These young people are tasked with the challenge of being godly influences to those who are rebelling against Christ and those who are struggling with unbelief.

Yet, there are other teens lurking in your youth group who also desperately need the gospel: Little self-righteous, legalistic Pharisees.  These are young people who have trouble seeing their own sinful hearts, and are stuck in works-righteousness.  Now, this probably won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me, but I was a teenage Pharisee!  After enjoying junior high youth group, I dropped out of high school youth group for over three years.  I thought I was better than my peers, even in my Christian high school.  I was a moralist, a rule keeper–performance-based to the core.  I thought I knew the Bible as well as any adult, so our youth ministry had nothing to offer me.  Somehow, my parents even allowed me to sit in the family car and read the Sunday newspaper while the rest of my family attended Sunday School.  Oh, the beautiful irony that God would call someone like me to be a Christian Education Director!

So, as parents, covenant parents, and youth workers, how do we deal with burgeoning Pharisees in our youth groups?  Here are just a few thoughts:

  1. Don’t let them drop out of youth group.  They need this “laboratory of relationships” to confront their pride, unbiblical thinking, and unloving attitudes.  Just like with other sinful patterns, Pharisees would rather be with other Pharisees than with the unwashed Gentiles.  So if we enable our legalistic youngsters to only hang around others of their ilk, how will they see their sinful hearts?  Additionally, we must challenge their faulty belief that they already know the Bible and they are above what is being taught in Sunday School and youth group.  Those who have a tendency towards works-righteousness need to hear the gospel just like the rebellious pagan.
  2. Give them a high view of the law and Biblical understanding of sin.  Even though it may appear that the Pharisee thinks highly of God’s law, he actually has a low view of it.  Legalism seeks to make the law much easier to keep, so particular rules are cherry-picked and others are ignored.  That’s the only way we can deceive ourselves to think we are doing a good job at law-keeping!  So, a teenage Pharisee may be avoiding foul language, yet engage in gossip regularly.  He or she may not be doing drugs, but that abstinence leads him or her to have a proud heart.  Bad movies and TV shows may be shunned, yet a lack of love and compassion for sinners may also be absent.  Our young Pharisees need to learn that the law is impossible to keep, and their sin is much deeper than they think!
  3. Show them their hearts on a daily basis.  It’s easy to show a pagan his heart–his sin is always before us!  But the well-mannered, externally-behaved Pharisee can be tougher to diagnose and to expose.  After all, it’s wonderful to have rule keepers in the youth group!  They are often our leaders and examples to the rest.  And they can be easily self-deceived to believe that they have it all together.  So take extra care to point out their pride and self-satisfaction, which is often connected to sinful fear and anxiety.  They need heart change just like the rest of the youth!
  4. Teach them the grace of God and grace for others.  Even though the Pharisee typically won’t verbalize it, he doesn’t really see the need for the grace of God.  After all, he is one of the “well” not one of the “sick;” the “older brother” and not the “prodigal son.”  So the legalist doesn’t truly enjoy the depths of the mercy and grace of God–other than as a theological concept.  Because of this, our young Pharisees often struggle to show grace and mercy to others who need it!
  5. Help them to become Biblically self-focused.  Instead of being preoccupied with the behavior and attitudes of others, we need to help our Pharisees be properly self-focused.  They need to be asked what they learned from the lesson, how they were challenged at the retreat, and how God’s Word spoke to their hearts.  This will help them turn aside from gossip and tale-bearing, and thereby take responsibility for their own actions, reactions, words, and attitudes.

How important it is for all of our covenant children to have a youth ministry that teaches God’s Word faithfully, provides relevant application to their our youth, and helps them to work it out in the community of the local church.  By God’s saving grace in Christ, there is hope for our teenage pagans AND teenage Pharisees alike!

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