Are we doing ministry or sin management? As a minister, that can be a jarring question and can quite frankly leave you in a quandary – “what’s the difference between the two?” At one point in our youth ministry we had several un-churched students attending. These students had no context for what church is and what Jesus is about. As a result, they came just as they were. A little foul-mouthed, often inappropriately dressed, but curious and hungry for the love of Christ. I had a concerned parent (rightfully so) express her struggles about having these students around. In her mind we weren’t doing enough to tell them to speak appropriately or dress modestly. Now, we certainly addressed these issues. However, what my husband and I knew was that we can’t give students painkillers when what they really need is an entire organ transplant. Let me clarify.

Being a people called to holiness and righteousness, when we see sin, we want to eradicate it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s very Christ-like and it is part of what defines us as being made in the image of God. Yet, I believe that sin is a symptom not the disease itself. The person’s sinful actions, thoughts, and behavior are a reflection of a bigger issue – a heart that’s not fully surrendered to Christ. As Christians I often see us offering aspirin or placing bandages on gaping wounds, without getting to the heart of the matter (which my pastor would say is the matter of the heart). We may get a student to use nicer words or wear less revealing clothing. On the other hand, without the transformative power of the Holy Spirit and their sincere repentance, you are left with a really well-behaved sinner.

In the book of Romans the Apostle Paul tells us to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). It is not simply enough to manage one sin after the other, it’s about being transformed in mind and heart. How do we go about doing this practically? There is nothing wrong with pointing out sinful behavior. How you address a student’s sin is important. It’s not just about pointing out something bad, but showing them how Jesus offers us something greater in place of their sin. The girl who was dressing inappropriately? I pulled her aside, asked her how she sees herself, if she feels valued, and when she feels valued the most. Then I explained to her the value that Christ has placed in her and the love He has for her – without her needing to grab His attention. I wish I could tell you that the conversation led to something miraculous and she forever wore turtle-necks from that point forward. What I do know is that I planted a seed. Sometimes that’s the most you can hope for in youth ministry.

Possibly the greatest thing you can do for a student is to pray for them and with them. Maybe you do point out their sin and they immediately feel convicted (that’s possible! I know from experience). If they do feel the Holy Spirit’s conviction, that’s when you gently lead them into repentance and pray for them. Let them know how you will keep them accountable and how you will keep praying for them. If they have not accepted Christ in their lives yet, use this as an opportunity to let them know that God desires their whole self. When we die to ourselves, Christ resurrects us into a new person full of hope, joy, and purpose.

Now you are crazy if you think I don’t put my foot down when necessary or that my heart doesn’t absolutely shatter when I see students fall into sin. As always, I want to clarify what I am saying and what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t gently correct students. I am saying that we can’t expect that having good behavior is synonymous to being a servant of God. Surprisingly, many students still think, “if I’m generally a good person, I’ll get into heaven”. That statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s about living a life that’s fully surrendered to Christ, because what lies ahead is far greater than what this world can offer.