Youth ministry is real pastoral ministry. That ministry involves a hefty dose of pastoral care for students and their parents as they navigate a host of challenges: doubt, perfectionism, mental health struggles, eating disorders, questions about their sexual orientation or gender identity, suicidal ideation, and grief—to name just a few. It can be overwhelming to know how to offer pastoral support while applying the gospel without minimizing their crisis.
For this reason, The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School has quickly become one of my go-to books to give away. It offers a unique perspective that easily resonates with students, helps them realize they aren’t alone, and invites them to consider what difference the gospel makes in real life.
The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School is edited by the leaders of the Rooted Ministry and features 30 chapters, each with a different author reflecting on their teen years and what they wish they understood about the gospel when they were younger. The editors describe the intention of the book this way: “We want you to be filled with hope, peace, joy, and freedom. We want you to have Christ at the very center of your life, because he is the only place where we find true, abundant life.”
Multifaceted message of grace
Each chapter follows the same general pattern: The author recounts a pivotal moment in their teen years that highlights their own need for Christ, and then they apply the gospel to their teenage self before closing with a final word to their teenage readers today. Each chapter also contains a keyword (gospel, justification, shame, grace, and so on) that is defined and then applied with a two- or three-sentence statement about “What this means for you.” Although there are 30 different authors, the book pulls the diversity of voices and stories together into one multifaceted message of grace.
It’s important to highlight the name of the book is The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School—not The Jesus I Wish I Knew About in High School. Many of these authors grew up in church and knew the gospel. They had orthodox theology. But they didn’t yet know Jesus. This is a stark reminder to parents and youth workers that conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. Apart from the work of the Spirit, students’ knowledge is only knowledge about God, not saving faith. Emily Heide captures this well by writing, “Whether your conversion looks like Paul’s (dramatic and sudden), or Thomas’s (slow to develop and full of questions), or maybe somewhere in between—rest assured that the Lord has the same merciful love for you and will use your story for his glory.”
This serves as a reminder about the role of struggle and crises in teenagers’ faith formation. It’s a natural impulse to protect our kids at all costs and to shelter them from suffering. But when parents and youth workers do that, they’re undermining a biblical view of suffering as something that produces perseverance, character, and hope (Rom. 5:3–5). This book is an implicit warning against becoming a helicopter parent (or pastor), as well as a wise guide for students learning to navigate crises in light of the gospel.
Sometimes that moment of crisis comes when the pressure to be perfect overwhelms you, or when you don’t get named captain or homecoming queen, or with the slow burn of feeling unsure about your salvation. For others, the wake-up call comes through God’s megaphone of suffering. Books written for teenagers can tend to highlight dramatic stories so much that students with “boring testimonies” feel even more boring than they felt before reading. But this is not the case here. Students will find their story—whether it reflects normal teenage life or something more dramatic—mirrored in these pages.
Scott Sauls confesses the insecurities that drove him to mistreat others: “I had been so desperate for attention, so desperate for approval, and so desperate not to be made fun of or bullied myself, that I had become the bully.” Rachel Kang reflects on her experience grappling with physical disability: “I should have been dreaming about possibilities of my future, not dreading the reality that my body was broken and in need of healing.” Michelle Ami Reyes describes being “the lone brown-skinned Indian girl in an all-white town. No one in my school, my church, or my neighborhood looked like me or lived life like me.” Scotty Smith opens his heart by writing, “The tragedy of my mom’s death exposed several things in my life: the absence of my relationship with Jesus, the absence of a relationship with my dad, and how much I relied on my mom. She was my world—my oxygen, light, and feast. My dad was essentially a stranger.” And Catherine Allen addresses body-image issues: “Sadly, deep down, I believed I wasn’t good enough. … As a chubby, outgoing, unathletic, mediocre student, I believed that if I was smarter, more attractive, and more soft-spoken, I would be desirable.”
These are the types of stories gracing the pages of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School, and they are told with a surprising degree of vulnerability but without ever glorifying sin or oversharing details. Teenagers will see themselves (and their friends) in these accounts of struggle, and they’ll see Jesus redeeming them with grace. Whether students read the entire book or only the chapters that seem to resonate with their felt needs, they will encounter familiar struggles, all while witnessing the life-giving and healing power of the gospel.
Healing generational divides
One of the strengths of the book is the genuine diversity among the authors. Whatever the makeup of your students, they will find themselves represented here. Even more surprising are the ways they will find themselves identifying with stories by those who are different. In this way, the book presents more than tokenism. By keeping the gospel front and center, it highlights what we have in common through Christian unity and fellowship, even while acknowledging the particularities of our different backgrounds and experiences. This book will resonate with Gen Z, a true melting-pot generation.
Speaking of generations, the honesty and vulnerability of these chapters make The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School something more than a gospel-saturated resource for teenagers. In addition, the book offers a surprisingly insightful window into the authors’ own generation (most are in their thirties or forties). Amid our current generational divides between boomers, Gen X, and millennials, I’m convinced that non-youth leaders would benefit from reading about the teenage experiences of these godly men and women. Reading their honest accounts of racism, abuse, insecurity, fear, and anxiety carries significant potential to foster meaningful conversations with more than just the generation to whom this book is written.
If you want a book for teenagers that they’ll actually read, buy this one. It’s story-driven and gospel-saturated. And buy a copy for yourself to help you better understand those who are ministering to teenagers, too.
Mike McGarry is the youth pastor at South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts. He is the author of A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry and Lead Them to Jesus.