Getting Jesus Wrong:
Dealing with the Unknown in Youth Ministry

Mark 8:27-30

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Shhh…It’s A Secret

There’s something troubling about this little text.  Jesus’ questions get right to the heart of his identity, yet he seems to be okay with a lot people being wrong about him.  If we evaluated Jesus as a youth pastor from this passage alone, we’d probably say he’s doing it badly.  How should we deal with the unknown in youth ministry?

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is. Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite?

Jesus’ response to Peter’s correct confession is part of a larger theme in Mark’s Gospel, sometimes referred to as “the Messianic Secret, ”1 which has largely mystified New Testament scholars.  Readers of Marks Gospel are often struck by Jesus’ repeated commands not tell anyone about him or what he did.  We see other examples of this in 1:44 when Jesus heals a man with leprosy and promptly tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone” (see also Mk 1:24-25; 1:43-45; 3:11-12; 4:10-12; 5:43; 7:36-37; 8:25-26; 9:9).

Who Am I?

Very often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ secrecy follows questions of his identity, like in the passage we began with.  Jesus appears unfazed by others misidentifying him as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, but responds somewhat harshly to Peter’s confession of his messianic identity.  Theories abound as to what’s going on here in Mark’s Gospel and why it doesn’t seem to show up as much, if at all, in the other Gospels.2

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is.  Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite? After all, if people aren’t spreading the word about who he is, how will others know what to think about him? What if they continue thinking the wrong things about him, like some of the gossip that wrongly identified him with John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets?

Programming People

It seems that so much of the way we teach youth (and children…and adults) in the church centers on programming correct confessions into them.  We probably (hopefully) wouldn’t articulate it that way, but our Christian education programs often have to do with passing on the proper particularities of the faith, especially for young people who already identify themselves as Christians.  We want them to be the right kind of Christians—to believe the right things about Jesus.

Whatever we think about what’s going on with Jesus’ secret identity in Mark, it is interesting to notice that Jesus was willing to let people be wrong about him and his identity.  Are we willing to let our youth be wrong about Jesus? Are we willing to let ourselves be wrong about Jesus?  (Hint: we’re wrong about Jesus all the time—we need to come to terms with that.)

Notice that Jesus only gets two lines in this brief story, both of which are questions.  Might we see this as a model for how we talk to youth about Jesus, the Bible, and all sorts of other matters of life and faith?

Knowing (About) Jesus

Perhaps we can use this text as an opportunity for listening rather than depositing what we think is the right kind of knowledge about Jesus.  Who do they say Jesus is?  Who do their peers say Jesus?  Where else are they hearing about Jesus and how does that shape their understanding of who he is?  Perhaps it’s a matter of what we hope to achieve.

Do we want little orthodoxy robots into which we program proper theological responses that they can then reproduce,3 or young people who are engaged with the biblical texts and the world around them in meaningful, even if critical and challenging, ways—even it means getting it wrong?

Our task should be to cultivate faith characterized by questions, not answers, and the humility to let ourselves and our youth get it wrong from time to time.

That’s the danger with this approach, of course: they might get it wrong more often than they get it right. But I can’t honestly say that’s not already true about me (and you).

Facing the Unknown

This week, what would it look like for you to allow a young person to “get Jesus wrong?”  How much might you be able to learn from who they say Jesus is? While it might feel scary, when we think we’ve figured God out and don’t need to deal with the unknown in youth ministry, we’ve missed the point.

Let God be bigger than you are this week, and let a young person explore who Jesus is, even if they seem to be missing the point entirely.  You may be surprised where they lead you!


1 This term was first coined by German scholar Wilhelm Wrede in 1901 and has been an enormous topic of scholarly conversation since.

2 Matthew and Luke both contain similar phrases, but typically only when they have directly borrowed a story from Mark. John has no comparable statements from Jesus.

3 This is essentially what Paolo Freire refers to as the “banking” model of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.


Are you interested in reading more about Marks Gospel? Check out Marks Discipleship, our five-week study guide for the Gospel of Mark!

Mark's Discipleship

About the Author: Sheldon Steen


Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.