For a good deal of my 25-plus years in youth ministry, I held to a mistaken philosophy. I believed that if you bring young people (children, adolescents, young adults) into an environment where good people with good thoughts, good motives and good activities existed, good things would happen. Although good things often did happen, an entire arena of spiritual focus and value was missed.
I think for instance of the basketball tournaments that I used to organize. At one of them, we had about 40 teams with almost 50 representatives (coaches, parents, players, cheerleaders) per team in attendance. It was terrific. We played lots of basketball. But we didn’t have a praise and worship session. We didn’t have a special chapel. We didn’t look at the experience intentionally as an opportunity to share the gospel.
Richard Dunn and Mark Senter make the following observations about youth ministry in their work Reaching a Generation for Christ:
Youth ministry begins when adults find a comfortable method of entering a student’s world, happens as long as adults are able to use their contacts with students to draw them into a maturing relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and ceases to happen when either the adult-student relationship is broken or the outcome of that relationship ceases to move the student toward spiritual maturity.
Some quality gurus in the business world have the motto “start with the end in mind.” Shape your activities to reach the outcome that you desire. The definition of youth ministry that Dunn and Senter provide helps those in youth ministry to focus, intentionally, on the important outcome of helping each young person to develop a maturing relationship with Jesus Christ. Anything different than that may be valuable, but it is not youth ministry.
I look back at the thousands of young people I’ve worked with. I was one of those good people with good motives coordinating good activities, and in some cases, it led to some good stuff. But I also look at it somewhat as a missed opportunity to preach the gospel in a more intentional way. More recently, I am impressed with how willing young people are to be nourished on a spiritual diet. This is the essence of true youth ministry.
The New Evangelist
Two years ago my wife and I were attending a church in Joliet, Illinois, alone as our children searched for a place where they could worship. They came home one night from a youth group and asked if they could start their own group in our home. Not wanting to disappoint them, we allowed an invasion of our personal space, not to mention our comfort zones. Or should I say, we surrendered to the will of the Spirit, because what has transpired in our little family room can only be described as miraculous!
From a group of 10 teens and a commitment from our pastor, the fledgling youth group grew to about 25 faithful young people. Our home is invaded with laughter every week as teen after teen walks in the open door announcing his or her arrival with a hug and a “Hello mom and dad.” They go to the family room, where everyone is greeted with another round of hugs before the room is filled with songs praising God and a lesson on life principles.
Of the original 10, only three were from our fellowship. Most were invited from school by two of the youngest girls. Since then we have had five baptisms, and four of the older ones counseled about becoming ministers.
Most of the teens participate in other youth groups, fellowshipping with countless other teens professing their love for God. Diversity spans racial and secular lines, encompassing various faiths. One girl was into Wicca and now is asking to come with us to church.
The Joliet church was quick to open their hearts with prayer for the young people, along with accepting a contemporary service. We brought with us on the average eight teens, and at times we had enough to make up a third of the congregation. That alone would be enough to give praise to God about, but there is so much more!
Out of the youth group came a need for a worship band. Three teens organized a band called Cranial Halo. They played at several youth conferences, more than 15 churches of various denominations, at four summer festivals, and at a fall festival in Iowa. They also have opened for two mainstream Christian bands.
Their messages are simple: No matter who you are or what you have done, God loves you and he cares about you, so “Live for him.”
I see evangelism as an open house where the love of God abides, where teens are not afraid to show themselves as believers in their high schools, inviting others to salvation. The rock and roll beats of a drum, bass and guitar, praising God, leads others to dance, jump and scream for the one who came, died, rose and will come again.
I see evangelism as the surrender of everything you have and know so you can watch God at work. This been an incredible ride. I can’t wait to see what God has in store in the coming years.