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Teen Ministry: Rethinking Our Paradigm

We are in a “whole new ball game” as we face the complex issues affecting today’s teens in our media-driven youth culture. Christian churches are discovering that the “old ways” of reaching teens with the gospel are no longer effective. Times have changed, and so must our methods of youth ministry and evangelism. An open and honest approach is essential as we face these challenges. Our response will dramatically affect the future of our churches.

Even as far back as 1997, Christianity Today discussed the changing face of youth ministry. A lead article covered a bit of the history of youth ministry and explained how changes in the youth culture were forcing the church to rethink its course if it is to remain viable in reaching the next generation for Christ. It analyzed where youth ministry went wrong, defined the Millennial Generation and gave examples of successful teen ministries that focus on a personal relationship with Jesus and his relevance to their lives today.

Integrating young people into the larger worshipping body has been a problem and concern not only in our fellowship but in most others in the evangelical tradition. “More faith commitments are made during the teen years than in any other age group. But huge numbers leave the fellowship after high school, most never to return” (Ron Luce, author of the book, Inspire the Fire: Are Your Kids Bored With God and the Church?). Reasons for this phenomenon vary, but discoveries are being made and models developed that stand to reverse the negative trend.

The busy-ness of our lives today leaves our teens yearning for positive relationships. They see a lifestyle of confusion and fragmentation. They are looking for relationships. We have the chance to reach them with the gospel.

From programs to ministry

Churches have begun to realize that they cannot neglect their youth or simply occupy them with programs and activities. Today’s teens require a no-nonsense, “in-your-face” approach to the gospel. Kids don’t want hype—their desire is to be together with their peers and caring adults and to see how the Bible is relevant to their lives and problems. They will respond only when it’s real.

The only way we can be credible to them is when they see our passion for Jesus —when his love for them is reflected in us and our actions. Our youth workers must have a significant and trusting relationship with the young people so they will experience Christ. The foundation (and there is only one foundation; 1 Corinthians 3:11) must be built on a relationship. It won’t be the killer message we gave on sex or drugs they will remember, but the personal time we gave them walking along the lake at the retreat or the late-night phone call when they were facing a major problem or decision and just wanted to talk. Our teens want to know and trust someone that they can do this with. Sports and leadership programs just don’t cut it. Our young people must be evangelized and discipled.

Our old programs were not generally successful in imparting the essentials for spiritual growth to our youth. Program-based ministries do little to transform lives. They may keep teens busy, but don’t always challenge them to action with the gospel. Youths today are looking for intimacy and maturation —they require sacrificial love, not parties. A challenge to action, not passive observation in church service.

Programs, curriculums and activities are of little value when students don’t know that they need their lives changed. The success of a youth ministry must be evaluated on how well it is leading them to a deeper commitment to Christ. This is how nonchurched kids enter the Body —not through activities, but through relationships with churched kids. Activities can be good as a way to get people together where they can share their need for Christ, but the goal is not the activity—it is the relationships that are built.

An example

This relational approach with our teen group began to bear fruit one summer with a trip to a nearby lake. Our teens sensed we weren’t just babysitting them but that we really cared. Discussions about many things went late into the night. Teens shared their ideas, goals, fears and problems with the adults at the event. This was just a beginning. The spiritual transformation that followed was phenomenal.

Yes, we did activities, but the focus was on relationships, with Jesus first and each other second. We told them that even when they were sinners, God’s love for them was so great he sent his Son to redeem them, and Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We taught them that Jesus called us friends and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to follow him. A relationship with him is an energizing relationship based on God’s pure love, and it is both real and available to them right now.

Once committed to him, they began to bond as a group and to open up to our youth workers. Some made accountability commitments to each other. Many asked Jesus into their hearts and lives. Others who were hurt in the past, and kids whose parents are in legalistic groups, returned as our teens practiced relational evangelism. Some of the teens were secretly battling drug addiction, apathy, depression and other major problems in their lives; they began working through their problems with the support and prayers of adults in the congregation.

In many churches, the teen church has become a part of the Body where reconciliation, healing and renewal process is most recognizable. Teens are action-oriented people, so when reconciliation with Christ occurs in teens, they take action, and the new relationship begins to affect every part of their life. Teens often go back to their school and evangelize their friends. Their faith has a very visible and immediate effect. Upward, inward and outward relationships take hold and become meaningful to them.

What is important about a teen church? What is it like? We established a teen church to try to meet their needs, such as:

  • Teens want to feel safe to participate, debate, ask questions, or just keep silent during worship and discussion.
  • Teens like to ask “in your face” questions, and they give answers that are sometimes hard for us adults to listen to.
  • Teens may not always want to sing hymns; they may wish to worship through the message of more contemporary musicians.
  • Teens may wish to challenge the message of the day (this can lead to some deep discussions).
  • Teens wish to be challenged to take action on what they believe or to decide what they believe.

In our teen church, we alternated weekly between celebration services and interactive groups for our teens. This allowed them more freedom to have the gospel message reach them. Teens appreciate follow-up when they make a commitment, so we tried to remain in contact with them throughout the week.

But establishing and maintaining a strong teen church isn’t an end in itself. What happens next? As stated earlier, many youths who find their identity in teen church fail to make the transition to the larger fellowship — they simply can’t relate there. But exciting things have happened on this front, too.

Many churches found a solution in small group and mentoring ministries that target this issue. The goal is to prepare the young person for assimilation into the main body after high school or college. Younger teens are placed with mature, older peers in small groups or with solid adult members who mentor them along the way in preparation for their entry into the adult congregation.

Teens are encouraged to participate in Bible study groups and other Christian groups that are active on their junior high and high school campuses. Those who go away to college are urged to stay spiritually connected through campus ministries, and those who stay in the local area are included in young adult small groups. It takes work, but the results are more than worth it.

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Resources

There are many youth ministry resources available to the church today. If there is a Christian bookstore in your area, you may find it a helpful source of teen Bibles, magazines, videos, and books and magazines written for youth workers. Most bookstores also have a music section. It won’t take long to get a feel for what kinds of music kids are relating to. Spend some time in the contemporary, rock, rap, alternative, country, and praise and worship sections. Music magazines and concert schedules for Christian artists can also be found there.

Don’t be afraid to take your teens to Christian concerts. Many will go to country, rock, classical and other concerts during their teen years. Let them experience young Christian artists in concert. These artists share the gospel and its relevance to teens’ problems today. Besides, it’s fun. Teens are often surprised and encouraged when they see hundreds and even thousands of other teens on fire about the gospel at these events. They even discuss their faith with other teens at concerts.

We also encourage you to interface with other churches in the community. Find out which ones have strong youth ministries and draw from their experience. Doors often open up as a result of these contacts. Learn where the youth camps and retreats are located, what events are scheduled that they will be attending and what fundraising methods work best for them. Sharing ideas, problems and frustrations with others can be both encouraging and therapeutic, not to mention the friendships that are bound to develop.

Ministries like Youth for Christ, Teen Mania, Youth Specialties, World Vision and others, along with their sponsored events, can be extremely valuable in helping youth develop a personal faith in Christ and discipling them toward a deeper faith commitment in the church.

Other resources we found helpful include relational videos from Interlinc (an excellent resource for Christian music and access to Christian artists), and guest speakers from the local Christian community. When people the teens respect share their vision and the fact that Christ is real to them today, it can help teens see the real struggles of life, and it makes the gospel real to them today.

Much information is available over the Internet from several sources, including youthspecialties.com. We recommend that you explore their website and their links to other helpful youth ministry sites. Another good Internet resource is Youth for Christ. Youth worker training seminars are available in many areas each year. If you have the chance to go to one of them, make the time.

Finally, don’t be afraid to call youth pastors from other Christian churches in your area. Youth pastors are often a different breed of person. Youth pastor has become more of a long-term career calling than in the past, when it was viewed as part of paying the dues in working toward a senior pastorship. Many Christian youth workers today view youth work as their calling and tend to stick with it as a career. These people can be great resources and sources of inspiration for your youth coordinator, youth workers and teens. Other youth ministries in the local area may also be willing to work together with your group.

We hope this information is helpful. We would like to leave you with the mission statement we adopted:

Bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the youth of our congregation and local communities; provide a positive, nurturing, Christian environment for teens, lead them toward accepting and knowing Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and equip them for ministry to others.

Here are values we adopted:

R.E.L.A.T.I.O.N.S.H.I.P.S.

Relational approach
Encouragement
Laughter and celebration
Acceptance
Transparency/trust
Involvement of teens
Outreach oriented
Numerical growth
Spiritual growth
Homelike atmosphere
Intimate
Professionalism
Strategic follow-up

This is an ever-changing ministry. The key to it is to ask ourselves, “How is Christ relevant to this generation?” The gospel always reaches people where they are at, and the message remains the same:

God loved the world this way: He gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him would not die but will have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. Those who believe in him won’t be condemned. But those who don’t believe are already condemned because they don’t believe in God’s only Son. (John 3:16-18, God’s Word translation).

Dave Smith, 1997

Teen and family ministry

Comment: I believe that the church does not need more and better youth programs — we need more effective parenting. God gave the responsibility of rearing children to parents, not to the church. The church’s role is to support the parents. We need to emphasize family ministries.

Response: The article did not mean to imply that teen ministry attempts to replace good parenting. For some families, good parenting is sufficient. For many families, however, additional support from the church is needed. Youth ministry not only fills gaps that exist in the structure of many families, it ministers to many teens whose family situations are beyond repair. It can even minister to teens whose parents do not attend church.

In southern California, only 25 percent of teens live with both their birth parents (Barna Research, as quoted in Youth Worker Update, March 1997). Even in the church, parents are not always able to supply the kind of parenting that is needed, and we cannot wait until they do. It is important for the church to reach the teens directly with a ministry designed for them.

By the age of 11, children have begun to become individuals, and they are beginning to look outside their immediate family for role models and meaningful friendships. Add to this the adolescent angst of puberty (hormonal changes) and distrust for adults (because teens are beginning to see the imperfections of the adults in their lives), and you can see that we have several reasons for reaching teens directly.

Many parents understand this. Nearly all our youth workers are parents. Good youth workers regularly meet with the teens’ parents to discuss what the ministry is doing and why. We spend a lot of time helping teens learn how to have a better relationship with their parents. The primary focus is Jesus Christ.

Second, as you said, the answer is not in youth programs. The article tried to get that point across. The answer is in relationships. Programs have not worked, and while we still have activities and sports, they are not a major focus. Our teen ministry mission statement gives these goals:

  • Evangelism to our teens, and through them, the community’s teens
  • Relationship with Jesus Christ
  • Discovering their gifts
  • Ministering to others by getting involved

The key to youth ministry is not ministering to teens, but teens ministering. It is positive relationships with Jesus Christ, parents, other adults and peers.

Third, God has always worked with teens and even young children directly: Joseph, Samuel, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Mary and many others. In some cases, their parents are not even mentioned. This is not to say parents are unimportant, but it shows that young people are capable of having their own relationship with God.

Fourth, we work with teens who have harbored secret sins of apathy, drug abuse, sexual immorality, etc. Teens are good at keeping these things secret from their parents (or at least they think they are). However, when the Holy Spirit begins working with them, amazing things happen from the inside out.

For example, in one church area there was a teen, who, at the age of 13, was part of a gang, used drugs, and was involved in many other things. This teen shared this with the youth ministry leader after having attended the youth group for nearly a year. The youth minister and wife spent time with the teen, prayed with the teen and gave support to the teen. Eventually, the teen was baptized — and one of the teen’s parents was also baptized! Could it be that God made a difference in the teen’s family because of what he did through the teen’s involvement in the youth group? God worked through the youth workers to build and reach a family through one teen.

God is the one doing the reaching. Sometimes it will be done through parents, sometimes through peers, sometimes through concerned Christian adults ministering to their needs, but we cannot say that it can come only through the family model. God is never limited in the avenues he can use to reach people.

Youth ministry includes evangelism and mission. In many cases, the best evangelizer of a teen can be a teen, not necessarily an adult. If teens are willing by their actions and friendships to share the healing message of the gospel (even with those who are antagonistic), it makes a difference. People do not come to Christ by being beaten, but by seeing his love shed abroad in the hearts of his people. The teen I mentioned above came to the youth minister for healing. God is healing this teen, who can now bring other teens to Christ from similar backgrounds far better than you or I or even the family can.

We work with parents, but not just by telling them how to be more effective parents. Instead, any way that the gospel can be shared, we use. Whether through parents, other teens, activities, small groups, youth workers, music, it does not matter. Whatever it takes for the gospel to reach kids, we try to do.

Family is about empowering our kids to be successful Christians in a world that doesn’t know Christ. To do that, we have to help them be able to face the world by depending on Christ, not us. We have to let them be able to share Jesus unashamed, because we will one day be gone. The only relationship that will last them forever is the relationship they have with Christ. Teens see that, and they want that relationship when it is modeled for them by their parents or other adults. Unfortunately, counterfeit models can lead to involvement in drugs, sex and gangs, and thus lead away from Christ.

In the United States, even after decades of preaching about parenting, we have had a high dropout rate in our church by teens and young adults. We had every kind of family problem, and we also had very successful families. Our families, no matter how perfect we try to be, will fall far short of perfection. We will let our kids down. We will say and do things that hurt. But if we point them to Jesus Christ, he will never do that. He will give them peace. That is what we were trying to get across in the article.

David Smith

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