Our goal in youth ministry is to help children, teens and college-age young adults become active followers of Jesus. A follower of Jesus is one who is in communion with God, through Christ. In that relationship, Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit, through whom they share in Jesus’ love for God and for people, and they are equipped and empowered to actively participate with Jesus in his ministry patterns.
Jesus’ ministry patterns: seek, nurture, equip, multiply
The four Gospels illustrate the patterns of Jesus’ earthly ministry that culminated in Jesus’ command to his followers to continue doing what he had done in their presence— “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). This work, often referred to as the great commission, has four essential, interrelated parts:
- Seek the lost: seek out those who do not know Jesus and invite them to be his followers.
- Nuture believers: build up in the faith those who have come to know Jesus.
- Equip workers: train and coach believers to become active and skillful workers in Jesus’ disciplemaking ministry.
- Multiply leaders: identify, coach and then deploy leaders who will lead other workers in disciplemaking ministries.
In the previous two articles in this series, we examined youth ministry from the perspectives of nurturing believers and equipping workers. In this article, we’ll look further at how youths can be equipped for their part in seeking the lost—reaching out to friends, family and classmates who do not know Jesus, with the intent of introducing them to their Savior and Lord.
In order for disciples of Jesus (including his young disciples), to be effective in seeking the lost, there are some biblical perspectives they must understand and embrace:
1. People not in communion with Jesus are “lost.” Jesus contrasts those who are lost with those who are saved. Those who are lost have a Father in heaven who loves and accepts them, but they don’t know it. They are not aware of what Jesus has done for them. We cannot be effective at reaching out to the lost until we understand their need.
Our reaction to their “lostness” is not one of panic, revulsion or condemnation. Rather, our reaction is that of Jesus, who loves them and seeks after them in order that he may give them what they need: salvation. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus invites his disciples to participate with him in seeking the lost as shepherds searching for lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), catching people (Matthew 4:18-20) and laborers bringing in the harvest (Matthew 9:37-38).
2. Seeking the lost is not a passive activity. Jesus actively seeks out lost people as illustrated in his parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son (Luke 15). Jesus invites his followers to partner with him in seeking lost people in order that they may come to know Jesus as their Savior. Only God can save a lost person, but Jesus calls on his disciples to be like Andrew, who brought his brother Peter to Jesus (John 1:40-42). Our goal is to bring the lost to Christ.
3. The motivation for seeking to bring the lost to Christ must be Jesus’ motivation—a heart of love for people. Another way to say this is that our great commission work must be motivated by a great commandment heart. We seek to bring lost people to Christ because, and only because, we love them.
The heart and life of an evangelist
But how do we equip children, teens and college-age young adults to be involved in seeking their lost peers—bringing them to Christ? A word of caution is in order. We often seek after programs and formulas. But when it comes to bringing the lost to Christ, what we need is a heart that is expressed in a lifestyle, a certain rhythm of relating with others — in this case, with those who do not know Jesus as their Savior and Lord.
In seeking the lost, Jesus is our model, and so we desire to understand and embrace his heart—in this case his passionate and tender love for people who are alienated from him. Jesus loves the lost, he weeps and aches for them—he reaches out to them. Jesus’ love for the lost, like all aspects of God’s love, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Therefore, we seek communion with Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, so that we might share in Jesus’ love for lost people.
When Jesus’ love is in our hearts, we are led to take action to seek out lost people. In Jesus’ own ministry, embraced and replicated by his first disciples, we see this action involving a three-part pattern that may be summarized in the acronym CPR, which stands for cultivate (friendships with lost peers), plant (gospel truth) and reap (a new follower of Jesus). As youth ministry leaders and workers practice these patterns in our own lives, we are enabled and emboldened to teach the same patterns to the youths we serve. Let’s examine each one.
Cultivate friendships with lost peers
Bringing a lost person to Christ involves a relationship with us through which our friend is introduced to a relationship with Jesus. Lost people are not enemies for us to conquer, nor are they projects for us to complete. Rather, they are people created in the image of God, yet alienated from God and in slavery to sin. They are in desperate need to know their Savior.
Because we love them, we seek to befriend them. Because of Jesus’ love for the lost, we are intentional about cultivating friendships with lost people. As we do this, we are careful not to compromise our obedience to Christ. Like Jesus, we are “friends of sinners” (Luke 7:34), yet we do not participate in their sinful behaviors. This is a challenge, but it is one that Jesus has met and will help us meet.
As youth ministry leaders and workers, we seek to encourage and train our youths to make contact with and establish friendships with peers who do not know Christ. We model for them genuine love for the lost, and a commitment to go where they are—seeking to show them Jesus’ love by being with them in their lives—in their joys and sorrows. Just showing up is half the battle. We also teach them to be in continuing prayer for their lost friends, knowing that God alone can open a heart to be receptive to us and to what we will share with them.
Plant gospel truth
Much of our impact in the lives of the lost comes through good deeds—actions that convey Jesus’ care and concern for hurting people. Jesus’ earthly ministry included feeding the hungry, healing the sick and blind and setting the oppressed free from demonic influence. However, Jesus did not stop with good deeds—he paired his acts of mercy with words that proclaimed the gospel (Luke 4:18-19, 43; 9:10-11).
Jesus calls on us to participate with him in his compassionate deeds and his words of testimony (Luke 9:1-2, 6). When accompanied by good works, our testimonies about the goodness of Jesus will have a much greater, positive impact on lost friends. Our desire in both our deeds and words is to help them develop a positive outlook on Jesus.
As we share life with lost friends, it is inevitable that they will encounter times of difficulty and pain—life happens to us all. At such times, our words of comfort and of encouragement that God loves them and seeks to help them are particularly appropriate and powerful.
If our words are not positively received, we are not offended, nor do we abandon our lost friends. Rather, our love for them is unconditional and we are willing to continue cultivating and planting for as long as circumstances allow. We trust the timing and the outcome to the Holy Spirit.
As youth ministry leaders and workers, we seek to equip our youths with the ability to share their testimonies about the goodness of Christ in their lives. We help them to see God at work in their own lives, and we give them encouragement, models and opportunities to practice sharing with others about God’s goodness.
Reap a new follower of Jesus
As we continue to cultivate friendships with lost peers, taking advantage of opportunities to plant truths about Jesus into those friendships, the time will often come when the fruit of our efforts will be ready for reaping. The reaping of a new follower of Jesus involves sharing the gospel with our friend. We explain that God gives salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that they need that salvation and may experience it by turning to God in repentance and faith.
We explain this and invite them to respond. We pray that we will reap a genuine response that will show that they have been reborn as children of God—members of his family and citizens of his kingdom.
In our youth ministries, we work to be sure that our youths understand the essentials of the gospel of salvation in Christ and are able to explain it to others in age-appropriate ways. Our goal in this is not to pressure our kids to be evangelists, but to help them experience the joy of knowing Jesus, the joy of understanding the glorious gospel of grace and the privilege and blessing it is to share that gospel with a friend.
Strategies for equipping youths for peer evangelism
In describing the basics of CPR, I have noted several goals we have as youth ministry leaders and workers in equipping our youths for their personal involvement in leading lost peers to Christ. To help you in thinking about the effectiveness of your youth ministry, let me conclude with a list of questions to stimulate your thinking concerning how you can be more successful in this equipping (my thanks to Sonlife Ministries for this list):
- Are the youths in your group consistently praying for their lost friends to experience salvation?
- Are you regularly challenging your youths to make new unchurched friends?
- Are you providing regular events designed to help your youths build friendships with the unchurched?
- Do your youths share their testimonies in evangelistic ways at school?
- Do you host activities where unchurched youths can be exposed in positive ways to truths about Jesus?
- Are you encouraging and equipping your youths to have on-going “truth based” dialogues with their unchurched friends?
- Do you regularly equip your youths with the ability to share the gospel?
- Do your youths “own” the conviction that everyone needs salvation and that Jesus is the only way for that salvation?
- Do you regularly share the gospel in relational ways with the non-churched visitors to your youth group?