Twenty or 30 years ago, the average church youth ministry consisted of monthly pizza-and-movie nights, the occasional lock-in, an annual missions trip and, of course, summer camp. Although the names, events and activities may have changed, sadly, many churches are still using the same approach to minister to young people and (not surprisingly) seeing minimal results.
Not these youth groups. In this issue, Ministry Today highlights five of the country's most dynamic Spirit-led youth ministries. Some have thousands of teens, others have dozens; but all are thriving. What's behind their success? Rather than going from hyped-up event to hyped-up event, these groups are committed to building radical disciples for Christ who are in it for the long haul. Representing various streams of the church, these ministries have abandoned the traditional youth-ministry model for one that's aimed at producing young believers who will go anywhere and do anything for the gospel.
City Bible Church -- Portland, Ore./Vancouver, Wash.
The last three years at City Bible Church's youth ministry have been a whirlwind of activity and growth. In that time the ministry has morphed from a midsize youth group with one Wednesday night service into a 1,000-member behemoth meeting at multiple locations, holding several conferences that extend beyond the local church, and reaching a variety of age groups. Generation Church (GC) services are now simulcast from the ministry's main Portland, Ore., campus to three additional ones, including the newest in Vancouver, Wash. The group also hosts the largest youth conference on the West coast, Generation Unleashed. In addition, GC now extends to junior high, high school and college students.
The main challenge for the ministry has been to keep up with the tremendous rate of growth. "We've had to multiply everything very quickly," says GC director Doug Lasit. "We've had to multiply workshops, multiply volunteers. Just for the youth ministry we have 65 singers and musicians that we divide up between the five services every week."
The abundance of musical talent and the emphasis on worship at GC hasn't gone unnoticed, either. Bands from the ministry have recorded top-10 worship songs and had a song that climbed to No. 1 on iTunes in New Zealand and Australia. "That's been a lot of fun," Lasit says. "Lots of people get to our youth ministry through our music."
The ministry has also had success on various school campuses. GC currently has eight different campus Bible studies, called Christian Students United and even uses a building on a local university campus. Lasit sees this as part of a nationwide movement toward campus ministry. "Spiritually we believe there is a season coming where youth ministries are going to be more involved on high school and college campuses," he says.
Although Oregon is often referred to as the least churched state in the nation and Portland's secularism is well documented, this doesn't seem to faze Lasit. "We believe that the light shines brightest in the darkest places," he says. "We've had 150 to 200 kids get saved in the last month. Young people are searching. We're finding that if you have the right answers and you give them in authentic ways, kids respond."
Bethany World Prayer Center -- Baton Rouge, LA.
Most youth pastors would be thrilled to have a 1,000-member youth group. Not Joel Stockstill.
When Stockstill took over the youth ministry at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, La., in 2001, there were about 70 kids in the group. By 2005 it had grown to nearly 1,000, but Stockstill was far from satisfied.
"Lord, this isn't what You promised us!" he remembers crying out in prayer. It wasn't that Stockstill was focused on numbers; years earlier God had spoken to him: "There are 120,000 young people in this city," the Lord said. "I will give you 20,000 of them if you'll go in and possess the land."
"Lord, that's ridiculous. That's never been done before," Stockstill recalls responding.
"That's why I want you to do it," came the reply. "Because then everyone will know that I did it and not you."
Instead of relying on a big budget, the group, called 220, fell to their knees in prayer.
"The gospel should never demand a budget," Stockstill says. "So we just began to seek God and pray. The gospel is free but it takes a lot of hard work.
The praying paid off. Months later they ballooned to 2,000, and by the following year they had grown to 6,000. Today 220 ministers to almost 7,000 teenagersÑand the growth shows no signs of stopping. Young people are being saved in droves, often more than 100 every week.
Along the way Stockstill's life has been rocked by tragedy. Having struggled with his own health for years, the youth pastor recently lost his wife of three years, Amy, to cancer. Stockstill believes the enemy has targeted the work at Bethany.
"I believe we were being attacked because of the model that's being created here. Our little groups of 15 or 30 kids here and there is just a joke to the enemy. No longer will 300 or 500 be the norm. Now groups of thousands and tens of thousands will be the new standard in order to take back a generation of 70 million, the largest generation in the history of America."
The City Church -- Seattle
Like the previously mentioned youth ministries, Generation Church (GC) in Seattle has experienced remarkable growth. In just the last three years the group has expanded from holding one youth service to seven meetings throughout the week. Yet with larger numbers come new challenges.
"It's easy to seek God when you don't have success," says GC pastor Judah Smith. "But when you have a lot going on it can become difficult to keep the focus on prayer and discipleship."
And for Smith, prayer and discipleship are nonnegotiable. "That's what gets me up in the morning. You can get a lot of people out to an event, but God didn't call us to make attendees. He called us to make disciples."
That passion for producing true Christ-followers distinguishes GC from most event-oriented youth groups. Although the ministry doesn't neglect entry-point activities to draw unbelieving teens and create community, its core focus is to foster dynamic relationships with God.
"We have a huge emphasis on intimacy with God," Smith says. "Once your students taste the tangible presence of God, they'll develop a taste for Him."
It's a model Smith displays in his own life, spending a full day each week in prayer. The intimate times with God fuel his desire for ministry. "Meeting with students and going through their struggles with them, what a privilege!" he says. "When you're fully immersed in the presence of God, you come out of those moments saying, 'This is the least I can do'"
Smith has a big vision for the future. "God has given me a vision for 10,000 in our youth ministry." He believes that ministries of that size will be more common. "In the next decade we'll see youth ministries of 10,000, 25,000, even 100,000."
Smith says that only the future will tell if his has been successful. "We won't know till I'm gone whether I raised these students up right. I guess it's a little like John the BaptistÑI'm raising disciples to leave me. What I want to know is this: When you're 43, working in a cubicle, are you going to be just as passionate about the Lord as you are today?"
Living Waters Church -- Ocoee, Fla.
For Remnant in Ocoee, Fla., prayer has been the catalyst for transformation and growth.
"We were doing lots of programs but had very little emphasis on prayer. We had one prayer meeting every week," youth pastor George Sotolongo recalls.
That all changed when Living Waters Church was "rocked" by the prayer movement led by International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Mo. "We went from a church that has a prayer meeting to a prayer meeting that has a church," Sotolongo says.
The group now logs more than 100 hours of prayer and intercession weekly. And the focus on prayer is spurring other areas of ministry. "The prayer gives us the fuel for evangelism and discipleship," the youth pastor says.
Sotolongo began at the church in 2002 with about 15 kids. Today the group is more than 200Ñincredible growth considering it is a youth ministry in a 400-member church. Remnant holds its own Friday night services, complete with a youth band, hip-hop group and even teen ushers. "It's important for them to have a sense of ownership," Sotolongo says.
The radical growth of the youth group has also left the adults scrambling to catch up. "Twenty years ago it was the parents coming to the pastor saying, 'Please pray for my kids,'" Sotolongo says. "Now it's the kids coming to the pastor saying, 'Please pray for my parents.'"
Sotolongo has a no-compromise approach. He doesn't allow his teen leaders to date, which he's been criticized for. And he doesn't pull punches in his teaching.
"I have high standards. I don't apologize for radical, bold preaching," he says. "I think that's what youth really want. Some people may not like a strong leader, but nobody likes a weak one."
Ultimately love for youth drives Sotolongo. He has hundreds of pictures of his teens thumb-tacked to his office wall. "Every time I feel like giving up, I just look at those pictures. All it takes is one young person to get touched by the power of GodÑthat's what keeps me going."
St. Peter's Church & WORLD Outreach Center -- Winston-Salem, N.C.
Jayson Sloan, leader of the youth ministry at St. Peter's Church and World Outreach Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., wants to change more than just those who show up at his church. Sloan wants to change an entire community, city and culture.
"In the African-American church over the past few years, we've seen a lack of integrity and of good role models," Sloan says. As a result, he's seen destructive trends emergeÑones that have created a need for ministry that addresses both spiritual and social needs.
"My messages cannot just be spiritual," Sloan says. "I have to be very practical too. Many of these kids don't understand family. You talk about mothers and fathers and they say 'Yeah, right. That's not my reality.'"
As a result, Sloan and the other youth group leaders at 24/7 do a lot of listening. "You have to let them vent before you shove Scripture down their throats. I have to be quiet enough to hear what's going on before I start trying to give answers. "
Sloan's approach has paid off. In less than four years, the youth ministry has grown from 30 to 250 members. And with groups meeting on middle school, high school and college campuses, Sloan insists this is just the beginning. He's also not waiting for troubled teens to come to him: "We're reaching beyond the four walls of the church. Most young people aren't going to run to your church. You've got to run to them."
For this youth pastor, it's essential to grasp the teens' weekly reality. "By your Wednesday night service they've been through a Vietnam, a tsunami and a Katrina. You've got a narrow window to convince them of hope."