We're creating a church culture that appeals to teenagers for the wrong reasons. Here's how to get back on track.
Imagine all the people in your youth ministry and all the churches in your community focused on the same goal--to reach every student at every school with the message of Jesus. Anything less than this is less than God's best.
To keep it in perspective, however, we need to keep three questions before us as well: Why are we not getting to the goal? What does a youth ministry that's pursuing the goal look like? How are we going to get to the goal?
Why are we not getting to the goal? Simple--because so many youth ministries are a mile wide and an inch deep!
Since youth ministry emerged after World War II, the church has created an approach to teenagers that has taken its cue from secular culture. The model that has emerged over the years reflects a belief that activities keep teenagers busy, and fun keeps them coming to church.
This has given rise to programs that often lack content and application, youth groups that give identity but no depth, entertainment that tries to compete with MTV but can't, and students who lack spiritual power to reach their friends or change their schools.
As a result, we've created a church culture that's shallow, frenetic, lacks challenge and appeals to teenagers for the wrong reasons. Maybe that's why the head of America's largest denomination told me: "This year we have the worst statistics in our history of reaching students for Christ."
What does a youth ministry that's pursuing the goal look like? Can any of us predict with certainty what a youth ministry will look like when it contains all that the Holy Spirit gives? Maybe not. But Psalm 78:1-7 shows us clearly what's on God's heart for the next generation.
"Hear my teaching ...I will utter ...what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done ...which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them ... and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and ... keep his commands" (NIV).
Through the lens of this passage, youth ministry looks like this: passing on a passionate faith to the next generation, relational disciple-making, fostering a parent focus. Raising up spiritual influencers to reach every student is of utmost importance, according to these verses.
How are we going to get to the goal? To reach the goal, we must have a Jesus-focused youth ministry that is aimed at producing life-change and life-changers. In Matthew 9:36-38, Jesus describes for us an accurate picture of kids. He said they are harassed, helpless and purposeless ("sheep without a shepherd").
But that's not all. He also describes a strategy for us to use to meet their needs. The three imperatives from His statement are to pray, train and harvest.
This strategy has become the foundation for our ministry at Reach Out Youth Solutions. The result is a church-based, campus-and-community-oriented strategy that uses Jesus' own ministry as the model. We build upon five core principles.
1. Go deeper with Christ. Develop your relationship with Jesus and reflect Him to others by going deeper with Him through obeying Him and reflecting His character to those around you (see Mark 1:7-8).
2. Build leaders. Build quality leaders for a long-term ministry by equipping adults who have the heart and skills to reach and disciple students (see Mark 1:16-20).
3. Disciple students. Disciple students to have spiritual passion and become spiritual influencers with their friends by challenging them in small-group relationships to embrace maturity in their relationship with Jesus (see Mark 3:13-15).
4. Penetrate the culture. Motivate and mobilize your leaders and students to penetrate the world students live in by going where students are--by spending time in their culture and equipping them to reach their friends (see Mark 1:40-42).
5. Create outreach opportunities. Design opportunities for students to reach their friends by creating culturally relevant experiences or environments in which students can bring their friends to hear the gospel and see the body of Christ in action (see Mark 4:1-2).
Barry St. Clair is director of Atlanta-based Reach Out Youth Solutions, and speaks to young people and adult youth leaders across the country.