What did Mary Slessor, Hudson Taylor and William Cameron Townsend have in common? They were all impacting nations and changing missions paradigms before they were 30 years old. In fact, the advance of the gospel throughout church history has generally been on the backs (and backpacks) of 20-somethings. On-fire young people today are following in a train of faith that is centuries long.
The moment I stepped on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 2, 2000, I began to weep. In a sea of 350,000 people (mostly young people), I found myself in a sanctuary of personal revival. Crying gave way to sobbing as I interceded for this generation. Intermittent waves crashed over me--waves of repentance for my generation's sins against this younger generation, pleas for mercy on this new generation and deep gratitude that I had lived to see this day.
Sensing something of the magnitude of this event, I had flown from Dallas just to be there and pray. All day long rushes of gratitude swept over me. I recalled how as a college student I had taken part in Explo '72, what many believe was the zenith of the Jesus Movement. Now, almost 30 years later, I was privileged to see it happening all over again.
The Hebrew word chabod describes a literal weight when God displays His glory. So, to coin both a Hebrew and a hippie term, the Jesus Movement was "heavy"--but what we are seeing now is even heavier.
Psalm 110 is a prophetic pronouncement of the Messiah's rule over the nations. This psalm assures God's people that His enemies will become His footstool. Then there's the thrilling promise: "Your people shall be volunteers in the day of Your power; in the beauties of holiness, from the womb of the morning, You have the dew of Your youth" (vs. 3, NKJV).
This verse is showing us a picture of how God will work in the last days. Dew is pure and refreshing. Even in seasons without rain, God lovingly irrigates the needy earth with His reviving dew. Just so, even when the rains of revival are absent, God will refresh the world with the dew of youth who are His to command. The dew that is His will bring the due that is His.
Dew shows up in the morning; it comes when the night is past. God is saying that the long night is over, and the parched earth will now be refreshed. When the youthful troops report for duty--when God receives young troops arrayed in holy majesty--it signals that refreshing has come. Night has surrendered to dawn.
As I stood on the Mall in Washington, before my eyes I was watching God call out "the dew of youth"--His young, volunteer troops. As His glory descended on them, He was clothing them in holy majesty. They are part of a 21st-century continuum. The awesome account of the advance of Christianity is essentially the story of how God uses His willing troops--youth from every nation who are coming to Him like the dew.
WHY GOD CHOOSES YOUTH
Each day heaven's new heroes are writing new chapters of bravery. Once again God is looking for His "first-choice" runners--young men and women with a passion to see every nation and people bring honor to the Son of God. God calls people of every age, but His eye is especially on youth. Throughout the Bible we see that when God had a big job to do, He often called on a young person.
When it was time to silence a blaspheming giant, God chose a teen-ager named David. When God wanted literally to cut off idolatry at the knees, He chose a young man named Gideon. When a nation needed prophetic guidance, God tapped a no-compromise young man named Daniel. When it was time for God to put on skin and send His Son, He chose a willing teen-age virgin named Mary.
It's not hard to see why God reserves the really great assignments for young people. Here are six reasons:
1. Pure faith. Most Christian young people have a pure faith. The venom of skepticism and unbelief hasn't poisoned their spiritual bloodstream.
Many qualities go into the making of a leader--some beyond the control of a developing leader. But the single most important quality of spiritual leadership--faith--is entirely in our court. We determine how much faith we have and exercise. We alone make the choice of how much and how radically we will believe God.
2. Discontent with the status quo. Youth have always been willing to defy the status quo, which is good--there's a lot that needs changing.
Hudson Taylor was in his early 20s when he arrived in China. He met stiff resistance from veteran missionaries when he bravely chose to adopt Chinese habits of dress and diet. Yet his farsighted strategy was decades ahead of his time, and it allowed Taylor to capture the hearts of the Chinese in an unprecedented way.
3. Risk-takers. Youth enjoy taking risks. Toby McKeehan, from dc Talk and co-writer of the song "Jesus Freak," agrees: "This generation is into extremes. There are extreme sports, and Hollywood is throwing extremes at us. I believe that Christians will live up to these extremes because that is what the culture calls for. As believers, we need to be just as potent."
One key reason why God so greatly uses young people is that they simply do not know what the parameters are. If there's a huge assignment, they just do it, and find out that it was "impossible" later!
4. Able to empathize. Another reason God uses young people is because of their great ability to empathize. Violence, fractured families and demolished dreams have left many young people very familiar with pain and loss. But God steps in and uses that very brokenness to bring healing to many.
God uses brokenhearted people because they feel the pain of a fractured world that is separated from God. Recently I was with three other presidents of missions organizations. As we shared our backgrounds, we discovered that each of us had experienced a major family tragedy when we were teen-agers.
Bob Pierce was such a man. He cried his way home from seeing firsthand the aftermath of the Korean War. On the way home, Pierce wrote in the flyleaf of his Bible, "Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God." It was one of those strong, simple prayers that set movements in motion. He focused his personal pain redemptively and founded two great Christian ministries: World Vision and Samaritan's Purse.
When families disintegrate and hopes evaporate, many young people experience not only a broken heart, but also rejection. Young people today feel enormous rejection, particularly from performance-driven adults who are vicariously trying to atone for their own failures by forcing their children to live in pressure cookers.
In fact, it may be that there is a far more cavernous generation gap between adults and youth today than there was 35 years ago when that term was first coined. But Jesus always pursues the rejected. Better than anyone else, He knows the pain this generation is going through. He was "despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Is. 53:3).
Maybe that is why teen-agers love Him so ardently. The depth of love for Jesus and the identification with His broken heart that is evident among many youth who do not "look right" is an embarrassing indictment to those who would worship from a distance.
The complacent want to label this level of devotion as madness. But Winkie Pratney notes: "The world has never been moved by the mild or the moderate...The choice we are presented with in the closing days of history may not be between the mad and the sane, but between holy and unholy madness...Hence, God is recruiting from the ranks of the rejected."
Nobody can identify with the woundedness of this young generation better than young people themselves. That's why they are the natural evangelists to their friends and why, since the Columbine High School tragedy, American high schools have been aflame with bold witnesses for Christ.
5. Recognize injustices. Most young people also have a keen sense of injustice. By their words and actions, young people are crying out, "That's not fair!"
In Oswald J. Smith's classic book, The Passion for Souls, he issues this gut-wrenching polemic set against the backdrop of the Western church's indifference: "Why should anyone hear the gospel twice until everyone has heard it once?" The injustice of that reality lit a fire in my heart. And it is this same deeply felt inequity coupled with the unbridled evangelistic passion of youth today that is producing great spiritual harvest.
6. Just beginning life. Finally, young people have their whole lives ahead of them. It is in their teens and 20s that most people make the three most important choices in life: a master, a mission and a mate. Someone has well said that any evangelism targeting those beyond high school is more salvage than evangelism.
The Jesus Movement was a precious, gentle breeze of God's Spirit that literally rescued a generation of youth on the brink of destruction. Back then many of us thought that "radical" meant wearing your hair long and strumming love songs to Jesus. Today's "long hairs" are sometimes young Nazirites who have taken a literal vow before God for revival.
Today's young "Jesus freaks" are truly radical. Teen-age girls in China head underground networks of hundreds of house churches. Last year a 17-year-old student in India was used by God to raise a woman from the dead.
Thousands of South Korean students are poised to carry the gospel to their northern neighbor, the repressive nation of North Korea. I have personally seen thousands of Brazilian young people weep before God in deep commitment as they surrender their lives to reach the remaining peoples in the 10/40 Window.
God has not overlooked this young generation. They have been singled out for great things. This precious, brokenhearted generation, battered and victimized by the sins of adults, is getting the missions addiction. They will be history makers.
A UNIQUE GENERATION
Youth are the most hopeful sign in the church today. For one thing, this generation represents the first generation of teen-age martyrs in America. Gen Y kids know if they pray for fellow students at See You at the Pole, they could be gunned down like the students in Paducah, Kentucky. They know if they share their faith openly, they could be shot like the courageous Christians at Columbine. They are aware if they just go to a church youth meeting, they could be blown away like the kids at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
In other words, even in the U.S. there is a price to pay if you love Jesus. This costly Christianity is producing young people who are outspoken witnesses for Christ. They boldly share their faith, knowing there will be consequences.
The name of Jesus is ringing through the halls of high schools and colleges, and unbelievers are uncomfortable, to say the least. They are scared of "that name." Unbelievers seem to perceive its power intrinsically. As Winkie Pratney points out, "Hell sometimes seems to know better than the church the critical nature of the hour."
The average age of conversion today in the United States is 15 years old, and 80 percent of all conversions take place by the age of 24. Hence the frenzied attempt of many postmoderns to eradicate Jesus' name from the public arena.
This young generation also is unique because they are more missions conscious than any previous generation. There were more American teen-agers on missions trips last summer than ever in the history of this nation. That is the single most hopeful sign in the American church today.
Those who have served on missions teams come back with greater compassion and a broadened worldview. Once stretched, their hearts can never go back to their previous size. Most of all, they contract a missions addiction--a missions serum gets injected into their spiritual bloodstream, and they are never again normal, laid-back Christians. They have been "ruined" for mediocrity.
God is working by His Spirit, producing a new force of millennial missionaries. To be sure, there are serious challenges. Of the 15 million new college students, only 20 percent claim any sort of relationship with Christ. And, while Gen-Xers and millennials are spiritually hungry, they also are often biblically illiterate and tend to value relevancy over truth.
Still, something wonderful is happening. Already this youth awakening is more potent than the Jesus Movement 30 years ago. We are only in the early stages of this new, global Jesus Movement. What we are seeing now in Acquire the Fire weekends, Life Challenge meetings, The Call DC and OneDay conferences is already more awesome than the Jesus Movement at its peak.
A major difference between this move and the move of the 1970s is that the stakes are much higher today. Then, outsiders laughed at "Jesus freaks." Now they shoot them. Some adults still think they can live in an insular world where everybody is basically "nice." Young people know better. They have counted the cost, and they are willing to pay.
MENTORING THE PASSION
God will show the youth of today creative ways to get the gospel to the remaining peoples who have not heard. But the passion of youth does need mentoring. Wise adults need to be skilled encouragers who help channel the fire where it can be most effective.
What a privilege our generation has of passing the torch of the gospel from one millennium to another. But how do we impart missions passion to today's youth? Here are three key things we as leaders can do to empower young people to reach their generation for Christ:
1. Affirm them. First, it is important to affirm young people. We should be their most ardent cheerleaders.
John R. Mott was not only the leading missions statesman of his day, but he was also called the "father of the young people of the world." He had an abiding love and confidence in young people and believed the only hope of continually revitalizing ministries was to place youth in the highest levels of decision-making.
The high-level devotion of young radicals is in stark contrast to the painless Christianity espoused by many adults. Today's youth are forcing a tougher--and more biblical--faith walk on the church. It's a commitment heat-tempered by martyrdom and missions. In short, they are calling us back to mere Christianity.
We owe these young people an all-consuming passion: a passion for God's glory in their own lives and in the lives of every people group. They will take nothing less.
2. Stretch them. Second, we need to stretch young people. Self-destructive philosophies are rampant, even among many Christian teen-agers. If there is a disconnect between the beauty of their worship and the carnality of their lives, this should not go unchallenged.
Today's teens are used to in-your-face confrontations. Effective youth ministers have learned to issue no-joke, snap-to, wake-up calls to a total life reorientation--moving away from placid, self-serving, pseudo-Christianity and toward the radical discipleship Jesus has always required.
3. Inspire them. Finally, we should inspire our young people. Generations X and Y need to hear the story of how, and why, Jim Elliot never saw his 30th birthday. He was barely out of his teens when he scratched in his journal some of the most profound devotional musings of the 20th century, including the famous words: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
We need to remind teen-agers that Mary Slessor was changing the entire social and spiritual landscape of West Africa when she was still in her 20s. They need to know that Chinese teen-agers are leading congregations of thousands, and in the last few years, almost 100,000 Indian and Korean students have committed their lives for missionary service in the 10/40 Window.
We adults must never dismiss a dream or douse the flames of youthful passion with the waters of doubt. One reason God chose Mary as His instrument for the revelation of God's Son was because of her dangerous, self-sacrificial faith. Never in history had there been a virgin birth, but a teen-ager named Mary said yes and believed.
Never in history has there been the actual fulfillment of the Great Commission. God is once again looking for--and finding--young mavericks who will say yes and believe.
David Shibley is president and founder of Global Advance, a ministry that provides training and resources for thousands of pastoral leaders in 50 nations. He is the author of 14 books, including the highly acclaimed missions classic, A Force in the Earth (Charisma House).