When 1999 began, who would have thought that the last year of the second millennium A.D. would be remembered as the year martyrdom came to the American church? Who could have imagined that these martyrs would not be high profile, mature leaders, but young people? When Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott at Columbine died for their Christian convictions in April, and when seven teenagers and seminary students also lost their lives because of their faith at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, in September, Christians across America began to take notice. Even the alarming occurrences of shootings in schools across the nation in the 1990s failed to prepare us for these tragedies.
Violence in schools continues to escalate. School shootings no longer shock us like they did, unless it involves a six-year-old as occurred in Michigan this past March. What will it take for the church to awaken to the need to make an impact in our society?
The violence that shocked the nation began in the youth population. Perhaps the solution will begin there as well. Maybe the key to solve this crisis is to look to young people. We adults have certainly not offered any significant solutions to date. But God is raising up a fresh generation of teenagers whose focus is on making their lives count. The question is, will the adults who lead such young people in our churches take advantage of this opportunity? Will we continue with business as usual in the church, or will the events in culture cause us to assess the current state of youth ministry in the evangelical church?
I heard recently of a youth retreat in which a group of college students leading the weekend began the first service lip syncing to songs by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Then the speaker (calling him a preacher would be far too generous) spoke more about the movie Titanic than God's Word. Forgive me, but I have a suspicion that such an approach is not what will raise the bar spiritually for young people! As I am interacting with those who work with youth, I hear more and more stories like this. I think many youth leaders have a nagging question about whether preaching the Word of God still communicates to students. I have a Greek word for such doubts - baloney! As one eighteen-year-old recently said to one of my students: "We would rather have nothing than to be offered mediocrity." I think he speaks for his entire generation. Our young people long for the meat of the Word, and we too often offer them Twinkies.
A Fresh Hunger Among Teens
I saw the hunger evident in teenagers for myself recently when God so stirred a youth group at a weekend conference that even public school principals commented on the impact the students had in their schools. I had the joy of speaking to over two hundred teenagers at the weekend DiscipleNow at the Wildwood Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, near Atlanta. The interesting thing is not that God moved, for He has a habit of that! The interesting thing is seen not only in what we did that weekend, but also what we chose not to do.
First, we gave great importance to prayer before the weekend. A student of mine and I wrote a twenty-eight-day prayer guide for teens, which specifically focuses on seeking personal revival. The youth pastor, lay leaders, and I, along with the seminary students who were to assist me, followed the prayer guide for four weeks before the weekend.
Second, there were no games or organized "fun" times. Now, I am not opposed to that. I love to play - I have an artificial hip because I broke mine at a youth camp! But I fear many youth ministers, without realizing it, spend more time seeking the latest game than studying Scripture for their teens. Now, we laughed and had a good time; we simply had no major focus on play.
Third, we had an awesome band who led the time of worship through music. They took the kids to the throne of God! As one of the songs said, God did "light the fire."
Next, there was clear, relevant, biblical preaching. I am no great youth speaker, but I preached hard to the kids. Personal revival, a passion for the gospel, and bold personal prayer were the themes. We offered an invitation each session, and lives were changed! Over twenty-five met the Lord that weekend.
Finally, we took them out witnessing on Saturday. Instead of going to the go-cart park, we divided the students up, let them decide what they would do, and off they went. They did servant evangelism - acts of kindness combined with personal witnessing. One group gave away nine volt batteries door to door for smoke detectors. The senior girls cleaned toilets at service stations - no kidding! You can bet some people listened to them!
Here is the amazing thing about the witnessing. Many of the youth, when time came to stop sharing Christ, wanted to keep witnessing! They gave up their free time to continue sharing Christ and they had a wonderful time. They were on fire!
God's blessing on the weekend was not the result of slick marketed materials or because they had the world's greatest youth speaker. How do I know? Because I wrote the materials and I did the preaching. Honestly, of all the great youth speakers you have ever heard of, I am not one of them! No, God moved because of prayer and a focus on the basics in a format that communicated to them.
Laying a Foundation for Effective Student Ministry
All this confirms some things I have suspected about student ministry for some time. I speak in a lot of churches and to many youth groups, and I teach scores of current and future youth pastors. I am afraid many youth ministers, without meaning to do so, have under-emphasized the basics of prayer, the Word, and witnessing. Consider the following as pillars for building a youth ministry in the new millennium:
1. Teach students to pray. Teach by taking them to the Scriptures, by giving specific helps, and most of all by your example. Do the youth you lead see you as a man or woman of prayer? We distributed the twenty-eight-day prayer guides to the students at the last small group time. When I spoke on prayer, we took a huge sheet of paper and made a "Prayer Wall" for them to sign. They had awesome meetings the following Wednesday nights, and several school principals recognized the hand of God at work in their lives, because the students began to pray - daily, fervently, deeply.
2. Teach students the Bible. Tell them you will teach them things their parents don't know (In most churches, sadly, that won't take much). I am grieved when over and over I go to churches and speak to youth groups in conservative, evangelistic churches, and almost no teenagers have their Bible. They don't even need it at church - why should they read it at home?
It grieves me to hear of youth summer camps with no preaching, replacing it with drama. Now, I love drama. But God chose to use the foolishness of preaching, and I have yet to find a way to improve on His will. What young people want and need is clear, honest, straight, real preaching.
3. Take your students out witnessing. Students today want a challenge, and nothing provides more of an in-your-face challenge than sharing Christ with others. Could it be that youth leaders do not challenge their students to witness because they themselves don't witness?
4. Teach your students to worship. Cassie Bernall, the seventeen-year-old Columbine martyr, was so far from God earlier in her life that her youth pastor thought she was beyond help. But she went to a youth retreat and heard the gospel. The most powerful influence that weekend was the time of singing. We dare not minimize preaching, but neither should we underestimate the power of music on this generation. Some people think the way to build a youth ministry is to take them from concert to concert. That produces music junkies, not young worshipers. Teach students that worship is fundamentally about giving ourselves to God, not merely receiving a blessing from Him. Teach them the importance of opening their hearts to Him. Teach them to worship God privately as well as corporately. And teach them that great music and wonderful songs open a person's heart so that the Word of God can fill it.
5. Finally, set a high bar for your youth. If a fourteen-year-old can win a gold medal in the Olympics, teenagers can make an impact for Jesus now! Effective youth ministers have told me that most young people will rise to the level of the expectation of their leaders. Why is it that Mormons, who don't believe the biblical gospel, can raise their kids to give two years of their life to a mission which they pay for, while in churches we fear our youth won't go to a week of camp without filling their days with activities devoid of spiritual truth?
Our Incredible Opportunity
There is a larger picture behind this article. In the year 2006 and following, there will be more teenagers in the U.S. than anytime in our history. Furthermore, the history of great awakenings teems with examples of the vital role of young people in such movements. I am so convinced God is stirring this generation, I am focusing my ministry - in teaching, writing, and speaking - much more on students than anytime in my life. I believe God is getting ready to do a mighty work among teenagers. What if God does this? Will you lead your youth to jump in the river of revival? God help us not to be sitting safely on the shore.
After the weekend at Wildwood Baptist, one local public school principals commented to the youth pastor, "You can tell a difference in the Wildwood students. They stand up for what they believe in, and their influence has made a change in our campus." Now that's what youth ministry should produce. And that is what young people want - not games, but all of God they can get.
Alvin L. Reid is Professor of Evangelism/Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.