A Starting Point
I believe we are facing a crucial time in history; a time that will be defined by the very act and focus of the modern church. Much like the Reformation and the Great American Awakening, the course of our societal norms will be shifted in the current generations’ response to the Gospel. As postmodernism phases into the next wave of skepticism or anti-authoritarianism, the unified body of Christ in its traditional form stands at the gates of spiritual awareness and knowledge; ready to bring in or close off the oncoming seekers of truth. There are many issues that go along with this “gatekeeper” role and, I believe, the church as a whole is going to have to bear a more intentional burden of welcoming, training, and sending out the next wave of reluctant converts.
If we are to be effective in this new dynamic there are some communal practices that must be revised and adopted. There are modes of worship that will be adjusted and there are styles of teaching that will shake many of our traditional “senses”. But the end result will be an embracive Christianity that becomes more than a refuge for the old and fearful, more than a retreat for those abandoning a sinking ship (the world), and more than a moralistic daycare for the too-young-to-know-better. This new Christianity will stand for Christ and advance the gospel in ways that previous generations never imagined (and, disappointingly, never attempted). The church has an obligation to evaluate and restructure its priorities to accomplish this providential and awesome task.
There are four ways I believe that will make the difference when it comes to engaging the current youth paradigm. They are: making Connections, presenting Community, providing Challenge, and becoming Catalysts. [In true minister fashion alliteration is the best form of presenting concepts (Craddock, 1985)] As a program these ideals are lacking but as a baseline for reconsidering or confirming our current models they have enormous potential. It will be up to youth leaders and those that have a heart for what God might do with a generation completely given to the gospel to present these notions to congregations across the world. There are already small pockets already doing so. Reggie Joiner, Andy Stanley, and Brian Haynes are some gleaming examples of moving away from compartmentalized ministry groupings and into a more collaborative and unified pool of experiences that draw congregations into the lives of children, teenager, and young adults alike.(Haynes, 2009)
I could never be blamed for brevity, my writing style is overly conversational, but it goes back to my years in youth ministry. I learned quickly that relating to youth meant literally having a “relationship with youth”. We must connect on a deeper-than-acknowledgement level with children. Think “family”. We are not simply content to know our brothers/sisters/parents/children/cousins (well maybe cousins) exist; we also want to know their aspirations and fears so that we can invest ourselves into their potential. That’s what children and young adults so desperately need from their peers and mentors; they must be validated by relationship and not mere association. The church has miserably attempted to associate with the youth culture while completely missing many opportunities to become part of their story. (Robbins, 2004)
Connections come in many forms; one of the cautions in making connections is attempting to strategize for numbers. There is nothing implicitly wrong with increasing numbers but the second a teenager feels that their value is diminished or manipulated, they will shut down and likely have a negative impact by the rapid fire microcosm of “word-of-mouth” advertisement. Our focus will have to be individually granted, this means larger youth teams and more relational training. Thankfully there have been amazing strides in these areas from Youth training seminars () to entire textbooks on the subject.
After we’ve become a part of their story it is vital that we become attractional in “our story”. This requires a more directive approach on the part of the local body of Christ. We must get back to being community (tribal?) minded. (Hogan, 2011) The bible teaches that we were made to glorify God “together” as the church not alone as rigid individuals (Ephesians 3:20-4:12). The New Testament paradigm wasn’t a matter of influence and ability but more an astonishingly simple application of being there for each other in everything no matter what. Kids need to see this as a reality of church. Postmodernism has destroyed the illusion that the church is a benefit to society as a whole, it is up to the congregations of today to retake the mantle that the Holy Spirit lit in that small group of believers in Jerusalem that became the model of change and unification over the next millennia.
Community isn’t about being “touchy feely” or ignoring critical issues. It’s about doing life together! Sharing in the joys and struggle’s of one another. This is a dynamic that a teenager is less likely to abandon in their college years (Kinnaman & Lyons, 2011). Community is a venue for revitalizing all aspects of church life not only youth, as a congregation becomes more unified and interpersonal, the experience of Christian living becomes emboldened by the power of the Holy Spirit in individual lives. Often through accountability and the mentorship/discipleship processes. (Barna, 2011)
This dynamic is the simplest to teach and the hardest to implement. Challenge involves the deeply committed aspect of our spiritual lives. In its simplest form it is a matter for devotionals. Study and meditation are foundational principles in challenging new (and old) Christians. As it applies to youth there are areas where we, as the church, can belittle and even patronize people. We must be careful not to oversimplify the Call of God and His purpose in the lives of people. We can’t force this mentality into the life of children but it is a severe mistake to not promote and emulate the spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, reading, fasting, fellowship, etc.). (Root, 2007)Challenge is a rite of passage (especially among young males). Creating a sense of healthy pride in accomplishment can be an intentional and spiritual experience. It is our job as leaders and Christians to create and allow that experience to take place in the individual lives of youth. This may take great patience and one-on-one attention, but the end result is integral to continual growth into the college and career ages.
It is vital that youth leaders and workers understand the interconnected relationship of the lager Christian body and the youth programs within that body. This interrelation can then be easily bridged into the life of young people taking hold of personal relationships in Christ. It’s easy to follow the catch-phrase perspective of youth being the “church of tomorrow”, but a shift needs to be made to the church of right now. Musically inclined youth should be encouraged to worship freely (in their own modes without too many restrictions), while astute youth should be allowed to lead or teach in certain capacities; realizing it is never too early to bring kids into the process of reaching out to others in love. God desires to have an impact in elementary schools and in corporations, treating children like they’re roles are diminished is no way to prepare them for the hardship and sacrifice of the Christian life.
There is no guarantee that these processes alone will solidify or reinvigorate any youth program; however, carefully considering their implications and application within established or considered models is a step in the right direction. We must take the business of discipling youth more intentionally. There is little room for complacency if we are to be impactful in the generations present in our congregations today. I’m reminded of a simple adage from a prominent contemporary pastor, “Everybody ends up somewhere but few people end up somewhere on purpose”. (Groeshel, 2006) It is the church’s’ responsibility as a whole to put that purpose within reach of students.