In his book Real Teens researcher George Barna tells the following story:
“Although her family was only nominally involved in the church, Jenny came to our youth group faithfully throughout her teenage years. She went on mission trips and attended Sunday school; she was a regular fixture in our program. We had been successful with Jenny, or so we thought.
Jimmy, on the other hand, never quite connected with our youth ministry. We rally worked to get him involved with our youth programs. He had no interest in retreats or mission trips; Sunday school bored him,; and youth groups seemed a little on the silly side for his taste. He sometimes attended another church across town. On my little scoreboard of kids we had been effective with, Jimmy was on the “lost” side.
“But Jimmy had one thing going for him–every Sunday, he was in worship–with his parents at our church or with his friends at another church. Jimmy didn’t need our outrageous and creative youth ministry to lead him to faith maturity.
“But for Jenny, our youth ministry was her only Christian connection. Unlike a real family, the youth group “family” forced her to resign when she was too old to fit the requirements. She now looks back on your youth group experience as . . . a fun, even laughable part of her past, but something that belongs exclusively in the realm of her teenage years.
“There is something wrong with the standard of success that prematurely rates a leader’s work with Jenny as the example of success and Jimmy’s as the example of failure.” (p. 113).
What do we really want to accomplish in student ministry? What do we want students to know about God? Last week I got an email from a former student who had just preached at a DNow. He had taken my spiritual awakening class and spoke to the students about the Jesus Movement. He told me no one there had any idea what that was and had virtually no idea what a spiritual awakening is.
We have a generation of Millennials who are weary of institutional faith but have never seen God move in power. We do not manufacture a movement of God, but does the work of God, the life-changing, gospel-empowered work of God have a priority as we minister to the next generation?
Have you ever lived in a town where half the people who lived there became radical, Fanatical followers of Jesus in a couple of years time? Probably not. Have you lived in a neighborhood where instead of sports, clothes, or cars, the subject of conversation by just about everyone was Jesus? Doubt it. But that was the kind of world Jonathan Edwards found himself in back about 250 years ago.
You see, in the eighteenth century God shook the American colonies in a revival movement known as the First Great Awakening. Edwards wrote a treatise entitled Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England, written to describe and defend the movement. This young pastor (he was 31 when the first waves of revival came to Northampton) also noticed something many ministers have failed to notice since – when God begins a new movement of His Spirit, he often uses young people at the heart of it. Note his comment about the great revival he observed:
“The work has been chiefly amongst the young; and comparatively but few others have been made partakers of it. And indeed it has commonly been so, when God has begun any great work for the revival of his church; he has taken the young people, and has cast off the old and stiff-necked generation.” (Works of Edwards, I:423)
Stern words for our day as well!
Edwards had the ability to examine the culture of his day and apply biblical truth to it. Edwards observed what most to this day do not; namely, arguably the most overlooked aspect of revival movements in history is the role of youth.
Student ministry today stands at a significant crossroad. I meet so many pastors and student pastors who are weary of the overemphasis on the lowest common denominator approach to ministry and recognize a need for change; these leaders truly want to see their students (and their families) thrive for Christ. On the one hand, student leaders today have incredible love for young people and a passion to see them grow in Christ. On the other hand, they often report being worn out from ministry. Greg Stier in his book Outbreak summarizes what I hear almost weekly:
“Maybe it’s the complaints about the stains in the carpets or the holes in the walls in
the youth room. Perhaps it’s the struggle of the juggle—the constant juggling act between parental and pastoral expectations. As a result of those difficulties and a thousand others, many youth leaders eventually give in or give up. They give in to the counterbiblical challenge to reel in their students’ exuberance instead of harnessing it and focusing it. They give up on going for the optimum, on stirring the pot, and on swinging for the fences. . . . The result is that youth leaders often slowly transform their roles from passionate visionary to skilled event-coordinator, from mission-driven general to sanctified baby-sitter, . . .” (p. 17)
Here is an idea: if you are involved with students, tell them the stories of how God has used young people in the past (shameless self-promotion: I wrote a book called Join the Movement for students that tells many such stories). Show them the greatness and the wonder of the gospel both in Scripture and in your own life. Remember every generation must be taught anew, and the one before us today knows little of the work of God in great spiritual movements either in a local church or in a great awakening. Edwards said one of the things that helped to continue and spread the work of revival in his time was the telling of the stories of God’s work. I believe students today are not opposed to or resistant to a mighty movement of God, they just have no clue what that is. When it comes to great revival movements and the power of God, many students in our churches function as agnostics: they do not know if God moves like that or not because they have never seen it and often have never heard of such things.
Tell the stories of the movement of God in the past. Let the students you lead know that our God is more than a figurehead over a religious organization: He is the living, moving, working, active God!
Psalm 105:1 says to “make known his deeds among the nations.” We must also make known His deeds to our students.
[Note: much of the above was taken from my book Raising the Bar]