Over the last eleven years, I have taught students apologetics and worldview training in the classroom from the laid-back suburbs of Detroit to the cultural epicenter of Los Angeles. The students may dress different, act different, have different experiences, and sometimes very different challenges. But when it comes to their faith, the questions, concerns, and doubts are all the same.
What I discovered was that youth ministry has to be more than just fun games, great spaces, and safe places to hang out. Youth ministry has to be a training ground for students to learn to successfully and lovingly engage their world with the gospel. The training of sharing one’s faith, the practice of apologetics, and the intentionality of forming great relationships should be woven through the DNA of every youth group.
According to Barna, only 4% of students maintain a biblical worldview. Let that soak in for a minute. Only 4%.
But are we all that surprised? On September 22, 1987, the first episode of the soon to be hit series Full House aired. Although the storyline differed slightly from the norm, the show boasted traditional family values, no sexual content, and no political or social agendas. It was a show the entire family could enjoy without fear of filtering inappropriate content.
Only seven years later we were introduced to Friends. For ten years the world sat for thirty minutes a week to watch our culture transform before our eyes. This story of six friends in their twenty-somethings made premarital sex, homosexuality, excessive drinking, and the refusal to grow up acceptable, even celebrated, in western culture. Television and media continued pushing the envelope opening the doors for show’s like the 2016 Netflix production, 13 Reasons Why. 13 Reasons Why normalized the display of things like rape, suicide, pornography, and issues of gender identity. All of these were shown on demand and wildly popular with teens.
There are many things you and your leadership can do to transform and adapt your ministry and your students’ experience to have the greatest impact. Every youth group is different. Our students come from different socio-economic backgrounds, different family situations, different cultures, and contexts. Our students live in greater amounts of diversity than ever before, and I have no doubt your ministry reflects that. However, through my years of serving in youth ministry and traveling around the country, I have come across a few constants we can all do that will make an immediate impact on our students’ lives and the rhythm of our ministries. Here is where the future of youth ministry starts.
Don’t be afraid to demand more of your students. They will rise to the occasion. Right now students’ brains are in an on-going process of hard-wiring neurons. As they create habits, those neurons become etched deeper and deeper, making any changes later in life drastically more difficult. Elevating your expectations now will help them acquire the right habits later.
Be equipped yourself
Be more equipped yourself so you can best equip your students. It is time to explore the tough questions, students are asking, so don’t back down. The simple, yet difficult truth is that you, as a youth leader, need to be a life-long student of students and their culture. Youth culture is constantly in flux. The second you think you have it all figured out, you’re likely too late. So dig in.
Engage students in real-life situations
Craft the right kind of conversations that will simulate the types of questions and objections they will face beyond the church walls. Soldiers go through boot camp, pilots use simulators, and doctors practice on cadavers. Why? Because it is vitally important to get it wrong in a controlled, non-threatening environment before jumping into the real world. So why would we send our students into the world, with anything less than the best training possible? That means creating actual real-life circumstances in a controlled way.
Be discipled yourself
You have to embody the same attitude and behavior of a disciple. This one is easy. You have to do it. If you want your students to learn. You have to learn too and model what you are learning. We all still need discipling.
[Shameless book plug] You likely need resources. In my attempt to address such a need, I wrote, The Truth Is, Sharing the Truth of Jesus with Confidence, Conviction, and Compassion. In it, I offer a simple approach to teaching students how to have confidence in what they believe and why, but also how to communicate that truth in love. It will guide you and your students through the foundational truths of reality and, piece by piece, build a comprehensive case for the Christian faith.
Maybe now, more than ever, there is an incredible urgency to make Jesus known in youth culture. But also, perhaps now more than ever, there is an incredible opportunity to reach our students with the truth of the gospel successfully. The future of the church belongs to our students, but it is our job to train them and hand it off well.
See what else CE National does to encourage, coach, and empower students.
Hang out and learn from Sean McDowell at the National Youth Worker Retreat