Before I get any flack for concept stealing, I want to let you know that I got permission from my friend Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for Christmas and, The Case for....just about everything dealing with the subject of Jesus, to spin his "Case for" theme toward youth ministry.
Lee wholeheartedly agreed that this is a message I should tackle. He, too, is convinced that this next generation needs reached and that it's going to take youth leaders, parents and pastors fully aligned with the right kind of philosophy to reach them.
I hesitate to even use the term "right kind of youth ministry" because I'm actually not referring to any particular youth ministry model or program. Models and programs are fine and necessary, but what makes or break them is, not the program itself but the philosophy behind them.
The old business adage, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast" is also true for youth ministry. When the right kind of culture is present in a youth ministry almost any model or program will work. And when the right kind of culture is not present then it doesn't matter what program or model you have in place, because it's doomed to fail.
But, before I make a case for the right kind (philosophy/mindset) of youth ministry, allow me to make a case for youth ministry in general. Why is youth ministry strategically important for the church?
Firstly, and this is something we all intuitively know, the VAST majority of people who put their faith in Jesus do so by the age of 18. I'm sure that you, like me, have read the statistics that the younger a person is the more likely they are to come to Christ.
Last week my friend Shane Pruitt did his own unofficial survey on Twitter. Here's what he Tweeted afterward, "Just let the implications of this poll set in for a minute. 2,694 people polled about the age they surrendered to Jesus: 77% before they were 18. 95% before the age of 30. It's imperative that the next generation be reached with the Gospel right now, or they may never be."
These kinds of survey results make it clear that, if you're a church leader who claims to be serious about reaching your community for Christ, you must seriously focus a good portion of your efforts on reaching the most spiritually open demographic in your community, children and teenagers!
Secondly, teenagers not only come to Christ quicker but they can spread the gospel faster and further than adults. According to Pew Research the average teen has 425 online and face-to-face friends. Think about that, the average teen's social media reach is more than 4x's the average church size! The exponential reach of teenagers is shockingly large and their influence on those they reach is amazingly deep!
What if we leveraged that influence for the Gospel? What if we rebranded "The Great Commission" as "The Greatest Cause"? What if this cause, The Cause, inspired a generation to reach their generation for Jesus?
It could create unprecedented momentum in, not just our youth groups, but our churches! It could trigger a revival that started in the youth room and made it's way to the church auditorium!
Thirdly, teenagers who are trained, equipped and mobilized for the Gospel are much more likely, not just to keep their faith past graduation, but to advance it for the rest of their lives. As on-fire-for-Christ teenagers grow into adulthood, they'll bring that passion to the adult congregation. Our churches will be much more healthy tomorrow if we focus on making and multiplying teen disciples today!
There's a great line in the classic cop-verses-gangster movie The Untouchables, where Elliott Ness, the character played by Kevin Costner, is upset by not being able to find a good cop in all of Chicago. In the film, a seasoned and still honest cop, played by Sean Connery responds by giving Elliott Ness the solution to his problem. He tells him, "If you can't find a good apple in the barrel, go to the tree." With that they go to the rookie training center for police officers and recruit the rest of their team...and, of course, end up beating the bad guys.
Focusing on youth ministry is "going to the tree." So many times it's hard to find adults who are on fire for Jesus and willing to share their faith. I'm not saying they're like corrupt gangster-era Chicago cops, but there's a good chance they've been institutionalized by the consumeristic "What's in it for me?" typical church-going experience.
What's crazy is this, if teenagers get set ablaze for Jesus in a youth group that same fire often ignites the adults in "big church" as well. I've seen this in church after church over the last 30 years of ministry. Set ablaze teenagers can ignite passion for Christ and his cause church-wide.
Now that I've made the case for youth ministry, allow me to make the case for the right kind (philosophy) of youth ministry. And what's the right kind? The kind of youth ministry that Jesus himself practiced with his mostly teenage disciples!
Now I know that most of the movies you've watched about the life of Jesus probably depict the disciples as young men in their late twenties or early thirties, but Scripture indicates that most of them were much younger.
As a matter of fact I'm convinced that most of the disciples were teenagers when they began to follow Jesus! For some Scriptural support check out Matthew 17:24-27,
"After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?' 'Yes, he does,' he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. 'What do you think, Simon?' he asked. 'From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?' 'From others,' Peter answered. 'Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 'But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.'”
And, if you cross reference this passage with Exodus 30:14, you'll get the punchline, "All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the Lord."
This verse is referring to the Tabernacle/Temple Tax. Only those twenty years old and older paid it. Do you see the implications here? When Jesus and the disciples went to Capernaum, all the disciples were there but only Jesus and Peter paid the Temple Tax! This means that Jesus was a youth leader...with one adult sponsor (Peter!) and one really rotten kid (Judas Iscariot!)
He unleashed that small youth group to shake the world with the Gospel (Acts 1:8)!
If Jesus invested the bulk of his ministry efforts into reaching and mobilizing teenagers to change the world, shouldn't we? If we really want to be like Jesus in the way we minister then we must create more bandwidth and budget in our churches to inspire, equip and unleash teenagers to accomplish the mission of Jesus!
Jesus' brand of youth ministry was Gospel Advancing. In his own words he came "to seek and to save the lost" Luke 19:10. He was on a search and rescue mission for the lost and recruited his disciples to join him.
What if we did the same with our teenagers? What if we scrapped the traditional approach (heavy on games/light on truth and mission) and mobilized our teens to make and multiply disciples?
Please don't underestimate teenagers and their potential to advance God's kingdom! Every great awakening in the history of the United States have had teenagers on the leading edge.
We don't need to wait for them to grow up. Jesus didn't, so why would we?
Let's harness all of the adrenalin, idealism, hormones and cell phones of our teenagers and channel all of it on reaching the broken, hurting and hopeless with the good news of Jesus!
Traditional youth ministry has had it's chance for the last 50+ years and the results of it have been, at best, weak. According to one very recent and super shocking report, The Great Opportunity, the church is on track to lose over one million evangelical youth per year between now and 2050!
This must-read-report makes it crystal clear that, not only are the majority of youth ministries failing to reach lost teenagers, they are not even keeping their saved ones in the fold for the long haul!
Enough is enough! We must employ a radical "new" philosophy (that's actually 2,000 years old!) This philosophy is built on mobilizing teenagers as missionaries to their own circles of influence at school and online. This philosophy will work with any model you may have in place. As a matter of fact it will energize that model in ways you never imagined!
What about discipleship? Don't worry your teenagers will "grow as they go." In other words, the farther they take the Gospel into their circles of influence the deeper they'll grow in their faith. That's why Philemon 1:6 reminds us, "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith that you may know every good thing you have in Christ Jesus." The more our teens share the Gospel the more we know it, own it and grow in it.
Find out more about this philosophy of ministry at Gospeladvancing.org. You can also download a free digital version of my book called Gospelize your Youth Ministry here. It will unpack the 7 values of a Gospel Advancing ministry mindset from the book of Acts in a powerful and practical way for you.
It's time for us to double down, not just on the importance of youth ministry, but on the strategic potential of the right kind of youth ministry!
Are you up for it?