I once heard a speaker talk about the discomfort new “unchurched” Christians often experience in a church environment. He suggested that it might be better for the Church to come alongside new Christians from the outside and surround them with a small group of Christians–rather than merging a new Christian into the “normal” way of doing church.
This is unfortunate. The fact that we need to talk about youth ministry in two different ways–for unchurched kids and for churched kids–suggests we have a way of thinking about ourselves that is not biblical. We say we understand that the Church is a body of people, not a building. But our behavior suggests that we don’t know how to “do church” that is not centered around buildings or programs.
If the Church wants to come alongside lost kids, it must view itself as a group of people mobilized for a mission.
Reaching the “Unchurched” Kids
A change has taken place over the last 30 years in this country. There are more kids who, if they’re not “churched,” are likely to be woefully ignorant of Jesus and the Gospel. It used to be that there was at least one family member who went to church. Now we’re in a generation where often nobody in a family has ever been inside of a church.
If you walk around and ask unchurched people what they think of Christians, they often have a stereotype–someone who is conservative, who abstains from certain activities and who is linked to political issues.
To build relationships with non-Christians, we have to get close enough to people to hear their story and understand where they’re coming from. We have to understand what caricatures or misperceptions are blocking their ability to understand God’s Story accurately.
We also have to think about the phrases we’re using. We say we want people to enter into a relationship with God through Christ. We throw that phrase out, but as non-Christians hear that, the little messenger in their brain runs around with that phrase looking for a hook that they can hang it on: “What does that look like? Who lives that way?” People who haven’t heard the Gospel before will land on their own limited religious experiences, encounters with people or what they’ve seen on television.
Until authentic Christians move into their life and show them what the phrases really mean, they won’t get it. And that’s why, story after story, we’re seeing people come to Christ through the context of a caring relationship–somebody who’s been walking with them for some time.
Telling unchurched people about Jesus takes dialogue and persuasion. The prevalence of the relativistic worldview among young people shapes their idea of truth. They are resistant to saying something is true for everyone. They say, “Trusting Jesus is just another option that might work for me during this season of life, or it might work for you.” In this age of post-modern values, authenticity is necessary. People are suspect of anything that looks like a sales pitch. Being real is saying, “I need Christ all the time, and here’s what He’s doing for me today.”
Youth Ministry for “Unchurched” Kids
The biggest thing we can do to help young “churched” people reach their lost friends for Christ is to help them to deepen the reality of their own experience in Christ. My research shows that kids are more likely to share their faith with their friends if they are strong in personal Bible reading. The more frequently they study the Bible on their own, the more likely they are to be effective in reaching their friends for Christ. Also, people’s prayer patterns affect the way they evangelize.
There’s something in society that prevents young people from developing a deep relationship with Christ. It’s called “noise.” I mean more than just sound–I mean the distractions and busyness that fill up the gaps and spaces of life. Our culture does not value downtime, time for reflection. Young people are bombarded with activity. And unfortunately, the Church often responds to that noise by bombarding young people with its own message and activities.
Good ministry emerges when churches create space for kids to reflect and think, to encounter God for themselves. With access to the Internet and cell phones, noise is constant. Sometimes it almost seems like a spiritual exercise to invite a kid to turn off his or her cell phone for a while.
Many youth ministers are starting to embrace the idea of allowing kids to encounter God for themselves. They understand that the youth group is not about entertainment and responding to the “boredom threshold” that kids sometimes express. Rather, the proper agenda is to help kids carve out a time and place where they can go deep with their own reflection about life. In that context, kids can consider the claims of Christ.