October 23, 2017

Reaching and Keeping the 21st Century Teenager

Morris Gleiser

Her name was Judy, and she was a part of our youth group. I loved having her with us because she was one of those teenagers who truly enjoyed her time in our youth group family. You see, she didn’t receive any verbal encouragement or support from her parents to attend church; she simply came on her own choice. She got to come only on Sunday mornings when we supplied her with transportation help.

One day Judy noticed that a family that included another teenage girl was moving into the vacant house next door to hers. Judy immediately went outside and introduced herself to her new neighbors. Within this initial conversation, Judy discovered the new girl — Stacy — had no church affiliation; therefore Judy quickly invited her new friend to come with her next Sunday.

Stacy was not that enthusiastic about coming to church. In fact, she put Judy off for an entire year. Finally, just to get Judy off her case, Stacy visited our church youth group and found herself deeply enjoying her experience. She returned the following week and soon discovered that we had scheduled other youth events. Stacy got thoroughly involved with every event we had going.

Through these months of getting to know Stacy, we discovered that she had been led to Christ earlier by her godly grandmother. She simply had no walk with the Lord and no knowledge of the Scriptures. In our church she began to blossom as a new believer should. This eventually led to Stacy getting her unsaved parents’ permission to leave the public school and start attending the Christian school associated with our church. When she graduated from our school, she went off to a Christian college, received her education to prepare herself to become a Christian school teacher herself, and came back to our ministry — where she taught in our elementary school.

How did this wonderful life change occur in this young girl? It took place simply as a result of the interest of a next-door neighbor who had caught the truth that we are all responsible for rescuing lives for Christ. Judy had been a part of an “atmosphere” where it was a common occurrence for teenagers to come to Christ and become disciples of His.

Most youth ministries in Fundamental churches have done well at the edification portion of the Great Commission — that is, we do well at making disciples for Christ; however, we must remember the command also includes the winning of the lost. In this day of Christian schools and home education, the average teenager knows very little about winning other teens to Christ. In fact, we aren’t helping them with this commandment if we do not supply opportunities to find the lost, reach the lost, and then develop the convert.

Jesus’ story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) is a very familiar one to us. The story of the prodigal’s rebellion, repentance, and return home is as vivid to us as any. However, I believe there is a sometimes-overlooked lesson to be learned from the prodigal’s father. The real hero in the story is the father. He is found looking down the highway for the return of his boy, and as soon as he sees him coming, runs to him, embraces him, and receives him into the home with a joyful feast. Those of us who have the privilege of working with teenagers could learn a lot from the heartbeat, the spirit, of the father.

A Changing Culture

Most of us realize that our culture has changed through the years, leading us away from the Judeo-Christian ethic. We’ve even moved from the “post-Judeo-Christian era” to another level: the “anti-Judeo-Christian era.” How can we effectively reach and keep teenagers in this new cultural shift? In this time when immorality is accessible, entertained, and expected; when suicide is a growing epidemic of the rock music culture; and when innocence and decency become matters to be laughed at, how can we reach another generation for Christ? With so many other types of churches available for young people to attend (where they will be entertained and spiritually unaffected), what can we do to get teenagers into our churches and, more importantly, into a relationship with Jesus Christ?

The answer, I believe, is found in the heartbeat of the prodigal son’s father. He reveals what is desperately needed in our Fundamental youth ministries. Catch the father’s spirit and energy.

A Spirit of Expectancy

The father was focused on the son’s return. He expected his son to return! He was looking for him “when he was yet a great way off.” This expectant atmosphere affects everyone in the “house.” When the youth leader exudes this desire to see people come to Christ, it will spread to others.

No one learns in or enjoys an atmosphere that is negative and/or boring. Our youth meetings, activities, Sunday school classes, and teen events must radiate a sense of godly expectancy that communicates, “God is still in the business of winning souls and making disciples, and we expect Him to do so today … in YOUR life.”

Youth pastors and leaders must first of all examine their own hearts and determine whether they are expecting and striving toward the winning of the lost. This will lead to praying with expectancy, preaching with expectancy, and pursuing with expectancy. To pursue teenagers with this attitude means that youth leaders must set the pattern of finding lost teenagers in their communities and winning them to Christ. They must schedule regular times of getting out of the office and into the byways where they can find lost teenagers, seeking an opportunity of witness.

Attendance at local public school ballgames can possibly open an opportunity for witness. You can host an annual outreach event at your church that provides games, competition, and food. At this event, a brief gospel message should be preached and an opportunity to accept Christ should be given. Monthly outreach opportunities such as door-to-door canvassing and witnessing should be arranged for the youth group. Of course the youth must be trained in proper evangelism at someone’s door. This continues to develop a “rescue mode” of thinking on the part of the teenagers.

Spiritual Exhortations

In a matter of moments, the prodigal son went from being a ragged, sorrowful, hopeless boy to a new position. His father expressed a message of hope and dressed him in a new robe, new shoes, and a new ring and held a feast of rejoicing for him. I am convinced that most teenagers live in a dismal world of hopelessness, sorrow, and discouragement. Young people need salvation and a new identity. This, of course, is found in Jesus Christ. We must preach a message of hope.

Psalm 146:5, 7, 8 — “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God. … The Lord looseth the prisoners: The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind: the Lord raiseth them that are bowed down.”

I’m saddened to say this, but the average youth ministry is composed of fun activities, great game rooms, and neatly packaged programs but very little emphasis on preaching. Teenagers respond to preaching, and we must continue to proclaim the hope that is found in Christ. When teenagers visit our churches, they must recognize that they are in the presence of someone who truly loves them, cares for their life, and communicates the Word of God clearly and decisively.

When youth pastors clearly preach the Word, the brethren will be strengthened and the lost brought to Christ. Another wonderful byproduct of this environment will be the duplication of others wanting to surrender their lives to the harvest field of ministry.

Once we in youth ministry establish an atmosphere of expectancy and proclaim the exhortation of hope in Christ, we will find that this will result in . . .

A Saturated Environment

Others will catch the vision of reaching the teenager of the 21st century. Even though the prodigal had an angry older brother who did not approve of his return and the corresponding feast, there was still a household full of celebrants participating in the prodigal’s return to the father. The household and servants responded in kind with the father’s attitude of forgiveness, mercy, and care.

When someone asks the question, “How do I get my youth group to win souls?” my immediate response is, “It starts with the leader.” When you have a youth group filled with divisive cliques and when visitors feel unwelcome, I say, “It starts with the leader.” Again, the rest of the household responded like the father who rejoiced at the son’s homecoming.

If we in leadership show a burden and desire to win lost teenagers to Christ, it will spread. May I ask you a question? Can you remember the first time you wept over a teenager’s spiritual condition? Here is a harder question: Can you remember the last time you wept for a teenager’s spiritual condition? Do you still possess a broken heart for teenagers, or have you forgotten Proverbs 24:11, 12: “If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain; If thou sayest, Behold, we knew it not; doth not he that pondereth the heart consider it?”

A young Catholic boy visited our youth group at the invitation of another boy in our church. After realizing he was loved and after hearing the gospel and the Word of God proclaimed, the teen was finally led to Christ by the young man who had originally invited him. Over a period of months this new convert became an active witness for the Lord as well, showing others a passion for souls everywhere he went. God called him to the ministry, and he went to Bible college to prepare. Upon graduation, he got married to one of our young ladies who had also come through our youth group. I mentioned her earlier: Stacy. Yes, Stacy and her pastor- husband now serve their Lord together, seeking to teach others the need to reach, keep, and train others for Christ.

It is possible to reach and make disciples for Christ — even in the 21st century!


(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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