A Common Story
I was recently helping out at a weekly youth drop-in; only one teenager showed up. Ian* was 18 and had come along for a couple years now to kick the football around and shoot some pool. Occasionally we had group discussions about God, but Ian usually kept quiet and didn’t show a lot of interest in the conversation. Well, on this particular night I was surprised when Ian decided to stick around, despite the social awkwardness of being the only teenager around. We made small talk while shooting pool and then Gemma*, the other youth volunteer, and I started talking about God. The two of us had never really had a chance to get to know each other because of the usual noise and chaos. But on this night, we ended up having a half-hour conversation about how God first came into our lives and changed us. Ian listened quietly to the entire conversation (while thrashing me around the pool table).
I was so excited that Ian had been around to hear us talk openly and meaningfully about God. I was dying to know what he thought. So on the way out I asked, “What did you make of all that? That’s probably the most conversation you’ve heard about God in a long time, huh?”
“Yeah it was interesting,” he replied, followed by a long silence.
“So did it make you want to think about things some more?”
“Hmmm…I don’t know. I think it’s good that you have faith and that it’s helped you. I know it’s real for a lot of people. (silence again) But I’ve never been able to really see the point of it for me.”
And that was that. Ian didn’t say anything else.
What could I say? Gemma and I had just shared some of our most vulnerable experiences; God had brought healing from the loss of a loved one, acceptance in the midst of a painful broken relationship, peace and purpose to life. It was so real and so relevant. And yet Ian could not relate any of this to his own life. How could he miss it?
We spend most of our time in youth ministry trying to get teenagers interested in God in the first place, trying to help them start a spiritual journey. We often ask ourselves, ‘How do you help a young person in the 21st century come to faith? They just don’t see the real world connection of God to their own lives.’ We know many other Christians are asking these same questions. Like you, we are learning (and having to re-learn!) a lot as we go. We hope these thoughts add to the dialogue.
Our Past Experience
We were fortunate enough to receive lots of training during our formative years in how to share our faith. We sat in youth ministry classes at university and seminary and travelled for multiple summers on overseas mission teams. It was invaluable experience that grounded our relationship with God and gave us the courage to talk with others about God.
We were excited to put this training and experience into action as we moved to Bicester, England. We knew we would have lots of opportunities in the schools and community to talk with people about God, many of whom would be thinking about faith for the first time. We were ready to share the good news about Jesus, answer questions about the existence of God, objections to the credibility of the Bible and questions about the historical reality of the resurrection. Our expectations were met and exceeded as we almost immediately engaged in spiritual conversations and started to meet with young people to explore faith.
But a funny (actually very frustrating) thing started to happen as we engaged with these teenagers. We soon discovered they really didn’t have too many problems with the classic objections to the Christian faith. On the contrary, we found most teens have some level of faith in the existence of God. They accept a person named Jesus actually lived and probably rose from the dead and they have either a positive curiosity or at least neutral view of the Bible. So it seemed we were wasting a lot of time answering questions they did not have. How frustrating is that! We finally grew tired of answering questions people were not asking. We had to figure out a different way.
But we had never been trained to answer the type of question we kept hearing. That is, Why should faith mean anything to me? In fact on reflection, it seems to us that relevance is the key apologetical question of this generation. How do you connect teenagers who have grown up in a post-Christian culture with a God who seems so irrelevant?
How can we help lead teenagers toward faith in God? It’s good to ask what has been done before. I mean, why reinvent the wheel if someone has already figured this out?
We found we could not rely on our past experience or training, so what about going back to Jesus to see what we can learn. That seems like an appropriate place to start, yes? What did Jesus do? Encountering the person of Jesus has shaped how I share my faith. I see how to live in an attractive way, how to ask good questions and how to help people get off the fence. But the frustration I run into when I look at Jesus’ approach to people is this; Jesus was already starting with a primarily Jewish audience who were raised to believe in God. So there is a lot that just does not translate to the young people I work with. The teens I work with have not been raised to believe anything.
Ok, how about the Apostle Paul? His audience was primarily Greeks who did not know God, so maybe we can find some clues from him. Paul’s message to the Greeks in Athens continues to be used as a great example of how to lead people toward the gospel.
But I am again left questioning. Paul’s audience did not know God, but they did have spiritual beliefs, misguided beliefs to be sure, but at least it was a starting point. Paul was able to start with their belief in many gods and use that as a springboard to the gospel. But the teenagers we relate to typically have no developed spiritual beliefs.
Both Jesus and Paul’s methods leave me with nagging questions about how to share my faith effectively today. So what have others been doing? A quick look at the available evangelism tools and curriculum from the past 50 years or so until the present quickly reveals an emphasis on the ‘harvesting,’ or commitment stage. They help challenge people to commit to something they have some basic understanding of, but have not yet accepted personally.
In the UK less than 1% of teenagers attend church. It has been said there is ‘no residue’ of the Jesus story left among teenagers here today. So while they have heard of Jesus, they have no real understanding of him. In short, you cannot ask people to commit to someone they have never really met.
So the tools from the previous generations do not help young people start the journey. How about the recent emphasis on the need to present the Big Story or metanarrative of the Bible? This is a step in the right direction because it addresses the fact you cannot simply start with Jesus and expect people to understand the gospel. Instead, we have to go back to the beginning and tell the whole story of God’s plan to rescue humanity. In many ways, this is what Paul was doing in Athens. While I find this new emphasis helpful and one we use in grounding already Christians in their faith, it still seems like one step too far along to serve as a starting point. I need to know how to help people want to start the journey.
So is it hopeless to think we can help teenagers get interested in God and start a faith journey?
In our next post we’ll explore a new starting point for helping young people see the relevance of the gospel to their lives.
* Names have been change for confidentiality
Categories: Youth Ministry Resources
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