It's time to open our eyes to see what God sees--a student culture that could be ripe for harvesting if we plow the ground and plant the field properly.
But the facts are brutal. According to a 1999 Barna survey, 70 percent of students say there is no absolute moral truth. Lest we think this moral deficiency is confined only to unbelieving youth, almost every study indicates that when it comes to moral behavior, there's no difference between secular and Christian students. They drink, engage in sexual activity and party just as much as their "unbelieving" counterparts.
Why? I believe it is because most youth ministry doesn't have any staying power. Young people flock to Christian concerts, cheer for Jesus at large events and work on service projects. Unfortunately, it's not because of Jesus; it's because they're young!
Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. Much of our effort is like plowing concrete. We plow with the latest techniques and technology. We create a lot of sparks and noise along the way. Then, we look back with bewilderment at the lack of harvest.
If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry. As the late youth ministry expert, Mike Yaconelli suggested, for young people to have a faith that will last, we have to completely change the way we do youth ministry in America.
Look at the facts in your church's youth ministry. An honest examination will reveal a large percentage of students who can't tell the gospel story or their story clearly, a dwindling number of students participating in church as they progress from 7th through 12th grades and an alarmingly small number of students who "take Jesus with them" after high school.
Not only has Jesus given us a clue for overcoming these challenges, He has solved the entire mystery. He wants us to produce fruit (see John 15:1-8). He will take us from no fruit to fruit (see v. 2), and from more fruit to much fruit (see vv. 5, 8). But we must do it Jesus' way.
Following the pattern of Matthew 9:36-38, a Jesus-focused strategy builds on five core principles within an environment of prayer to equip and evangelize:
"When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, 'The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest' " (Matt. 9:36-38, NKJV).
Principle 1: Go Deeper with Christ.
Our ministry must begin from the inside and work outward. Ask yourself, your leaders, students and parents these penetrating questions, then act on them:
1. Do you have impure thoughts toward the opposite sex? (See 2 Tim. 2:22.)
2. Do you gripe, complain or have a critical attitude? (See Phil. 2:14-15.)
3. Do you respect and honor your parents and family? (See Eph. 6:1-4.)
4. Is bitterness or resentment keeping you from forgiving another person? (See Matt. 6:14-15.)
5. Have you treated another person wrongly? (See Matt. 5:23-24.)
6. Do you lie, steal or cheat? (See Col. 3:9.)
7. Is Jesus first in every area of your life? (See Matt. 6:33.)
For your youth ministry: Following Jesus' instruction in Matthew 18:18-20, create an environment of praying with passion in your youth ministry. Invite two other adult leaders to pray in a "prayer triplet" for students in your ministry. Then, equip and mobilize your adult leaders and students to pray in prayer triplets. Pursue this simple plan: Three Christians, three times a week, praying for three non-Christian friends.
Principle 2: Build leaders.
Leadership is influence. In John 17:20-26, Jesus made three requests of His Father that would lead His disciples to become influencers. He asked that they (1) commit to Christ, (2) commit to one another, and (3) commit to a ministry to the world.
For three years, He taught them to lead--to do what He did--preach the good news, bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim freedom to the captives (see Luke 4:18-19 and Mark 6:12-13).
Imagine an adult leadership team of parents, volunteers and college students praying, growing in intimacy with Jesus and investing their lives in teenagers. Imagine them equipped to preach the good news to students, heal their wounds and free them from Satan's addictions.
For your youth ministry: Begin an adult leadership team. God has called people in your church to youth ministry. Ask them to join you. When you begin, focus on your personal walk with Christ, your vision for your students and developing the needed skills to reach and disciple students.
Principle 3: Disciple students.
For three years, Jesus discipled His 12 followers in a process that included selecting, relating, challenging, investing, loving, delegating, praying and reproducing His life in them. So, if Jesus discipled people, then why don't we?
We conduct classes, seminars, conferences, retreats and programs, but there is a desperate need for one person to disciple a small band of believers. If we don't do what Jesus did, we should not be surprised by the condition of the church.
The goal of discipleship is to take youth from superficial, immature churchgoers to students who experience life-change and are equipped to become life-changers. Then, they will radically touch their world for Jesus!
For your youth ministry: Disciple small groups of students like Jesus did. Offer your students a relational experience with discipline, accountability and encouragement, and it will result in motivation, growth, action and ministry. If you take the effort to disciple your leadership team they will in turn disciple students. This is the key to ministry multiplication.
Principle 4: Penetrate the culture.
The ultimate expression of penetrating culture was when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (see John 1:14). Nowhere is Jesus more proactive and intentional than when pursuing relationships with "sinners." About Himself Jesus said: " 'For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost' " (Luke 19:10).
What Jesus did, He sends His disciples to do. He stated clearly and repeatedly: "Go!" For those in youth ministry it only makes sense to go where students are. Eighty-eight percent of all students in America do not know Jesus. This should compel us to move beyond the four walls of the church to penetrate the student culture.
For your youth ministry: Go to the sidewalk outside of a campus near you. As you watch the students, ask yourself, How many of these people know Jesus personally? Once God burdens your heart for students, then ask yourself, What steps do I need to take to bring Jesus to this campus? You can't imagine what God has in store for you!
Principle 5: Create opportunities for outreach.
Our challenge is to present Jesus to students as clearly, relevantly and accurately as He presented Himself. The master Teacher has shown us how to do this (see John 7:37-38).
First, Jesus is the focus of attention (see Mark 1:40-45). Second, some people are for Him and some are against Him (see Mark 2:1-12). Third, students bring nonbelieving friends to meet Jesus (see Luke 5:27-29). Fourth, lives are changed forever (see Matt. 20:29-34).
For your youth ministry: Once the above principles function in your youth ministry, create an event with no hype. Then as your leadership team and discipled students to invite nonbelieving friends for whom they have prayed and to whom they have communicated Jesus.
From Russia to Australia to Cuba and throughout the United States in youth groups with four students to 1,000 students, churches have implemented the concept of a Jesus-focused youth ministry.
It works because it is what Jesus did. When you actively pursue this model, your youth ministry will no longer be like plowing concrete. Rather, it will sow seed in fertile soil and produce much more fruit than you ever imagined!
Barry St. Clair is founder and president of Reach Out Youth Solutions (www.reach out.org). The author of more than 20 books, St. Clair wrote Ignite the Fire: Kindling a Passion for Christ in Your Kids with his late wife, Carol. Barry and his wife, Lawanna, live in Atlanta and have a combined family of five children.