One key line sums up Frank Sinatra's famous song "New York, New York."
"If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." And nothing could be truer when it comes to youth ministry in the Big Apple.
Every weekday students from 189 nations gather to be educated in the New York City public high school system. They commute in from all five boroughs to spend more than seven hours in the proverbial melting pot of Manhattan.
They walk the streets and ride the subways. They gather in groups looking for belonging and entertainment just to pass the time before and after school.
You hear them, see them and feel their lost souls. Most are hurting and dejected, like "sheep without a shepherd," from shattered homes and unattended lives. The words of Thoreau are apt for most of them who "lead lives of quiet desperation."
Yet, seeing with the eyes of Jesus, it doesn't take a Christ follower long to recognize the huge potential among this desperate crowd. These kids want to hear the gospel!
Connecting With Unbelievers
Soon after our church, Every Nation NYC, launched in response to the events of 9/11, the pandemic needs of young people seemed to hit us from every side.
But what could we do to help? As Christian parents of kids their age, we seemed so far removed from their worlds and ill-equipped to meet their needs. In addition, very few of these youth had the ability to find their way to get back into Manhattan for any of our Sunday services. We continued to care and pray for these kids, their souls and their destinies.
Several from our congregation offered to give up their afternoons to meet, listen to and share the gospel with students. This was the humble beginning of what the students would later call "414," after the address of the humble basement-level building we own on West 51st Street. Formerly a Shakespearian theater in the Midtown/Hell's Kitchen area of town, 414 has provided a backdrop to our ever-evolving outreach to young people in the area.
Interestingly, 4/14 is also the number identifying the ages of one of the most significant demographics in the world, according to strategist Luis Bush.
Bush is the same man who coined the well-known term "10/40 Window," which is the least evangelized part of the globe. Bush is also the architect behind the "4/14" window, which is not a geographic reference, but demographic. Bush and others believe those children and youth in the 4-to-14-age bracket are the most open to the gospel and eager to respond and share Christ with others.
Although our youth focus is more of a "13-18 window," the results have been amazing as students from unbelieving backgrounds, homes and regions of NYC are connecting with us and becoming disciples of Jesus.
When we find them or they come to us, the majority come from nominal Christian homes or are agnostics, atheists, Buddhists or Muslims. Very few know the Lord. However, by grace, as they graduate from high school and leave us, many have become ambassadors for Christ who enter colleges and universities, ready and willing to make a difference for Him!
From the moment we opened our doors at 414, the stories began pouring in from our youth leaders and their team of volunteers. The following excerpts from our youth leaders capture some of the highlights:
"The first year was spent hanging on the streets, building relationships with the kids who attended schools near our building. Some were skipping school, so I would go early to get more time with them.
"I was frequently breaking up fights between students, or between students and security guards. I'll never forget the one security guard who, after arguing with a kid, decided to let his German Shepherd fight the young man.
"The issues they face should not be real, but they are. Frequent stories of rape, prostitution, physical abuse, helplessness and the pain of loneliness compelled us to show up week after week.
"We started opening our doors Fridays at building 414. When kids started showing up every day, we increased our hours and opened up Tuesday through Friday.
"When the youth arrived at 414, the first thing they experienced was genuine hope. Volunteer leaders and peers already impacted and changed displayed this hope, a hope the kids had never seen or experienced. Although they questioned whether it's real, they kept coming back, wanting more.
"Our 'more' consisted of games, free food and a consistently safe place without judgment. Discussion groups focused on who God is in an honest, relatable way. The Word of God would enter the discussion, and life transformations followed.
"For many, the highlights were Thursdays, when we'd do lessons in manhood for the guys and tea parties for the girls. In those moments, we demonstrated what godly living looks like and taught them in practical ways how to live.
"Our team is taught to be very relational and to engage the kids where they are. This is one of the main ways that lives are transformed.
"Each one needs someone to believe in them, and we have used varying strategies of engagement. One boy named Jon barely spoke a word to anyone, so we started giving him guitar lessons and having him perform in the talent show. In time he gave his life to Jesus, became a leader and now talks incessantly!
"We focus simultaneously on cultivating volunteer leaders, often new believers themselves. Several had given up alcohol and drugs after just a few weeks because of their newfound motivation to live by example for the kids they have grown to love.
"In short, we listen to their anguish, become their friends and "family," then brought them into the family of God."
Reaching the Broken
Four values capture our ongoing strategy in reaching these youth:
Creativity. While 414 remains our primary launch pad, we have also rented clubs when noise levels got too high for neighbors and utilized theaters in sketchy parts of Manhattan just to extend the reach. In each environment, the youth team has created programs to help break the ice and connect with the students. Additionally, special outreaches like Teen Mania's Acquire the Fire, Campus Harvest student conferences and Young Life Camps have proven fruitful and life changing for students.
Community. Our motto has been, "Let them belong before they believe," a vision supported by an inviting atmosphere that makes a lasting impact. We don't criticize or judge the wild views or ideas of these kids. We just let them feel our love and support. One young girl went on and on about how much she loved just sitting on one of our worn-out leather couches. We want our place to be a safe place since many of their homes are not.
Kids inviting kids. We let those impacted most be the primary voices for inviting others. One late afternoon after school, a young man newly saved by Jesus started shouting, "Sex Party" just to get more of his friends and kids to come inside. While we obviously didn't suggest or advocate his method, it was evident that he was effective in gathering others. Once inside, the kids realized it wasn't what they thought, but they were loved, fed and heard a message of hope. Several even came back.
Persistence. Ninety percent or more of those we minister to are from broken families, so most students don't want to go home after school because of the chaos and lack of attention there. At 414, they are consistently loved with a chance to see what wholeness looks like in our staff, student leaders and a growing number of their peers. Progress is often slow, but we keep going.
Reaching biblically illiterate, broken young people is not easy nor for the faint of heart. But one glance with the eyes of Jesus, and we feel great compassion and ache for those so often victims in their homes, schools and streets. And to these we go, not hopeless and helpless, but empowered and led by the leader of the greatest youth movement the world has ever known: Jesus the Nazarene.
Two scriptures summarize the call and passion of our youth ministry in the wild, Nehemiah 4:14 and Matthew 28:19-20. The Nehemiah passage is for our youth. Since they come from challenging backgrounds, they often feel "outnumbered by the enemy." Their daily battlegrounds are their own homes, schools, culture, religions, neighborhoods and the like, and often cause them to give up and lose hope.
"I stood up and said to the nobles, the rulers, and the rest of the people, 'Stop being terrified because of them! Remember instead that the Lord is great and awesome. So fight for each other—and for your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses' " (Neh. 4:14).
In addition, our staff, team and volunteer leaders lean on these unparalleled words from our ultimate leader:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20).
We go. He does the rest.
Ron Lewis is the founding pastor and senior minister at King's Park International Church in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. He also serves as senior minister at Every Nation Church in New York City. For more information or ways to get involved in youth ministry in New York, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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