A few weeks ago I was asked to lead one of our local junior high school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle.
What I love about these young people is that once they determined that being an athlete on a school-sponsored team was not required for attending the huddle, they began inviting fellow students and have played around with an alternate name for the club. While still officially a Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle (and approved by FCA as an official group) these students will say that the "A" can mean athlete, academician, artist, or just anybody. To be honest, I like the name "Fellowship of Christian Anybodies."
I asked them to list some of the issues their fellow students were facing. We focused on the "other students at school" in that it is often easier for the students to share their own struggles when it is seemingly focused on what others may be facing. Believe me, everyone in the room knew exactly what we were talking about.
Every generation of teenagers has had their issues, their struggles, and their challenges. Just being a twelve to fourteen-year-old in a public school brings overwhelming challenges. Yet, this group shared things that were on such lists years prior.
As the students began to share, the list grew longer and sadder. Here are just a few of the items I wrote upon the whiteboard as they shared.
- Pressure to vape
- Pressure to drink and do drugs
- Pressure to have a "significant other"
- Family issues
- Struggles with being adopted
- Parents divorcing
- Pressure from parents (to play sports, be in band, be on a travel team, keep good grades, get into the college of choice, get a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.)
- Gender confusion and identity (LGBTQ+)
- Sexual pressure
Many of these items have been issues for decades, but some are moving up the list to be more prominent now. Others, like vaping, were not issues in years past because they did not exist. The stress of performance partnered with parental pressure and peer bullying is huge, and not only in-person, but also, if not more so, online and through social media platforms and oft-used apps by students.
I then asked the students what the answer was to all these issues and in typical fashion, from students who state they are Christians, "Jesus" was the answer given.
He is. He always has been.
Then I asked, "But do Christian students–those who have surrendered to Christ as Savior and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit–deal with these issues, too?"
Their eyes opened wider and it was an "a-ha" moment for many of them. They knew the answer was Jesus because in Sunday School, at youth group, at camp, and in most every evangelical youth gathering in our churches today they are taught he is. It is not that the answer is more than Jesus. It is not, but the realization that even being a Christian does not make them immune to such pressures seemed like a revelation to them.
The bell rang. We prayed. They then went to begin their school day.
More Than Lock-Ins and Pizza Parties
As I was driving to the office following this meeting, I began to think about the youth ministry God blessed me to lead for many years here at our church. We filled the room weekly for our Wednesday worship. We would load the buses for trips to the beach, the theme parks, youth camps, and special concerts and events. We held DiscipleNow Weekends in homes where over one-hundred students paid to go "deep" in Bible study with guest leaders over a weekend. We held lock-ins (the absolute worst event ever devised for youth groups–designed to eradicate all sane adult volunteers in student ministry, IMHO) and concerts, game nights, competitions, movie nights, work days, matching T-shirts mission trips, and every other thing created by youth pastors in what I see now as the "golden age of big group youth ministry."
I planned these events. I enjoyed them. We saw thousands of teenagers over the years attend and many make life-changing, eternal decisions for Christ.
These were good days.
But...there was always something missing. I could not put my finger on it at the time, but I knew we were just a degree or two off in our mission and our focus.
Perhaps it was the trickle-down effect of the church growth movement?
Perhaps it was the pressure to create the best youth experience in the city?
Perhaps it was always feeling the need to out-do the church down the street, or even worse, the youth event we held the previous month?
Hindsight is 20/20
I know young adults (and not as young as they think adults) now whom I was blessed to serve as youth pastor, who are walking with the Lord. They are serving him and his church. They are leading their own children well. Some are even serving in full-time ministry. There are many whom are considered co-laborers for the sake of the gospel.
Yet, there are many others who walked out of the church building after receiving the free book (they never read) and the "ConGRADulations" CD of Christian music when we recognized them as high school graduates. They seemingly left the version of faith they claimed to be true, impactful, life-changing, and important, back in the youth room, or in that dusty box of high school memories in their parents' attic.
I heard the very real issues and concerns shared by the group of teenagers I had the honor of meeting with last week. I think about the immensity of what they face. In many cases, their parents or guardians are feeling similar pressures. I know this is true because of the emails, texts, and direct messages I receive almost weekly from parents or guardians hoping I can give them practical, step-by-step answers for some of the most grueling issues their teenagers are facing.
The answer is still Jesus. He always will be, but as these parents are recognizing, the very real and important need for growing as a disciple is not something that can be outsourced to a youth minister or a Sunday school teacher.
When I served as a youth pastor, I was satisfied living in my silo of youth ministry. I talked with and resourced parents as best I could, but ultimately, I was engaged with reaching teenagers. I would say that my intent was to reach them for Christ (and it was) but sometimes, it seems I was focused on reaching them for my youth ministry. Ultimately, we had hundreds of teenagers who joined a youth group, but never joined the church or God's family. Lost teenagers wearing Christian t-shirts was common.
This is changing as our church has moved to a model of student ministry (as well as preschool and children's) called Family Equipping (read more here.) The focus is less on the young person and more on equipping parents and guardians to be lead disciple-makers in their homes. Those who understand the value are praising this shift.
Others who simply long for their teenagers to be part of a large youth group so they can make great memories and do all the things their parents did a couple of decades earlier do not like this. Some have left our church. They have found other churches who provide the very same type of ministry that was so prevalent in the golden age. These are not bad churches. They are wonderful and God is using those ministries for his glory. It is just that they are functioning under a different model. I pray for them and their impact for the kingdom.
Since hindsight is 20/20, I now know that when our church functioned under such a model, we did a disservice to families and students. We settled for good, when God was calling us to better.
The bottom line is that teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality, their gender identity, the pressures to perform, the temptations to vape and other things, the stresses of family breakdowns, and the host of other things that end up on a whiteboard at a junior high school do not simply need the world's greatest pizza party, a sub-par event with dumbed-down inspirational "talks," matching t-shirts, or just someone to sit by in the church service.
They certainly need Jesus, but they also need a roadmap for next steps in their journey of life. Not only that, they need a guide to help them take those steps. Ideally, those guides are their parents. In some cases, they must be another (such as Paul became for Timothy.)
It is essential that we equip believers well, for this generation and the ones to come.
May we never be guilty of outsourcing discipleship that is commissioned to us.
Oh, and by the way, I am not opposed to pizza parties, youth camps, mission trips, and DiscipleNow Weekends. I think these are all valid, good, and helpful. As for lock-ins though...they are of the devil, so no love for them.