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Does your church prioritize reaching the Millennial Generation? Studies show that they are the largest generation in half a century, and their participation in church is declining rapidly. Millennials are people born between 1980 and 2000. They’re tech savvy. They’re educated, and they’re passionate. One of the ways to reach any generation is to meet them where their passions are. According to Dr. Rick McClatchy, Millennials are deeply passionate about four things:
Did you notice a few things missing? Flashy programs, stupid games, lock-ins, and Christian concerts didn’t make the list. If your youth ministry program aligns with the above values, then older high-school students may not turn elsewhere to find them. Also, many youth volunteers (and potential youth volunteers) are in their twenties and thirties. If your student ministry (and your church as well) care about getting Millennials involved, then LET THEM SERVE! But beware, they are not interested in serving to just get more butts in seats at your church. They desire to make a significant difference in the world. That means Millennials are looking for a deeply fulfilling way to serve. Perhaps they would be great as a sponsor on your next mission trip, as a small group leader, or even as your church’s next youth pastor!
Here is a great video from Dr. Rick McClatchy that lays out ways to reach Millennials. If we don’t think about this, the church in America could be dead in 30 years. That means this video is probably worth 15 minutes of your time:
How do you grow your youth group? There are lots of writers in youth ministry today that quickly say “growth is not the point! Discipleship is the point!” I would say that according to Jesus, more disciples is the point. Discipleship and growth are not exclusionary goals in ministry. Consider these verses (NIV):
“He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” -Luke 10:2
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” -Matthew 28:19
“Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” -Galatians 6:8-10
Jesus and Paul understood their ministries in terms of harvest. All too often youth ministers resign themselves to the idea that they are only on the planting or growing side of things. Some youth ministers think thoughts like “If I just plant the seed now then one day these students might actually be disciples,” or “since the message of Christ was planted in these students by our children’s ministry, it’s just my job to water.” While both of these statements may be true, depending on the student, student ministers should not overlook the harvest.
What does harvest look like in youth ministry? Is it growth in numbers? Is it new salvations and baptisms? Is it the number of students in your group that feel called to ministry? Without defining how the harvest is measured, it’s difficult to define the harvest. The student population is ripe for cultivation and growth in Christ. There are seeds to be planted and watered, there are weeds to be pulled, and the harvest, as Jesus says, is plentiful.
A harvest is the result of diligent work mixed with the blessing of God. Here are three keys to realizing harvest in your student ministry:
1. Cultivate Fertile Soil. It is important to the principle of harvest to plant seeds in fertile soil. If the soil is fertile then the crop will be bigger. Roots will run deeper. How have you set your ministry up to be fertile soil for youth in your city? Sometimes fertile soil doesn’t naturally exist, and so we supplement it and cultivate it until it’s rich enough for something to grow. Are there any elements missing from your ministry that would lead to an environment that is fertile for growth? Students in my youth ministry recently told me of their desire to have youth-led worship at our mid-week meetings. Over spring break they helped knock out a wall to make the youth room bigger, helped install donated sound equipment and staging, and repainted the youth room to make it more inviting. Now students are excited about the possibility of weekly worship, excited about the freshly-renovated space, and excited about bringing friends. More fertile soil for ministry has been created.
2. Water Often. Plants need water to grow. Without some water, even the most drought-tolerant plant will eventually die. Students need opportunities for discipleship. This includes Bible study and fellowship times, but might also include personal mentoring relationships, service and mission projects, or planning a weekend retreat. Some students will come to youth group and get fed regularly. They will be the ones who spiritually mature the fastest. Others will be on the fringe of the group, and may need extra attention. Jesus heavily invested in a few dozen disciples who then went out and changed the world. Investing heavily in the discipleship of a small number of students may have more of a long-term spiritual impact than entertaining hundreds of students with a slick but surface-level youth ministry. Remember, the payoff isn’t in the watering, it’s in the harvest.
3. Stay Harvest Minded. There are TONS of disciples to be made. There are millions of people to win to Christ! In your own community I bet only a small percentage of youth and families are heavily involved in a church, even if they say they’re Christian. If we cultivate rich soil and faithfully water the seeds that have been planted, growth will happen and the Lord’s bounty will bless our youth ministries. Staying harvest minded means having big enough vision to see the importance of long-term strategy. The payoff is always in the end game in ministry. In the harvest there is celebration. There is the reward of hard labor. In the harvest ministry reaches maturity as disciples win new converts and in turn, make new disciples. NEVER be satisfied with the status quo, because the harvest is plentiful. There are ALWAYS more people to reach with God’s love.
Having a theology of harvest is essential to building a thriving and growing ministry. I believe some churches die because they are not harvest minded enough. Other churches poison the soil instead of making it fertile. Many churches don’t provide enough opportunities for the spiritual watering of young souls. How is God calling you to grow your youth ministry and make more disciples? The harvest is plentiful.
As I look at forums and discussion groups for the church, I am overwhelmed with the amount of idiotic and often UN-Christian conversations concerning the church. The hot button issues in many online forums seem to be homosexuality, women in ministry, Islam-a-phobia, homosexuality, how to protect current denominational structures, the inerrancy of Scripture… did I mention homosexuality. Now, in all fairness these are each important topics that deserve a robust and honest dialogue. The problem is that there is little real dialogue on any of these issues. By the time most clergy and ministerial staff go through college and even seminary, the lines in the sand have been drawn both theologically and in many cases (sad to say) politically. So I propose a new set of topics that may help evangelicals and main-line Christians move forward. After all, not one of the hot button issues addresses why many churches are hemorrhaging members and money. If Paul and Peter had sat on their laurels griping at each other in a Facebook forum then the church wouldn’t even be here today. So what needs to be added to our conversation?
1. Eyes (Vision):
Most denominations have not honestly evaluated their vision and mission in 50-100 years. Most local churches follow suit. I have been to numerous seminars on church vision and growth. At a recent seminar I attended one consultant advised us not to bother coming up with a good vision or overarching mission plan since pastors will probably be moved in a few years anyways. WHAT?!?!? SERIOUSLY?!?!? I couldn’t believe we had paid money to hear this guy. Having worked on staff at a church-start and in my current situation where I lead music and preach for a new worship service, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I believe strongly that most churches either live on borrowed or murky vision. Neither is ideal.
I recently learned of a church that went to a conference at the mega “Church of the Resurrection” pastored by Rev. Adam Hamilton. Hamilton’s church clearly states that their journey toward fulfilling their purpose is “Knowing, Loving and Serving God.” This 3,000-member church took leaders to the conference to dream dreams and seek clarity of vision and purpose. They came back with a new mission statement: “Knowing, Loving, and Serving God.” Instead of doing the work to find what they were truly unique and gifted to do, they borrowed vision and language from another “more successful” church. Instead of the leadership of the church taking the time to initiate difficult discussions on local strategy and mission, they took their church’s potential shared identity and slapped another church’s bumper sticker on it. Every church needs to ask:
- “Is our vision borrowed from another church or from the denomination?” Be honest!
- “What is our shared identity as a congregation?” Get specific!
- “What rallying cries can we make based on who we are?” Be BOLD!
- “How can people catch the vision?” Get creative!
Let’s face it; we don’t live in a Christian society. By my best guestimates less than 10% of youth in our area are involved in a local church. That means 90% are lost, 90% have no relationship with their Savior, and depending on whether or not you agree with Rob Bell, 90% are going to hell. The church’s lack of urgency when it comes to evangelism is alarming. Now before you think that I’m suggesting we scare the hell out of people in order to win them to Christ, let me pause. I’m simply suggesting that we stop soft-selling the Gospel. Stop soft-selling the redeeming blood of the Lamb. Stop soft-selling eternal realities that we don’t fully understand. There was an urgency to spread the Gospel among the early apostles because the return of Christ was seen as eminent. Does Christ’s potential return inform anything we do? Any sermons we preach? Do we even believe He shall return?
The Southern Baptists adopted a strategy for evangelism in 1976 called Bold Mission Thrust. (I will not take time here to comment on the suspect nature of this initiative’s name.) Simply stated the goal was “that every person in the world shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ in the next 25 years … and can understand the claim Jesus Christ has on their lives.” Over the next 25 years the Southern Baptist Convention increased career missionary personnel by 85%, saw a 2430% increase in mission volunteers, and more than doubled the countries in which it had missionaries. This kind of vision changes lives and saves souls. The sad conclusion of this bold campaign however was that despite all the resources poured into evangelism, denominational infighting largely kept the SBC from reaching many of its stated goals for the initiative.[i] Also, the balance between evangelism and social justice became skewed as fundamentalists began to take over the demonination.
What if the mainline church’s vision and theology of evangelism was as robust as its understanding of baptism? They are closely related. Evangelism leads to conversion which leads to Christian baptism for unbaptized adults. The mainline churches even teach that adult and teenage conversion is necessary for those baptized as infants, because infant baptism is not alone salvific.[ii] With this in mind it’s odd that many ministers shy away from alter calls out of fear that a decision made at a moment in time won’t lead to true discipleship. One could go an entire week at some youth camps without hearing an altar call or invitation in worship. Also, the small retention rate of confirmands in most churches proves in many ways that confirmation is far from a perfect solution. Every church should look at its own grim numbers for adult/youth baptisms and adult/youth professions of faith, and ask itself honestly:
- “What is our strategy for evangelism?” – My church has an “Inviting” team (soft sell).
- “Are we equipping members to evangelize?” – Most churches fall short.
- “What is our goal for adult baptisms this year?” – Most churches don’t have one.
- “Do we incorrectly label social justice as evangelism?” – Many churches do.
- “Why are we afraid of evangelism?” – Most people can’t say.
A youth minister friend of mine was instructed by his senior pastor not to take the youth to an area wide youth revival because “The evangelist might be too evangelical.” If by “too evangelical” he means “share the gospel and give people a chance to respond to it” then we need to talk. The students chose to go anyway since there were 30+ churches in the area participating in the event and since it had free food, a BMX team, a NASCAR team, and a band. Only 3 middle school kids attended youth group that Wednesday after the others came and left when they realized their youth group wasn’t going to the event. Many say “we’re ecumenical” but don’t participate in community events and revivals. Many denominations and churches used to be known for revivals. We say we want to grow the youth ministry but fail to be attractional to that age group. In the past, Christians have been known for innovation. What are we afraid of?
Churches in the West likely have a better trained staff today than churches 100 years ago. There are specialists who have degrees and training in a litany of ministerial areas. You can get undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees in youth ministry, children’s ministry, church recreation, non-profit finance, religious education, family ministry, modern worship, hymnology, missiology, theology, “practical” theology, Christian counseling, pastoral care, Biblical studies, Christian ethics, Church history, preaching, and the list goes on! Those degree fields don’t even take into account the certificate programs offered online for second career ministers and folks that want continuing education. Count degrees, certificate programs, professional trade shows and conventions and you have an entire cottage industry of professional ministerial training.
The problem is this: many churches rely too heavily on a professionally educated staff and not enough on their most powerful resource- lay people. We all know this but few do anything about it. I’m probably among the worst. I rely on my own strength and don’t ask God OR church members for help nearly as often as I should, but I’m trying to get better. Pastors nationwide struggle to find time for writing a great sermon because of all the other demands of ministry. Our failure to equip church members drags down our worship. When a church reaches a certain size it is simply impractical for a senior pastor to visit every sick church member, do all marital counseling, and preach or be present at every funeral or wedding. Some churches are fortunate enough that they can hire full-time pastoral caregivers who are not the senior pastor. For the rest of us, the simple solution is to train and equip laity to help with pastoral care. “Oh we can’t do that!” most pastors say. “The people expect the senior pastor to visit them!” That may be true, but the underlying problem here is threefold:
1st: Many people including pastors have a weak view of their role in congregational life specifically when it comes to certain ministries because…
2nd: Many growing congregations and their pastors are clinging to smaller church models of ministry which means that…
3rd: Large churches often place the same expectations on senior pastors as smaller family-sized churches.
For head pastors the temptation to do it all is dangerously seductive. When it comes to visitations people smile and say “the pastor came to visit me!” which is a small boost to one’s ego. We know it’s false but we let people go on thinking that there is something a little more holy about a pastor’s presence, prayers and poise. When you go to visit someone in a hospital bed you are the presence of God to them. What if the laity was trained and freed to the same end? Expectations often placed on the pastor force him/her into a posture of fear when it comes to prophetically leading through the equipping laity to be the hands, feet, and listening ears of Christ.
This is simply one example of how equipping laity might empower Christians to be more faithful disciples. I am not trying to say that senior pastors should not do any pastoral care, but I am saying that as a church grows they can’t do it all. Instead of freeing people to DO ministry, we invite them to serve on a committee and come to countless meetings that take them away from time with family. Proof that hell does exist. Instead of inviting people to dream dreams and cast vision, we go to a conference and try and import another church’s uniqueness to the detriment of our own. Instead of training people to ministries of evangelism we simply make token appeals for them to invite a friend on high attendance Sundays or to a church-wide picnic where we give visitors a brochure with another church’s vision printed on it. Instead of asking a youth parent to be responsible for leading large group games or small group Bible studies we are content to do it ourselves. If ministry professionals DO all the ministry when will we have time to lead in ministry? Almost every protestant denomination says it believes in the priesthood of all believers, but the understanding is rarely as potent as it should be. Every church should ask these questions:
- “How can we better equip and free our laity for real ministry?” –Nothing is off the table.
- “What ministries in our church don’t utilize laity?” -Name specific ministerial tasks.
- “What is our concept of priesthood of the believer?” –Read 1 Peter 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:19-25
- “How should this understanding change the way we do church?” –Make a plan.
- “What fears might be present for ministers and laity in expecting more from laity?” –Name fears.
Eyes, Evangelism, and Equipping are my offerings for fresh conversation among people who are as concerned about the church’s future as I am. We must find ways to dialogue with each other in areas where common ground can be found. We must discuss together the future of the church and what the REAL reasons are for the decline of the church in America and around the world.
[i]http://www.baptiststandard.com/2001/6_25/pages/sbc_bold.html Article on the Bold Mission Thrust Initiative
[ii]http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.5714529/k.7A7E/By_Water__The_Spirit.htm The Church’s stance on Baptism