I remember the moment like it was yesterday. In fact every time I think about it, I cringe a little. At the time, I was the brand-new youth pastor at the church, and my youth group was full of doubters and skeptics. I wanted to prove them all wrong. So I worked all week on a talk that I believed would change everything. Because, you know, talks do that. But I was convinced this talk would open the students’ minds and illuminate how wrong they really were. I would show them that if they truly used their brains, they’d come to the same conclusions I had.
What’s funny is that I was so convinced that once they heard my brilliant speech, they’d all repent and come running down to the altar to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. What a perfect time to do communion! I thought. You can see where this is going, huh?
After I finished delivering my “brilliant” message, I explained the bread and the cup. And then I invited the students to come forward and receive communion. No one moved. Now put yourself in this scenario for a moment: You speak passionately about why faith makes sense, you explain the elements of the communion, and then you invite your students to come forward to receive it . . . and no one blinks, no one prayerfully considers it, no one moves. No one gets up to participate in communion. No one responds. Not one person.
Obviously, I needed a new strategy. I’ve been a youth worker for over 23 years now, and most of those years have been spent in Southern California during the heyday of American youth ministry. Back then we’d build an awesome youth room and play cool Christian music videos on big screens, and tons of kids would come to youth group.
We’d organize area youth rallies and see 2,000 high schoolers show up to eat free pizza and play Nintendo 64 on the big screen. I’d preach the gospel to hundreds of students on a Wednesday night, and a majority of them would invite Christ into their lives.
But as the years have gone by, I’ve noticed a few things. Kids look at me differently. Their questions have changed—they are deeper, more personal, and usually loaded. The answers I gave students 15 years ago will no longer suffice. To be honest, those answers don’t even work for me anymore.
The world is changing and it’s changing us—in some ways for the better. It requires us to reconsider the ways we think about and interact with the people around us. The good news is that thoughtful, humble, and curious Christians are making headway in today’s world. However, many of us remain stuck in the old systems and structures, using methods that were brilliantly effective at one time. But our culture has changed.
And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that the things that once worked so well are no longer cutting it with our students. My prayer is that this book will cause youth workers to lift
their heads, that it will stretch them and even shake them up a bit. But please know that I write this as a practitioner. I am not a youth ministry professor at a seminary;; I’m a youth worker too. In fact, as I write this introduction, I’m also thinking about the game I’m leading tonight with our middle schoolers. It has something to do with balloons and shaving cream . . . but I digress.
What I’ve discovered over the past 10 years is that I have to let go of the junk I’ve accumulated throughout my entire life of youth ministry—the methods and the mindsets that have boxed Jesus in and kept students out. As you read this little book, I hope you’ll allow the systems and structures of your own ministry to be challenged and take an honest look at your students, the church, the world, and yourself. Hopefully we’ll emerge from this exercise better equipped to represent and extend the reign of Jesus in a world that, at best, isn’t interested.
Please note: This book contains the story of what I’ve stumbled onto in my youth ministry work. It’s the story of how an evangelical modern Christian has tried to make a difference in the lives of pluralistic, post-modern students. It’s the story about repeatedly going back to the drawing board and trying desperately to hear the cutting-edge voice of Jesus. My prayer is that you will join me on this humbling and scary, yet wonderful journey.