Although I have been a youth pastor for the past 10 years, I still struggle with outreach. We desire that teens experience the good news of Christ. But how are we to help them become disciples who feel the burden of Jesus’ command to make disciples which, by necessity, involves outreach?
Complications teens face today
For generations, teens’ lives have been complicated and ever-changing. But technology has multiplied the complications today’s teens face.
I remember getting our first computer with a dial-up modem when I was in the eighth grade. Now I work with teens who have unlimited data plans at lightning speeds. Not only do they base their main social interactions around technology, but they also have access to an infinite amount of knowledge.
It is no wonder the Fuller Youth Institute’s 2016 research in Growing Young claims 15 is the new 25. Today’s teens have more access to the world and the ability to shape new spaces in culture. With 15 being the new 25, 25 is the new 15. Increased access to technology and superficial connections via social media mean that the process of becoming an adult is slowing down. Teens will not become independent (as previous generations would define) until their mid- to upper-20s.
Another cultural element is how teens feel immense pressure. Parents, peers and projects push them into busy lives. Whether it is with academics, activities or volunteerism, students feel pressure to be involved to find worth, accomplishment and status.
This pressure has also pushed the upcoming generations into higher anxiety rates than ever before. Busyness and stress are today’s teens’ greatest struggles. As a youth ministry, we are constantly battling these cultural factors for teens to see the good news Jesus can bring.
Reaching youth with the good news
So how does Central do outreach? We have a consuming focus on LifeGroups, Christ-centered groups of 8-15 people committed to gather together regularly for Bible study and prayer, fellowship, service and evangelism. We have cut almost every program that does not involve them, because the fruit of our ministry is happening in LifeGroups.
At Central, we consider how each activity will benefit LifeGroups. For example, we used to attend a conference with thousands of teens from across the country. Now we ask our adult leaders to participate in a one-day LifeGroup retreat instead. Not only has our teen participation increased from 70 to 225, our adult leaders tell us the retreat has helped build cohesion and connection in their LifeGroups.
Our priority is to have adult leaders who are consistently present, trained and encouraged. Consistent presence is the first step in any relationship. We ask our LifeGroup leaders to make a one-year commitment, but our goal is for students to have the same adult leaders from sixth through 12th grades.
Does this always happen? No. But we have seen a culture shift among our leaders. When they sign up, they already have the long view in mind. We constantly paint a vision of the impact leaders can have ;when they are with teens for 3-7 years. Out of our 103 adult leaders from last year, only three aren’t returning this fall. All of them wish they could stay.
We believe LifeGroups are the necessary framework in which outreach for this generation can happen. Students are experiencing the gospel and inviting friends to do likewise.
Training is also essential for our LifeGroup leaders. We want them not only to see themselves as the pastor of their group but also to be able to function as one. We often help them assess each of their teens’ faith journeys and five them practical steps to take with individual students.
Lastly, LifeGroup leaders need encouragement. We ask a lot of them. Amid family, work and hobbies, they give 80-100 hours a year to our ministry. We find ways to appreciate and encourage them in the midst of the struggles.
For example, our staff members pop into LifeGroups and tell the leaders how they are rocking in their ministry. We send out birthday text messages and try to celebrate life — not just ministry — with them.
The best way our LifeGroup leaders are encouraged is through their groups. I am always amazed at how teens step up to genuinely thank their leader for investing in their lives. They send notes or text messages or tell them in person. When this happens, leaders begin to see how God is truly using them.
What do LifeGroups have to do with outreach?
When we create the necessary framework for outreach to happen, teens can reach their peers effectively with the good news. I intentionally say “good news,” because this helps teens understand why Jesus is a big deal.
He came to bring good news to scenarios that the world labels horrible. He brings the good news that in their busy lives they don’t have to perform. Jesus brings the good news that he can take their struggles and anxieties and share in their burdens. Because of this good news, teens are experiencing the gospel and inviting their friends to experience it, too.
Another significant factor with our outreach is a willingness to partner with other ministries like Collision, which does an amazing job of using student leaders to reach out to their schools. (They currently have a presence in every middle and high school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.) The Kingdom of God is bigger than just one church or ministry.
Our LifeGroup model
Our LifeGroup framework was necessary for Tom and Sara to reach people for Jesus. Tom and his family had been significantly hurt by previous church involvement. A friend invited Tom to his LifeGroup, where a leader and other students spent five years investing in his life.
During his senior year, Tom was baptized and began telling people about the good news of Jesus. But something else happened: His still-wounded dad saw the change in Tom’s life and attended a worship service.
During the service, someone said they had a word for people who have experienced previous hurts from a church. Tom’s dad stood up and received prayer from several people, including Tom and his LifeGroup leader.
Sara was a teen who came from a family vehemently opposed to Christianity. She connected with others at Collision, where she met a friend from our church who invited her to a LifeGroup.
Her family was furious when Sara wanted to be baptized. They threatened to disown her, but she went through with her baptism anyway because she had tasted the good news of Jesus. When our congregation heard her story, they helped raise money for her to go to a ministry training school.
We have a long way to go as a ministry that equips teens to share and reach people with the good news. But one thing we will always focus on is our LifeGroup model. Here teens deeply experience the gospel and invite their friends to come and do likewise.
Adam Barrett, Pastor of student ministries, Central Church
Adam Barrett is pastor of student ministries at Central Church, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.