In a recent post by the Barna Group entitled, Disenfranchised Youth, Editor in Chief Roxanne Stone opens with a powerful statement about this generation:
“In our research on younger generations, particularly Millennials, we continue to see a theme of disconnection that is worth paying attention to. Young adults are waiting longer to get married, delaying children, switching jobs more often. They are often less trusting of government, of church and even of colleges and universities than their older counterparts. In other words, there are very few institutions—either social or economic—binding Millennials.”
The article goes on to demonstrate how Millennials differ from generations past as to their “relative reluctance” to identify with external factors. In other words, in the age of instant communication and global connection, Millennials struggle to find their identity in community.
The article concludes that if we hope to reach young people, we need to be able to learn where each draws their sense of identity and then influence them in the sphere they relate to the most. In order to reach the next generation, our outreach has to be extremely personalized.
I have been in youth work for 20 years. In fact, I was only 16 when I got my first job working with youth. In my early years, I think some of my effectiveness stemmed from being one of them. As I got older, I searched for ways to stay relevant. I have tried all kinds of methods to position students to both hear and respond to the gospel.
In the fall of 2015, my ministry, Faith 2 Faith Ministries, Inc. refocused our vision. After the successful launch of CT CityServe, reGeneration, and a variety of evangelistic events culminating with NY CityFest, we saw a greater number of students making decisions for Christ than ever before. We launched the thinksmaller campaign guided by one simple idea:
Small things have a big impact.
The end results were fascinating. In one year, we stumbled onto a model to help churches work with public schools through coaching and mentoring. Through this partnership with the public schools, the metrics started to leap off the page. After the first full year in school, we saw the referral rate to the principal’s office drop by 1,000 visits! That’s just one of the stunning outcomes we had as we pursued making a difference in the lives of students.
Along the way, we learned a few lessons that I have distilled into 5 principles for laying the groundwork to see communities transformed by the power of God.
One: Be Available.
As we tried to meet the felt need of the church, we realized that our team’s schedule moved at a far too rapid pace to have any meaningful conversations with students. We realized that if we were going to do any meaningful with students, we would have to free up our schedule.
Two: Be Present.
However, it wasn’t enough to clear our schedules. We had to clear our minds of distractions that stopped us from engaging. This meant we had to retrain ourselves to be in the moment with students. We had to put our iPhones on airplane mode, position ourselves to build relationship, and meet students where they were.
Three: Be a Learner.
Before we can expect students to listen to us, we need to become a student of students. My mother, Robin heads up our classroom at New London High School. She once described working with inner-city students and the culture shock she experienced when she started working with them. In her generation, children were taught to respect authority. However, in today’s world, respect is something that is earned. Students do not give it to us just because we are adults. Once Robin was able to reverse her role from teacher to student, she was able to lean in as a conscientious observer. That, she states, is when she started to get good at her job.
Four: Be Consistent.
Students today have been through a lot. More than half have grown up through divorce and many have been raised in a single parent home. Some have been abused or neglected by adults they should have been able to trust. It is not uncommon to meet students who battle suicidal thoughts or self-harm to cope with negative experiences they have survived. A young person who allows you to speak into their life needs to know they can trust you. That trust is formed by being there again and again.
Five: Be Authentic.
Authenticity is more desirable to a young person today than all the bells and whistles that our organization used to rely on to attract students. It doesn’t matter if you are older or younger; male or female; black, white or something else. Students will connect with you if you are real.
An example of a free resource is the Alpha Youth Film Series. Alpha is a video curriculum that takes students through the foundations of the Christian faith. More importantly, it is aimed at getting students to share their stories, questions they may have, and their current understanding of Christianity. We have found this course to be effective as a follow up mechanism for new believers from events, as well as an activity that we have seen students come to faith as they engage during the course. Alpha can be run in churches, schools, living rooms or even community coffee shops!
In this fast-paced world, the road to reaching youth has a slower speed limit. It is a long-haul game and it takes incredible persistence. However, with these five principles in mind, we have a real shot at earning the right to share the gospel with students.
“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”1 Timothy 1:16
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