SO WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
Through the last century of modern youth and children's ministry we have learned what we are looking for is:
- A low "leader-to-child ratio"
- A person who will disciple a child for the long haul
- A person who loves the child with all their heart and is willing to sacrifice everything to lead them toward godliness
- A person who has day-in, day-out experience and skills working with this age of child
- A person who has authority from God to require obedience from the child.
Does this sound like someone we might know? A parent! All the things we are looking for in our church-based ministries God has already built into the institution of the family, and the parent-child relationship.
BUT WHAT ABOUT KIDS WHO DON'T HAVE CHRISTIAN PARENTS?
I can hear you. "Rob, this whole model where the church equips Christian parents to disciple their kids is great for all the Christian families, but what about all the unsaved kids who don't have parents to disciple them?" This question is of the utmost urgency and importance.
As a first response, I need to address the assumption in the question. The assumption is that our modern ministry is radically effective evangelistically.
I once gathered together my team of ten paid youth ministry staff and asked them a question, "Can you give me the names of students who have come to Christ in this last year?" I didn't want names of students who checked a box on a card. I didn't want names of students who were on fire for a month and disappeared. I wanted the names of students who a year ago were lost, in families that were lost, and who were now converted, walking with Christ, and meaningfully connected with the church.
The response? At first, silence. Everyone was racking their brain trying to think of a student who was a new believer. This was in the context of five hundred active students from 7th-12th grade. This was in the context of a ministry dedicated to outreach and evangelism. We were blowing the doors off. Many events were standing room only. Yet, we were struggling to come up with specific students who we knew had been converted. After more thought, we identified five students who we believed were new converts. Five out of five hundred.
So my first response to the question of reaching unsaved youth is to challenge the assumption that what we are currently doing is effective. While God uses fallen people and flawed methods (thank you, Lord) to advance His Kingdom, we should not be at all satisfied with the evangelistic effectiveness of our current ministry model. People are dying apart from Christ and going to hell, and through our ministry model we see precious few saved! We must return to God's methodology, not only because it is His, and not only for the sake of our own children, but for the sake of the lost as well.
I set out to interview these five new believers. I wanted to find out what happened to them. What was their story? How did God take them from darkness to light? Many of their answers would not surprise you. God brought them a Christian friend. They attended a couple of youth group events. They heard some portions of Scripture. But there was a common thread. Each of these five (and I realize this was not a Barna study) not only had a Christian friend, but they were meaningfully involved in their Christian friend's family life. They went on trips with them. They frequently were over for meals. They could walk in the front door without knocking, because they were so welcome in that home. They saw love, forgiveness, grace, joy, and the gospel in action.
I asked them, from their perspective, what had the greatest impact on their journey toward Christ. They all said in their own words, "being a part of that family." At that time I didn't understand the doctrines of sufficiency and jurisdiction, but my view of "child and youth evangelism" changed forever. Before that time, I thought the responsibility for reaching unsaved youth rested with Christian young people (through peer-to-peer evangelism) and with the local youth ministries.
I am now convinced the responsibility for child and youth evangelism is an "all-hands-on-deck" mission for every family in the local church. As a father, it is not my job to simply say to my children, "You need to be sharing Christ with your friends." Instead, God calls us to minister together as a family by opening our home to children in the neighborhood. Our family is a powerful evangelism and outreach center. This is not because we are super-spiritual, but simply because we are Christians.
If we are going to get serious about reaching children who don't have Christian parents, we need to unleash every single one of the local church's "satellite ministries." But Rob, we don't have any satellite ministries. Yes, you do! They are called homes.
My second response to the question of reaching unsaved children is we have dramatically over-estimated the evangelistic impact of church programs, and dramatically under-estimated the evangelistic impact of the Christian family. Imagine if the parents and grandparents in your church stopped looking to the youth ministry to reach the unsaved students in the community, but took the responsibility to intentionally welcome their children's friends into their homes with the goal of reaching not only them, but their entire family for Christ!
Here is the third response. One of the reasons we do not see many unsaved students coming to Christ is because the majority of our focus in Sunday school and youth group is on Christian students. If your church is like most, the majority of children in Sunday school are from church families. The majority of students on your youth group retreat are from church families. The leadership of the church, along with the parents, are expecting the youth and children's leaders to disciple the church kids! As a result, most next-generation ministry leaders are overwhelmed with all of their relationships and discipleship with children who come from Christian homes. This leaves precious little time for serious outreach to the unsaved.
This seems counter-intuitive, but an essential key to accelerating youth evangelism is for a church to embrace the biblical model of home discipleship. When this happens, the youth and children's ministry team is no longer expected to disciple the Christian children from the Christian homes! Instead, in accordance with God's Word, parents are trained and equipped to disciple their own children at home. When this happens (1) every Christian home grows in its mission of becoming a discipleship and evangelism center and (2) the youth and children's ministry staff at the church are freed up to get out of the church building and launch evangelistic initiatives out in the community. We cannot wait any longer to embrace the biblical model, for the sake of our own children, and for the sake of the lost.
Other excerpts from the book: