I was in Canada, leading a mix of adults and teenagers through an experience I call “Jesus-Centered Ministry.Three-quarters of the way through theexperience I had trios focus on an assigned scripture passage that offered a little taste of Jesus. I asked groups to imagine that their unique passage was the only description they had of Jesus. On that basis, I challenged them to craft a descriptive statement about him that started with “Jesus is…”

As group after group stood to proclaimtheir “Jesus is” statement, I wrote each one on a flip-chart at the front of the room.I’ve done this many times now, and typically it’s a rapid-fire process that, most often, morphs into a worship experience. On this day in Canada, the momentum started slow and gathered steam toward the end. It was right about then that a teenage girl stood and shouted her trio’s response:“Jesus is a badass!Then shesat down.

There was what you might call a weighty pause—the room was full of very conservative adultsfrom a very conservative denomination. But that pregnant moment quickly gave way to an explosion of laughter and delight and applause. These people, many of whom would’ve been openly shocked had they heard this description of Jesus a few hours earlier, were now fully embracing it—because they’d spent the day getting to know the Jesus they thought they knew but didn’t.I told the girlsthat I’dnever given a reward for an answer in any of my Jesus-Centered Ministryexperiences—ever—but thisdaywas an exception.

If we approached the Jesus who is described in the gospels with a blank slate, as little children who are fully open to tasting him without our preconceived notions that are often rooted in half-truths, I think many of us would have to agree with this raw and courageous and playful description.Jesus is, to borrow from Jim Croce, “the baddest man in town.” But His form of bad is the deepest expression ofgood.

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And is this the Jesus we are describing to our teenagers? I think we’d have to answer, truthfully, “Not always—maybe even rarely.” But I am convinced this is the Jesus kids are thirsty for—the unadulterated and unchained Jesus who shows up when we read the Bible in an unfiltered way.

When we asked more than 20,000 Christian teenagers to consider 41 different ministry activities and rank what they’d like “more of” and what they’d like “less of” at church, “Learning about Jesus” topped the list. This result will sink more profoundly into your soul when you consider the 40 things that rank below it on the list. It’s time to listen to the growling stomachs of teenagers, hungry for the Jesus who said, essentially, “If you want any part of me you’ll have to eat my body and drink my blood” (John 6). Theologian and author N. T. Wright packs a wallop with this: “The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him. That is of course, if it’s the real Jesus you’re looking at.” Wright is describing the elephant in the youth room—that we can’t help but motivate teenagers to serve Jesus, unless the Jesus we’re teaching them about is a fake Jesus.

If we’re not giving teenagers the real Jesus to look at, or giving them only a tiny glimpse of that real Jesus, they get a distorted, shallow, undermining sense of who he really is. The Jesus we’ve unwittingly asked them to follow bears little resemblance to the Jesus who turned the world upside down or the one who promised to “be with us always”—that means, a Jesus who is “badass” enough to lead them through the choking jungle of their life.

Our survey offers a window into the “secret dreams” your kids bring with them into church. Their longing for the “real Jesus” is just the tip of the iceberg. Here, we offer up the voices of youth pastors around the country who have wrestled with the implications of kids’ responses to this survey, filtering their insights through the stories of their ministries. In this issue, we’ll tackle the first half of our survey. In our March/April issue we’ll pull back the curtain a little more and explore Christian teenagers’ “secret dreams” through their answers to these four questions:

1. What is your biggest challenge in growing deeper in your relationship with God?

2. What is your biggest regret in your relationship with God?

3. What is your biggest hope in your relationship with God?

4. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

The common threads embedded in the tens of thousands of responses we collected from Christian teenagers are eye-opening, and will nudge your ministry vision in new directions. Meanwhile, it’s time to dig into their “more or less” votes on more than three-dozen church activities….


More or Less?

Every year at our Group Workcamps (groupworkcamps.com) locations scattered all around North America we ask the 20,000-plus Christian teenagers who are serving God by serving the poor to take one of their lunchtime breaks and fill out a new survey for GROUP. Here’s a quick snapshot of who these kids are:

• Almost all of them (90.9 percent) say they’ve “made a serious commitment to follow Jesus Christ” in their life;

• They typically attend church once a week (44.5 percent), but more than a third (36.6 percent) attend two or three times a week, and a significant minority (9 percent) attends three or more times a week; and

• The overwhelming majority of these teenagers (81.3 percent) attend just one church or youth group.

In the first section of our survey we asked them this question: “What would you like to do MORE of in your church’s youth ministry?” We gave them a list of 41 youth ministry “pursuits” to rate, and here’s how they answered. 

More of This

#1—Learning about Jesus                  91.2%

#2—Games and fun activities                  88.9%

#3—Relaxed hangout time with others in the group         88.3%

#4—Workcamps                  87.1%

#5—Retreats                  86.3%

#6—One-day “fun day” trips (water or amusement park)         84.0%

#7—Experiences that teach about God and His truths.         83.9%

#8—Small groups (discussion, study)                  83.7%

#9—Camps                  82.9%

#10—Local service projects                  82.9%

#11—Help learning how to pursue God on my own         81.9%

#12—Help in understanding the Bible                  81.5%

#13—Learning more about the New Testament.         80.5%

#14—Domestic mission trips                  80.0%

#15—Interactions with people at church outside of YM         79.7%

#16—Help dealing with tough issues in my life         78.7%

#17—Pursuing tough questions in Bible         78.3%

#18—Family activities at church                  77.7%

#19—Worship music and singing                  76.7%

#20—Learning more about biblical principles         76.6%

#21—Conversations about issues related to my faith         76.4%

#22—Opportunities to serve as a leader in youth group         75.0%

#23—Learning more about the Old Testament         74.7%

#24—Evangelism—sharing my faith with others         74.0%

#25—Lock-ins                  73.7%

#26—Sermons that focus on a topic                  72.4%

#27—Learning how to pray                  70.3%

#28—Opportunities to serve as a leader in the church         70.0%

#29—Counseling for tough things I’m going through         69.7%

#30—Bible study on a topic, not a book of the Bible.         69.4%

#31—Help with my relationships with peers         66.8%

#32—Youth conferences                  66.3%

#33—Cross-cultural mission trips                  65.0%

#34—Worship experiences (not singing)         64.6%

#35—Help with my relationships with siblings         63.6%

#36—Sermons that focus on the Bible                  63.3%

#37—Help with my relationship with my parents         62.3%

#38—Bible study that focuses on a book of the Bible.         61.3%

#40—Confirmation class                  57.5%

#41—Mentoring                  53.7%


The Voices of Youth Pastors

Because we are a “for youth workers, by youth workers” operation here at GROUP, I took the top 15 vote-getters on kids’ “I want more” list and sent them out to our close-knit community of advisors—150 youth pastors scattered all over North America and the world. I asked them to target something on the list that captured their attention, then write about why that particular response stuck out to them. It’s a totally random experiment in processing what Christian kids are saying to the church, but it’s fascinating to read their insights and stories. And because it’s a random experiment, some survey results on the top 15 list had no “takers” and some had more than one responder.

If you have your own response to something on the whole list, email me your insights at rlawrence@group.com, and make sure you include the survey response you’re targeting and your name and address. We’ll post your additional responses under our “Web Extras” link on groupmag.com.


#1—Learning About Jesus

“Man, #1 really does intrigue me. Who would guess, if they’re being honest, that THAT would be their top response? Yet it was. I think young people are hungry to learn more about Jesus—but not the “religious icon Jesus” or the “buddy Jesus”—the real, incarnate, rescuing Son of God. I keep hearing that line from Louie Giglio in my head: ‘You don’t have to MAKE Jesus awesome. He’s already awesome!’ I think we forget that and think we need to wrap the Gospel in a ‘cool’ or attractive package when, really, the hunger is already there in kids’ lives—we just need to create intersections where their hunger and the real Jesus meet.”

—Tim Blake, Kentucky


“More Jesus! This is great to hear from teenagers. And it makes me wonder: What ARE they getting at church? I think we often get tied up with the nuts-and-bolts of ‘doing’ ministry—and trying our best to be clever about it (I, for one, am guilty of this). But giving teenagers what they’re hungry for can be as simple as persistently pointing them to Jesus. I know, easier said than done sometimes. But I’m constantly reminded that I must decrease so he can increase.”

—Jeremiah Isley, Ohio


#2—Games and Fun Activities

“The world insists that children grow up as fast as they can, and that’s not necessarily what they want to do. They desire the laughter and joy and excitement that fun and games offer, not the seriousness that the world seems to be demanding. And ‘fun and games’ actually do have an underlying ‘serious’ purpose—they’re great at helping kids build a sense of team. One Sunday after our Game Night a senior told me, “It was like being at Chuck-E-Cheese!” I thought about his comment, and I remembered the restaurant’s slogan: “Where a kid can be a kid.” Something about that spoke to me—I realized that the pressures our students face are enormous, and I need to create a safe place for them to unwind.”

—Chris Bartley, Kentucky


“It’s easy to balk at this—to think that fun and games are ‘what they want, but not what they NEED!’ I used to HATE having to plan out games, skits, or other fun activities because I felt like they got in the way of the more important stuff—worship, the message, prayer times, and so on. But the truth is that humor, games, and fun (whatever form it takes) are amazing tools to break down the walls that so many students have built in their lives. I’ve seen more young people open up after a game of dodgeball or ‘I Never’ than I have after a chorus of ‘Mighty to Save.’ If youth want more fun and games, I say go for it—as long as it stays a means to an end. And the end is seeing their lives changed by Jesus!”

—Tim Blake, Kentucky


#3—Relaxed Hangout Time With Others In the Group        

“Every Sunday night, the 20-minute span while people are arriving is dedicated to building community through ‘hangout time.’ Also, anyone who can drive or is riding with someone who drove can stay as long as they need to or want to after youth group. This is usually an hour at most. Sometimes deeper questions come out from the study of the night, but it’s usually just good community time. Also, my city has three high schools (the third just opened). The school district in many ways has done a great job of fostering school pride in the youth. However, ‘school pride’ tends to lead to a spirit of animosity between the schools. Providing students time to ‘just hang out’ helps to ease these tensions. These are some of my favorite times with the youth. I enjoy talking with them in smaller groups of two or three—getting to know more about what is going on in their lives and what is on their hearts. Plus, I get to show them that I am human—not just their youth leader.”

—Heather Dixon, Wyoming


“In our youth ministry we used to have three structured gatherings a week—Wednesday night worship, Sunday morning Bible study, and Sunday night small groups. It was exhausting, not just for me, but for our students as well. We never had any time in any of our gatherings for our youth to just relax, hang out, and get to know each other in an organic way. So several years ago I made the move to make our Sunday evening gathering an informal hangout night. Sometimes pockets of students do their own thing, sometimes we come together for a big game, and every once in awhile a great conversation develops. Growth happens during hangout time in ways that it never would during more structured activities. More ‘blank space’ on the canvas of my youth ministry is a healthy thing!”

—Tim Blake, Kentucky


“A few years ago, when our ministry started expanding to unchurched kids, we began to add adults to help us reach them. We talked a lot with the adults about just being present with our kids because many students do not have meaningful relationships with adults. We talked about consistency, and that they simply needed to love on the kids. On a mission trip I was having a conversation with some of these new adult leaders and a student—the issue of ‘just hanging out’ with the kids came up. The adults got defensive and talked about how they had gone back to the Sunday school room two weeks in a row and the kids never talked to them. Then the student asked, ‘What happened after two weeks?’ The adult responded, ‘We stopped going back.’ Without missing a beat, the student said, ‘And when you did that, you confirmed everything that we thought about WHY you came back—you didn’t want to make an effort, you just wanted to show up and get the credit.’ Needless to say, the adults were stunned. If we are to stem the tide of teenagers leaving the church we’ll have to develop authentic, meaningful, and no-strings-attached relationships with adults who will listen to them, talk to them, and just be with them.

—Anonymous, Iowa


“Students are up at 6 a.m., finishing homework and rushing off to an early meeting for a class project before school starts at 8 a.m. Their world consists of non-stop sitting, being talked at, peer pressure, noise, getting work done, and worrying if that boy likes you, all in just an eight-hour day. Then factor in extra-curricular activities that keep some kids out till 10 p.m. some nights—once home they still have to clean their room, take out the garbage, do their homework, text their crush, and get in some gaming with friends before they head off to bed. Wouldn’t you want some unstructured time in a safe place to just rest and be with others who will encourage you?”

—Brit Windel, Colorado


#7—Experiences That Teach About God and His Truths        

“I wonder if teenagers understand that their desire to know God is a goal that should be guided by fear and trembling. I’m reminded of the many different versions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that I have constructed over the years to suit my walk with the Lord, versus letting him show me his glory. Teenagers often enjoy God being available to them in their back pocket, but how about letting God be as large as he is and freaking us out for a change? Imagine if we could give them that gift in our ministries….”

—Tony Myles, Ohio


#8—Small Groups (for Discussion and Study)

“I see more and more students feeling less and less connected to the overall large group—it’s like a band member who’s really connected to his band friends at school but could care less about the basketball game he’s performing at. The more they are connected to a small group, the more likely they are to connect with each other on a daily basis. Our culture consists of people who seem connected but are not really connected. Our small groups offer a safe-place environment for our students to ask questions, digest answers, and comment—all in a place where they feel free to be open and honest about their life and God.”

—Jon Batch, Indiana



“I know camps have been bashed a lot lately—I hear youth workers saying that camps don’t work anymore, or that kids don’t want to go. We have a different response in my ministry. Our church has a great camp—we plan the whole thing for our students. And our kids have caught the vision of bringing their friends who don’t know Jesus. We get the opportunity to present him to them without a lot of the everyday distractions of home. When God isn’t being drowned out by the other junk, students are very open to hearing the Good News. Our camp is packed full of outdoor options. There is free time, but not for long periods. Our students LOVE the chance to go to our youth camp and consider it the best event of the year!”

—Grant T. Byrd, Texas


#10—Local Service Projects

At my small church we had next to no budget and no bank-rolling seniors I could go to, but we did have a collection of parents who were willing to pinch-hit when needed. As we turned our focus to helping our students get more ministry experience, a parent came up to me and pitched an idea to have our teenagers cook a meal every month for a needy church member. The parent was willing to jump in and lead our kids, so all I had to do was sign off on it. And the ministry took off! Students loved getting together at this parent’s house to put together the meals. Now, several years since I’ve left that church, the ministry is still going strong.

—Matt Murphy, Colorado


#12—Help In Understanding the Bible

“I am saddened this one slipped to #12—that’s difficult to swallow. Helping teenagers understand the Bible is central to our calling, but the church seems to have failed miserably. By the time students get to us, many of them have already decided the Bible is irrelevant, making it harder to unravel what has been frustrating for them. I think many of us find it difficult to balance the demands of ministry and the effort it takes to build a biblical foundation for our students to stand on—it’s a struggle. The fact that they actually say they want to know more about it is great—they want what we have to give. But we have to do it in a relevant, truthful, honest way that ‘fits’ their reality.”

—Bill Holleran, Florida


“People have a funny relationship with the Bible—so many know it, but few truly experience it. I love teaching through a ‘familiar’ story or passage and watching teenagers get to that ‘Aha!’ moment when they see it for themselves the first time. As youth workers we face two dangers: 1) Allowing ourselves to become comfortable with what we think our teenagers already know, and 2) A lack of creativity on our part when it comes to those ‘familiar’ passages.”

—Jon Kelly, New York

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s much that can spark a good conversation in these results—so join the fray and email me at rlawrence@group.com. And visit groupmag.com often for updates, as more and more youth workers (maybe even you) add their voices to the dialogue. ◊


Rick Lawrence has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 24 years. His latest book is Sifted: God’s Scandalous Response to Satan’s Outrageous Demand (siftedbook.com).

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