Yesterday hundreds of thousands of teenagers decided to take a stand by participating in the National School Walkout, a coordinated protest conceived and implemented by student activists from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. These young leaders, all of them survivors of one of the worst school shootings in American history, have been articulate, determined, and shrewd as they try to leverage an adult-controlled political apparatus into doing something to stop the carnage.
My oldest daughter Lucy, now a freshman in college, was herself, involved in a school shooting just four years ago—running to find shelter after a psychologically disturbed classmate killed a student just down the hallway from where she was studying. Yesterday, in recognition of what her best friend and sister went through, and to make her own statement about gun violence in schools, my youngest daughter Emma joined her friends in walking out of class at 10 a.m.
I couldn’t be prouder of her, though she is probably the least-likely social activist on the planet. But she is proving that she and her protesting peers around the country can and will back up their passion with actions designed to leverage change—the very thing so many dismissive adults in our culture have claimed they’re not capable of pulling off. Well, they’ve already helped move the Florida legislature to pass sweeping new gun-violence laws, and are keeping up the pressure on national political leaders.
The dismissive adults are in for a shock because I believe the wide-scale leverage they saw on the news yesterday is just the beginning of a Gen Z revolution…
In the most affluent culture in the world, well-practiced at removing hardship from kids’ lives, today’s teenagers want something more than a pandering, over-functioning culture is handing them. They’re gravitating to hard challenges and hopeless causes in droves. And that hunger for diving deep is not confined to political/social causes—these same kids are craving a hearty meal as they consider what it means to follow Jesus, not the lightweight juice-box snack-able vision served to them at so many churches.
A friend of mine recently forwarded an article about a new, “cutting-edge” youth ministry and asked me what I thought about it. The deeper I probed the strategies at the heart of this approach to ministry, the more agitated I got. The assumptions and priorities lauded as “models” for a new way of doing youth ministry seemed like blown-out old-school ministry practices and capitulations to a culture that has seen steep declines in church participation over the last decade… At the heart of this ministry’s approach to reaching teenagers is a well-meaning but wrong-headed determination to lower the bar as far as possible to entice teenagers to participate in church-related activities.
For example, this ministry recommends studying the social activities and entertainment preferences of teenagers, then replicating those environments at church with bigger, better versions than they can get elsewhere. And in their discipleship strategies, they recommend limiting the “meat” of their spiritual growth efforts to appetizer portions—a five-minute talk that raises big questions that the leader answers in bite-sized ways.
Here’s why I think this ministry model is like repeated, long swigs of Mountain Dew—a short-term sugar high followed by long-term health hazards…
Teenagers want to be challenged in their relationship with Jesus, not served “try harder to get better” formulas or Christian-lite self-help strategies.
In contrast with the five-minute Bible focus strategy, I lead a weekly small group for 15 or so teenagers in my home—for two hours every Tuesday night my living room is filled with raucous conversation and extraordinary insights as, together, we pursue and discover the deepest truths human beings are capable of grasping. This group has been going strong for three years and peaked in attendance last year when more than 20 showed up every week. Many of those kids have now moved on to college, so we’re starting over with younger teenagers, most of them freshmen. The motto of the group is “Pursuing the Heart of Jesus, Not His Recipes.” When a new kid visits the group, I always ask one of the “lifers” to explain the meaning behind our unusual battle cry. And they never disappoint, because they’ve experienced firsthand the passion that grows out of a deeper focus on the heart of Jesus, rather than a fixation on how his principles—his “recipes for life”—will improve their lives. When our goal is to pursue the heart of Jesus, rather than morph everything he says and does into life applications, we find fuel for our passion.
Author, C.S. Lewis expert, and Boston College professor Peter Kreeft describes Jesus as a shocking wonder: “I think Jesus is the only man in history who never bored anyone,” he says. “I think this an empirical fact, not just a truth of faith…Not everyone who meets Jesus is pleased, and not everyone is happy. But everyone is shocked.” We aim to create a “pursuit environment” in our group where the kids are the ones who are discovering why Jesus said and did the things He said and did. They’re getting to know the shocking Jesus, not the Mr. Rogers Jesus that most Americans assume when they think about Him. It’s interactive—with pairs, trios, and the whole group responding to creative “pursuit” questions. And it’s experiential—we use simple but captivating experiences, along with film clips and animations, to engage the heart as much as the head (the same experience you get with our LIVE small-group curriculum). Our goal is always to target the heart of Jesus because the heart is ultimately what ruins us for Him.
These kids not only love this environment, most weeks I have to cut short the conversation so they can get home and finish their homework. They’re hungry for spiritual protein, not spiritual Laffy Taffy.
Rather than lowering the bar for today’s Gen Z students, the way forward is to respect them more, challenge them more, and delight in them more…
We need youth ministries that are more, not less.
In a little over a month (April 24), my new book will release—it’s called Spiritual Grit: A Journey Into Endurance. Character. Confidence. Hope. It’s not a youth ministry-specific book—it’s a book for anyone. But there is so much in it that offers youth ministry leaders a pragmatic spectrum of ideas and strategies to create a more, not less ministry environment. You can pre-order the book right now from Amazon. Let’s raise our sights, and not lose heart in the midst of a challenging time.
Our teenagers are craving leaders who have at least the same level of courage they’re right now exhibiting…
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