Want to be like Jesus? Want teenagers to be like Jesus? We’re nothing like him unless we’re on a constant search-and-rescue mission for the lost—and are calling students to do the same.
We may think we’re too busy to worry about outreach. We may think we’ve gotten to the point where we shouldn’t have to dirty our hands doing the gritty work of evangelism. But if the Son of Man’s highest priority was to “seek and save what was lost,” then ours must be, too.
Youth pastor Bill Freund says:
I’m convinced the greatest way to grow in your faith is by sharing your faith. I’ve watched timid students begin to have spiritual conversations with their friends, get asked questions they don’t know how to answer, and then begin to dig deep to find those answers for their friends.”
When teenagers experience the privilege of leading a friend to faith, the joy is immeasurable. No thrill the world offers can compete!
But evangelism also forces teenagers to count the cost of following Jesus. When they realize they could suffer loss—of status, popularity, and even dear friendships—they lean into and trust Jesus even more. That accelerates spiritual maturity, as does the responsibility of helping friends grow in their newfound faith and get plugged into a church.
When you build a gospel-advancing ministry, you can overcome almost any obstacle—because you’ll know that, ultimately, lives are being changed and souls are being saved. That’s what makes youth ministry worth it.
To assess the state of evangelism in your church and youth group, ask these questions:
- Is evangelism a priority? How is that evident?
- Do I have adult volunteers and student leaders who are passionate about evangelism?
- Are teenagers motivated to share the gospel? Is the soil of their hearts fertile or poor?
- Are they trained and equipped for faith-sharing?
- Do any schools have campus ministries we can tap into?
- Am I committed to praying for people who need Jesus? Are my teenagers?
- Are we spurring one another on in our evangelism efforts?
Over the years we’ve asked youth leaders to rank where “evangelism training” stands in their list of ministry priorities. Every time it’s among the top five must-do’s of youth ministry, but it’s always near the bottom of youth leaders’ list of “common elements in my youth ministry programming.” Because evangelism training seems difficult, it’s more a token priority than a real value. You’ve already got a lot on your plate, right?
What’s more, if you do make evangelism training a priority, you’ll have a new “problem”—you’ll actually have new believers walking your hallways. So rather than risking their jobs and their brain cells, most youth leaders revert to a quarterly outreach event and an annual missions trip so they can scratch “evangelism” off their list.
But to truly impact the teenagers in our communities, it’ll take more than that. Youth ministries that make a difference are organically evangelistic. It’s just something they do all of the time because they’re always training their teenagers to share their faith.
When teenagers see evangelism is an expected priority in your ministry, you create an atmosphere where outreach thrives and spiritual growth explodes. How can you create this kind of atmosphere? Offer the gospel message every week. If kids know you’ll be inviting them to commit their lives to Christ at every gathering, they’ll be much more inclined to bring their unreached friends. And even if there are no non-Christian young people at your gathering, your gospel presentation honors Jesus. The whole of the Bible centers around Jesus—the Old Testament points to him, the Gospels unveil him, the epistles explain him, and the book of Revelation exalts him.
You can also champion evangelism by developing a ministry team focused on the priority of faith sharing. Many youth groups have music teams, drama teams, and leadership teams, so why shouldn’t we have evangelism teams?
Perhaps the biggest way you can create an evangelism-friendly environment is to model it yourself. Your kids are scrutinizing your lifestyle, priorities, and choices. They’ll follow the pace you set.
Make a Weekly Beeline to the Cross
How can you raise the temperature for evangelism within the context of your students? Accept the challenge of presenting the gospel every week.
Too many youth leaders assume that all their meeting attendees are Christians. Don’t make that mistake. Regularly offer the gospel in a clear, compelling way. This has two benefits. The obvious one is that teenagers will know that any time they invite friends to youth group, they’ll hear a clear gospel message. Of course, the ultimate goal is that teenagers will own the process of reaching friends for Christ. But inviting friends to a meeting and then following up with a spiritual conversation can be a natural part of that process.
The second benefit is that presenting the gospel weekly serves as a training ground. Your presentations will prepare kids for what to say when they get their own opportunity to share Jesus. If young people hear you explain the gospel week after week, soon they’ll be able to do the same.
The trick is transitioning from your talk to the gospel as smoothly as possible. Here are a few helpful ideas:
- Look for the redemptive tie-in. Every good story has an element of redemption or a conflict that’s resolved by a hero’s actions. From the latest dystopian romance series to Harry Potter to the accounts of Noah and Daniel, search for a scarlet ribbon of redemption that can turn toward the gospel.
- Look for real needs. Many youth talks deal with teenagers’ felt needs. But you must look to the real needs behind those surface needs and show how the gospel addresses them. For the felt need of poor self-image, for example, the real need is an understanding that we all struggle with “missing the mark” (sin) as a result of humanity’s Fall. The solution is Jesus’ grace and forgiveness.
- Don’t stress about a segue. If you can’t think of one, just give the gospel anyway. Say something like, “Okay, I want to change the subject and speak to those who may not be sure about all this….”
Train Christian teenagers to listen closely and pray with their eyes open as you present the gospel. It’s important that they not be a distraction by checking messages or whispering with neighbors. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon said,
“I take my text and make a beeline for the cross.”
Let’s do the same.
Present the GOSPEL
Here’s a simple progression for helping students learn how to share the simplicity of the “good news” about Jesus… Dare2Share calls this The GOSPEL Journey—you can watch Dare2Share’s founder Greg Stier explain this approach here:
- God created us to be with him.
- Our sin separates us from God.
- Sins cannot be removed by good deeds.
- Paying the price for sin, Jesus died and rose again.
- Everyone who trusts in him alone has eternal life.
- Life that’s eternal means we will be with Jesus forever.
For some, memorizing a little acrostic may seem too elemental. You may think your teenagers are too sophisticated for that. But imagine a guitar teacher who thought her students were too sophisticated to learn basic chords. What’s true of playing the guitar is true of sharing Jesus. The gospel’s chords are more than a creed they memorize—they’re more like the high points in a story that spans Genesis 1 to Revelation 22; a story that just happens to be true.
Too often, Christians do the opposite of Mary Poppins. Although our medicine tastes like sugar, our methods taste like medicine. The cure we extend to people who need the spiritual healing only Jesus brings is sweet as sugar, but our methods give it a bad taste. The key is to “engage, don’t enrage.” After all, when it comes to getting teenagers to share the good news, the goal is for other people to receive it.
In 2 Timothy 2:23-26 (NIV), Paul reminds us:
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”
Although the fire for the gospel still burns hot in Paul’s belly, the way he presents it seems less antagonistic. He learned to effectively engage, not enrage. We can help teenagers do the same thing as they interact with peers. One way is by providing questions that encourage discovery, not debate. For example:
- “What do you do in your spare time?”
- “What kind of movies (apps, video games, music) do you like?”
- “Do you ever wonder about…?”
While teenagers are listening and learning more about someone this way, they can also be praying that Jesus will open the door for them to bring up the gospel. Then, at just the right time, the conversation can turn to him in an engaging (not enraging) way.
The Gospel message is controversial enough on its own. It says salvation isn’t about what we do, only about what Jesus has done. It says he’s “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and that nobody darkens heaven’s door without going through the Door, Jesus Christ himself (John 10:9).
Encourage kids to deliver this powerful message in a humble, compelling way. Then they can let the Holy Spirit do his work of illumination and transformation.
Four out of 10 Christian teenagers say it’s not easy for them to talk about their faith in Christ with their friends, vaulting to six out of 10 when their “target” is someone they don’t know well. They’re very well aware, as are Christian adults, that it’s fine to talk about spirituality and even God in our culture, but it’s offensive to talk to others about Jesus (43%). When we explore the whole faith-sharing thing a little deeper with them, here’s what we discovered:
- “It’s pretty easy for me to talk to my friends about my faith in Jesus”—62% agreed.
- “It’s pretty easy for me to talk to people I don’t know well about my faith in Jesus”—61% agreed.
- “I don’t talk specifically about Jesus very often because it might offend others”—43% agreed.
- “I’ve had someone model for me what it looks like to share my faith with others”—64% agreed.
Skin in the Game
Involving teenagers in evangelism inspires and equips them to engage with Jesus personally and publicly. We inspire kids to engage with Jesus personally because that’s how they grow to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings (see Philippians 3:10). We equip teenagers to engage with Jesus publicly by mobilizing them to cultivate gospel conversations with friends, teammates, and classmates. When they begin sharing Jesus with their peers, an amazing thing occurs: Kids grow deeper in their own knowledge of and love for Jesus. They get skin in the game.
Getting in the Game
Kids are hard-wired to want to be in the game. From a young age, they want to be involved, not just spectators. For proof, just listen to any preschooler: “Me! Let me do it!” As children grow, they develop their own competencies.
The same is true for teenagers’ spiritual development. Active participation in the work of ministry helps kids develop a stronger, more autonomous faith. They begin to exercise their own beliefs rather than half-heartedly live out a faith borrowed from their parents.
These practical ideas will help you get teenagers in the game so they can grow deeper spiritually and go wider with the gospel:
- Keep outreach front and center. Equip kids to see faith-sharing as a natural overflow of their relationship with God. Challenge them to discuss spiritual topics with friends and invite non-Christians to youth group.
- Recruit teenagers to meet and greet. Get kids involved in weekly welcoming responsibilities. Teach them to introduce and keep an eye on visitors, sit by them (if appropriate), and talk to them afterward. Coach kids to first ask icebreaker questions such as “Where do you go to school?” and “How did you hear about us?” Later, they can move to more directed questions such as “Did what you heard here make sense?” and “Do you have any questions about it?” and “Would you like to join us for…?” For a deeper dive into creating a welcoming environment in your ministry, check out “Please Offend Me” by Theresa Mazza.
- Involve teenagers in prayer. Set aside time for kids to pray for one another. Model how to play an active role in bringing up topics as well as doing the praying. Show kids how to move beyond day-to-day requests to pray for things of lasting spiritual impact, such as the hearts of friends who need Jesus. Each week, change up prayer logistically to keep it fresh.
Encourage kids to share stories. Reserve a few minutes each week to let teenagers tell about their efforts to live and share their faith. These stories should include the good, the bad, and the ugly. Whether or not kids see immediate results, the fact that they’re trying to reach out can encourage and inspire others to do the same.
A Bigger “Yes!”
Teenagers need a much bigger “yes!” to overwhelm all the little “no’s” floating around in their brains that keep them from learning to share their faith:
- “No! I can’t share my faith because I don’t know what to say.”
- “No! I don’t even know how to bring up my faith in a conversation.”
- “No! What if they ask me a question that I don’t have the answer to?”
The list could go on and on and on. Some are legitimate concerns. Some are just excuses. We must wipe out the power of the little “no” with a bigger “yes!” Here are three:
- Underscore the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus’ last and lasting mandate to all of his disciples (including your teenagers) was to “go and make disciples of all nations…”
- It’s terrible to live life without a real hope, and that’s exactly what those who don’t know Jesus are doing. When the Titanic was sinking, all eight members of the ship’s band kept playing ragtime tunes to calm the panicked passengers. All eight perished when the ship went down. People who don’t know Jesus are just like those eight men—many of them will play a happy tune right up to the moment their ship slips under the waves. But if we have the opportunity to lead them to a Lifeboat, why wouldn’t we?
- Offer Jesus-like compassion. The Good Samaritan probably had a lot on his mind the day he saw a man curled up in pain by the side of the road. He probably had important things to do and places to be that day. But he stopped and got involved—really, he threw a huge wrench into his plans and his finances—because he had compassion. When we introduce people to Jesus we’re offering them Samaritan-like compassion.
Ambassadors for Jesus
Paul calls Christ-followers ambassadors. What’s that? An ambassador is a personal representative of a nation who carries out the policies and presents the priorities of the government they represent. In Ephesians 6:19-20, Paul writes: “And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should.” How did Paul’s view of himself as an ambassador shape his understanding of his life?
Well, in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, he answers that question: “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’”
Our “ambassador” life is framed by three questions:
- God has chosen me to be his ambassador—how does this shape my identity and the way I think about my life?
- How am I taking my role as an ambassador for Jesus seriously?
- How well does my life represent Jesus to the world?
Did you know that Jesus gives you and your teenagers the divine right to share your faith? The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) begins with these words:
All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples…”
Jesus is reminding us that we have been authorized by the greatest force in the universe to make disciples of everybody! Buddhists, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans—whenever, wherever, and with whomever, Jesus has passed on to us the divine right to “make disciples.” But we don’t have any right to be obnoxious in the process!
Jesus’ disciples exercised this divine right in the face of intense religious opposition—they were all persecuted for it, and all but one were executed for it. Today, according to Open Doors International,
More Christians are now being persecuted than at any other time in history; some 200 million are being persecuted, with another 300 million experiencing discrimination.”
Evangelism always has and always will result in persecution—it’s good to remember that. For your teenagers that persecution will more likely take the form of a teacher’s sneer, a friend’s rolled eyes, or a Snapchat war of words. And that’s a good thing—Jesus reminds us:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
As teenagers understand their divine right to “make disciples” they’ll gain the confidence they need to communicate the gospel in the face of persecution. And as you help them balance this confidence with true humility, they’ll become more and more effective at reaching many (while repelling some) of their friends for Jesus.
Here are 10 ways students can legally express their religious views on campus:
- Meet with other religious students.
- Identify your religious beliefs through signs and symbols.
- Talk about your religious beliefs on campus.
- Distribute religious literature on campus.
- Pray on campus.
- Carry or study a Bible on campus.
- Do research papers, speeches and creative projects with religious themes.
- Be exempt from activities and class content that contradict religious belief.
- Celebrate or study religious holidays on campus.
- Meet with school officials for redress of grievances concerning religious freedoms.
For more on this, check out “A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.”
GROUP magazine asked youth leaders to reveal their evangelism training choices. We asked: “When teaching my teenagers about evangelizing, I am most likely to…”
41.4%—Have them evangelize through acts of service at various places around town. (Because service is the least threatening way to reach out to others, it makes sense it’s the most-used strategy—but what are the limitations of service as an evangelistic expression?)
25.9%—Encourage them to participate in a short-term missions trip. (The big question is how the experiences kids have on short-term mission trips are connected to their everyday life back home.)
16.4%—I don’t take the teenagers away from the church very often. (So we can only assume these kids are practicing their evangelism skills on the post-evangelized.)
11.2%—Take them to an inner-city location to feed the homeless or do some street ministry. (Are we moving in Christ like compassion or are we simply telling ourselves we’re edgy and committed?)
5.2%—Take them to a nursing home and encourage them out of their comfort zone. (Seniors don’t bite, usually—nevertheless, nursing homes bear little resemblance to kids’ real world.)
Imagine a basketball coach who just gave pep talks but never actually provided plays. What if every practice were a pump-’em-up, rah-rah motivational speech with no actual practicing, scrimmaging, dribbling, shooting, or rebounding? That team would be a highly motivated failure. So why would we use an approach to youth ministry that no self-respecting coach would ever use on the court?
Our programming and scheduling must make room for training about how to read the Bible, how to pray, how to identify and use spiritual gifts, and how to effectively share the gospel. In short, every teenager who regularly attends your youth ministry needs to know the why’s, what’s, and how’s of evangelism.
Teenagers need to know why it’s important. This is when you give a pep talk and let kids know what’s at stake. You can remind them of the hell their unreached classmates are headed to for eternity, as well as the “hell” they’re going through apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Finally, teenagers need to know how to share their faith, from bringing it up to wrapping it up to dealing with objections. Kids need your help in knowing how to use these skills effectively. Think of them as the dribbling and rebounding of evangelism, necessary to win the “game.”
Whether you have a separate training time or incorporate training into your weekly lessons, make sure all teenagers in your group are equipped to effectively share their faith on an ongoing basis. Be more than just a coach who gives pep talks. Be a coach who equips your players to win.
The sometimes-bumpy process of flying is like teaching teenagers to share their faith. Taking off is like bringing up God in a conversation. Flying is like talking about Jesus’ gospel of grace. Turbulence occurs when someone wants to debate or argue. Landing is wrapping up the message and seeing which “runway” that person wants to choose.
Can your students navigate a gospel conversation from takeoff to touch-down? Do they know how to:
- bring up the good news with a peer?
- explain the gospel?
- deal with turbulence that occurs when someone wants to argue?
- bring that person to a point of decision? (“Yes,” “no,” or “I need more time.”)
A free Dare2Share app can help. It shows your students how to take off through a simple process called Ask, Admire, Admit. (Ask great questions, admire what you can about what the person believes, and admit you’re a sinner saved by God’s grace.) Then kids will learn how to fly—how to relationally share the gospel message in a clear, compelling way. Finally, they’ll learn how to land by helping someone decide what to do with Jesus.
Have your teenagers download the app at Dare2Share.com and watch the short training videos. Then challenge them to take a friend flying that very week—because lives depend on it.
In his book Shrewd, Rick Lawrence calls Christians to be shrewd in how they do ministry and live life. Youth workers must equip teenagers to be shrewd, especially as that trait applies to advancing God’s kingdom in their spheres of influence. In Matthew 10:16 (NIV), Jesus says,
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
It’s in the context of sending his disciples out to do evangelism that Jesus uses these four animal metaphors:
- Sheep represent the helpless, harmless nature of Christians who bring gentleness to a violent world.
- Wolves represent the dangerous, diabolical nature of people who stand against the tenants of the gospel message.
- Snakes represent the shrewd nature we should emulate when it comes to our evangelism strategies.
- Doves represent the pure, holy, innocent motives that should drive our shrewd strategies, especially as they pertain to advancing the gospel in a wolf-like culture.
Because teenagers are up against carnal carnivores who have a taste for Christian flesh, we must equip them to be “shape-shifters” of sorts. At their core they must be sheep, totally at the beck-and-call of the Master Shepherd, staying close to Jesus’ side and being fully dependent on him. But we must help kids be shrewd as they share their faith. Instead of suggesting they try a frontal assault (“Hey, are you a Christian?”), we equip them to ask questions such as “What are your spiritual beliefs?” and “What are your thoughts about God?” Then they just listen. After that, ever so shrewdly, young people can look for entry paths to turn those conversations toward the hope of Jesus and the truth of the gospel.
All the while, we must equip teenagers to shape-shift into doves as they communicate the good news. Their hearts and motives must be pure. Instead of just getting another convert notched onto their belts, they should long to set captives free and turn them into fully surrendered followers of Jesus who shrewdly and humbly set more captives free.
You aren’t alone when it comes to feeling trepidation about declaring the good news with neighbors, family, friends, and strangers. The greatest evangelist of all time (except Jesus, of course) was afraid of sharing his faith. To the Corinthian Christians, Paul wrote, “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3, NIV).
If we adults are nervous about faith-sharing, it’s no surprise many teenagers are terrified. After all, to them every zit feels like Mt. Vesuvius, and self-consciousness is a neurosis. They’re afraid of looking ugly, stupid, or out of fashion, so asking them to share the gospel with friends is pretty major—because you’re really asking them to share a message that looks ugly to some, sounds stupid to others, and is out of fashion to many.
In light of these obstacles, is there any hope of helping teenagers (and adults) conquer evangephobia? The answer is a great big YES!
Paul conquered his fear through prayer. He wrote:
Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19, NIV).
Prayer is the key to conquering evangephobia. It infuses us with divine power to proclaim the gospel. It puts us in the upper room, waiting on God to unleash Holy Spirit power to set our tongues on fire. It gives us time to unclog the drain of the Spirit’s flow to our souls so divine energy surges through us unabated.
If we want would-be evangelists to stop trembling and Satan to start, prayer must be a priority. Talking and listening to God conquers evangephobia in our hearts and kick-starts it in the devil’s heart.
Show a clip from the movie Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. Start at approximately 1:30:15 (based on 0:00:00 at studio logo) when Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader begin their duel. Stop the clip at about 1:33:15 when the Millennium Falcon escapes from the Death Star. Ask them why Obi Wan allow himself to be killed by Darth Vader. Some kids will likely quickly answer that he sacrificed himself for the sake of Luke Skywalker’s training. But you can remind them that figuring out the motivation of a character in a movie or book is one of the things that make a good story so interesting. Every significant action is the result of a significant motivation. For example, people create art out of an innate desire for beauty, people murder out of a deep-seated jealousy, people risk their life out of love for another, and people achieve the impossible because of a unique ambition.
So what about the Apostles? They left home and ultimately gave up their lives. Their driving motivation was a determination to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. But what exactly was this gospel? What was it that drove them to the “ends of the earth”? What was it that they sacrificed their lives for? A slowed-down study of Acts 3:1-26 reveals that the gospel …
- “is real and powerful,”
- “is both spiritual and physical,”
- “cares about the forgotten,”
- “brings life,”
- “is based on Jesus,”
- “requires repentance,” and
- “will change your life.”
And, in Acts 4:12, Peter tells us that ultimately the gospel is salvation. Though it may seem hard to us to share the gospel, it was even harder for Christians in Peter’s time because they faced growing persecution. Remind your students about the “Christian’s Prayer for Courage” in Acts 4:29-30:
O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”