No one can deny the importance of youth for the future of the church. For future leadership and every aspect of church growth, we are dependent on our youth.
Having said that, we need to ask our selves the crucial question: Do we have a specific plan for the youth of our churches? Is the action in the local church inclusive enough to interest and challenge young people? If we have something going, do we have a plan to evaluate and measure its success in terms of reaching young people and young adults?
Youth ministries, to be successful, should take into consideration three different age groups: junior youth, senior youth, and young adults. Each is a different group and calls for a different approach.
Junior youth may be defined as children up to the age of 12 or 13. We used to list senior youth as starting at 16, but anyone who has had experience with a 16-year-old youth knows that that's when life gets rough and tough. The fact is the changes start well before 16.
Junior youth is the time before the onslaught; puberty, discovery of the opposite sex, the power of car keys and credit cards, the turbulences of the teenage years have not yet arrived (although juniors carry their own set of problems).
At this point in their lives, juniors generally want to be involved and they enjoy spiritual things. Even more important, at this age they are still putting together habits that will become a part of their adult life.
Our challenge, then, is to imprint the things of Christ on the still-malleable clay of their young minds before time hardens the clay. Once the hardening sets in, it's more difficult to form good habits and easier to pick up bad ones.
A personal example will illustrate the point. I know many Bible verses by memory, entire passages in some cases. I learned most of these in my childhood and junior years. I can still hear my dad teaching me, "I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). Psalm 23, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and other gems became part of me from childhood learning, and they have stuck with me. But I can't tell you the last text I memorized as an adult. This is not because adulthood is antipathetic to learning. But as an adult, I can't seem to remember things as I used to. I have a hard time remembering what I wore yesterday. But I've never forgotten the things I learned about God as a child.
We must, then, take advantage of child hood. That's why Sabbath school for our children is critical; Bible bowl is invaluable. It plants the Word in their hearts, when the ground is still fertile. We reach juniors by allowing them to do things in the church at their age, this is what they want. If you have the personnel, you need a junior choir, a junior usher board, a junior Adventist youth society.
Suddenly juniors are no longer juniors. They hit the senior line, and you have to beg, plead, threaten, and cajole them to get involved in the church. But even in this age group there's still a deep-down desire for spiritual things, even if it is hidden.
Young people in this age group (say, from 14 to the early 20s) often respond to Christ through a relationship with a committed, caring adult (a pastor, a youth leader, a Sabbath school teacher). They are more "relational." If I spend time with them when I'm out of the pulpit, they are more likely to respond to me when I'm in the pulpit.
A caring relationship is sometimes as simple as learning a person's name. Many pastors and church elders do not even know the names of many of the young people in their churches, even if a young person has been in the church for a long time. I was visiting a church one day, and a young woman came into the pastor's study. The pastor had been in that church a long time, and so had that young woman. But he did not know who she was. What kind of mes sage did that young woman get from her pastor (who, by the way, is a good preacher)?
In this age group, young people have to have somebody in the church who cares about them and will take time for them. If church leaders are impersonal and too busy for them, they could get the impression that God too is impersonal and occupied with other things.
The young adults
The third group in youth ministries are young adults (from mid-20s to early 40s). In some ways this group is even more difficult to reach than the teenagers. It is true that teenagers are the toughest audience. If you are preaching and not connecting with them, they are far less likely to feign interest. But at least they are there; they are still an audience.
Young adults, on the other hand, are far more likely not to be there at all, either be cause they are visiting somewhere, churchhopping, traveling, or just plain at home, because "the church isn't ministering to my needs."
The big disadvantage leaders have in dealing with young adults is their overall lack of institutional loyalty. In years gone by, people were more willing to support the church's various endeavors out of a sense of loyalty. I can't tell you how many times my father sat through evangelistic crusades and heard "Adam's Mother's Birthday" or "God wouldn't, the disciples couldn't, Jesus didn't who did?" But he went anyway and brought others with him.
Now you try getting an average young adult to go into a hot, unair-conditioned tent and fight mosquitoes to hear a sermon that he's heard 10 times before.
Look around the church prayer meeting or the Sabbath school and see who's there. Generally it is not young adults. We don't get them unless there is a "buy-in" on their part. But that's not all bad. The old days might have been easier on church leaders in some ways because members tended to be more institutionally loyal and more uncritically supportive. But do we really need uncritical support? Is that healthy, anyway? That kind of uncritical faith and belief is often more refreshing than the none-of-you-are-up-to- any-good cynicism that we frequently see today.
Loyalty has its place, but blind loyalty to concepts that don't work anymore isn't healthy in any organization. The young adults may not be, as a rule, as institution ally loyal, but they constantly force us to examine what we do and why we do what we do because they refuse to accept the status quo unquestioningly. Every organization needs people like that.
Young adults can be reached. We've tried a few things in our conference: singles' retreats and young adult retreats, parent support groups, exercise classes, stress management, weight control, and relevant Bible studies on Friday nights. The young adults are not going to support the church automatically en masse like their parents, but they will support it. Their support, both in finance and in service, is crucial to the church. We must aggressively seek them out.
Planning for youth ministries
Whatever youth group we plan to reach, we must have a specific plan. We must be willing to submit that plan to proper scrutiny and feedback. We cannot plan for the generations we have been speaking of with out getting significant input from them. I personally recommend the "town meeting" approach, in which the leadership provides an opportunity for questions and feedback from those it seeks to lead.
We must be willing to change approaches (but not principles) over time. Evangelism is a classic example. The days of tents being the exclusive means of public evangelism are over, even if there are leaders who don't know that yet. We are now into NET 96 high-tech evangelism. Although there is a place for tents as we make room for electronic evangelism, the guiding principle the gospel to all the world remains the same.
Youth ministries, the task of preparing our young people for the kingdom, is too important to be left to people who are neither dedicated nor committed. We can't leave people in office, whether they be on the conference level or the local level, who aren't taking care of God's business with His young people.