Revival through the youth

Harnessing the energy and the commitment of the young

Gary Burns is the pastor of the Dakota Adventist Academy church, Bismarck, North Dakota.

When I was a teen, I lived with an urgency that Jesus would come before I finished academy certainly before I had a chance to marry. So I remember wondering why the school administration was planting little trees around the new academy building. After all, Jesus would come long before those trees amounted to anything right? Well, last year I returned with my wife and three children to my class's twenty-fifth annual re union. Our class wanted to put in a special memorial garden for one of our classmates. We talked about removing some of the more imposing and aggressive trees and re-landscaping.

My generation hasn't made much progress toward our goal hasn't even come close to finishing the work. If anything, we've set it back a few years. We are highly critical of church leaders and think we have all the answers. The word "commitment" seems to be missing from our vocabulary, and we're supposed to be the army of young Hebrew worthies to proclaim the third angel's mes sage and endure the time of trouble?

Yet just when things may look impossible, we have reason to hope. Dwight Nelson, senior pastor of Pioneer Memorial church at Andrews University, has concluded from his generational study that today's generation has more in common with the generation of the disciples than any other in history. 1 When Jesus chose the disciples, it was they and others who accepted Him who became the new church. They changed the world.

The call of Jesus is as fresh to my generation as it was to the disciples. I've changed my attitude toward today's youth. Even though they feel they are a disenfranchised generation craving intimacy and authentic relationships, they are ready for something meaningful and real. That's why today's teenagers are responding to Christ and His call to discipleship in a way that astounds many of us in youth ministry. Could it be that today's generation is "ripe for harvesting" (John 4:35)?* Could it be that Paul had today's generation in mind when prophetically he spoke of a harvest in "the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him" (Eph. 1:10)? "If there ever was a generation in our history ripe and ready for the healing power of the greatest relational truth about God ever revealed, it is this one!"2

In tune with Dwight Nelson's optimistic hope is the realistic description Mike Stevenson, a former General Conference youth leader, gave of a youth revival that took place some 25 years ago: "I had become more and more excited about what was happening. For me it was definitely a spring time in the fall! . . . Revivals were taking place! ... Prayer groups were springing up all over the [Andrews University] residence halls.... Victories too numerous to mention, and miracles of varying degrees, continued to take place.... 'It's unbelievable, it's wonderful!' These youth so recently 'turned off regarding God and the church invaded the [Sligo church] platform. With the Word of God in their hands they poured out testimonies of praise.... Now with faces aglow these victorious young people stepped up to give further invitations to the members of this large church. The testimonies continued until 2:30 p.m.... The broadening out of this revival and reformation is taking place. Groups of [AU] students have visited every academy and church in driving distance.... Almost everywhere they go revivals begin."3

These words could well have been writ ten about the movement of God's Spirit among teenagers today.

My first encounter

My first real encounter with this latest phenomenon in youth ministry took place at Wewoka Woods, in Oklahoma, the later part of 1995. Gary Parks, of Paradise, California, and I had been asked to lead a group of 65 teens in prayer, fellowship, Bible study, and ministry the four basic food groups for spiritual growth. Neither one of us was prepared for what we experienced that weekend. Peter Neri, of Cedar Lake, Michigan, was also to be with us but was delayed. He sent ahead a few of his teens, who led the group in a season of prayer Friday night that lasted two hours and 25 minutes. The only thing we had done so far that weekend was pray, yet conversions took place, attitudes were transformed, sins were confessed. Teens from thousands of miles apart who didn't know one another were united in Christ something we did not anticipate.

We spent the following two days in small groups. We encountered God through new dimensions of prayer, experienced the joy and excitement of the Discovery 4 method of Bible study, and developed skills in ministry. Teenagers, ignited with the power of the Holy Spirit, returned from a day of ministry in Oklahoma City as amazed as the disciples in Luke 10:17, 18. The next week they went to Ozark Academy in Arkansas to lead out a Teen Prayer Conference for nearly 400 teens from across the North American Division, Mexico, and England. The spark that ignited the teens at Wewoka grew into a blaze at Ozark.

Since then teens excited about prayer, fellowship, Bible study, and ministry have spread the fire across this land and across the seas. Adventists in New York, California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Michigan, North Dakota, Missouri, Ohio, India, England, and Iceland, to name a few, are experiencing revival as they share their love for Christ, the power of prayer, and their love for the Bible.

As in 1970, this revival is both infectious and simultaneous. Not only is the revival spreading as teens take their faith on the road, but revivals are taking place simultaneously in isolated places. This cannot be the result of one person, a group, or a new program. It is the work of God in response to the prayers of His people.

A slowness to accept

Yet there has been some hesitation, some slowness to accept what God can do through youth revival. Why? I was part of the revival of the seventies, and from my experience then I'd suggest three possible reasons.

Resistance. During the seventies, many parents, church members, and leaders were skeptical and critical of the revival, and feared fanaticism. Some felt threatened by a lack of control and the possibility for extremism. The seventies were a troubled time in the U.S., and student uprisings and unrest were the norm. Some church leaders tried to for bid an impromptu division-wide gathering of college students at Camp Berkshire in upstate New York. Remember Woodstock?

To some of us it appeared that the long-term response of the church was to "rope this thing in and get it under control." We have an inherent desire to control and an innate fear of the uncontrollable.

Discouragement. It doesn't take much to put out a new flame. We went out believing that people would be eager to respond to what we had found. We discovered that some were wondering what it was all about and why they should get so excited about something known for years. Others did not approve of long hair or guitars. I remember how I felt when I was asked to leave a church. Others were uncomfortable with the use of The Living Bible and the familiar way in which we addressed our new-found Saviour.

The debate as to the authenticity of the revival escalated. To quote Mike Stevenson, "It is tactless, yes, criminal, to say to a teenager who is reading the Bible and praying for the first time that his revival is of Satan. This has happened."5 Many of us became defensive of our experience and skeptical of anyone who did not share our enthusiasm or approve our methods. Wrong attitudes were an effective means of dousing the flames of revival.

The cost of discipleship. As with the disciples, the cost of discipleship for some of us was too high. Not many of us were willing to make the personal long-term sacrificial commitments and reforms necessary.

A pastor's guide for teens in revival

James Edwin Orr, an observer of spiritual revivals, says that no revival has ever taken place without united, sustained prayer.6 In 1966, four years before the revival hit our college campuses, Robert Pierson, then president of the General Conference, made a call for revival and reformation. Since 1988 prayer ministry has been an active force in the North American Division. More than anything else, the revival we are seeing in our young people is a result of the united and sustained prayers of God's people.

Matt Lee, a teen from Paradise, California, has put it well: "We [the teens] have the ideas, the enthusiasm, and the energy. You [the adults] have the wisdom, the experience, and the resources. You need us and we need you. Together we can finish the work as we unite in the power of the Holy Spirit."7 Here's a list of guidelines for pastor-youth team effort for authentic revival.

1. Begin a life of sustained intercessory prayer. Pray to find out what God is doing in the lives of your young people. Join Him in accomplishing His purpose in their lives. God is able to do things in response to prayer that He would not do if we did not pray. Intercessory prayer unleashes God's power in another person's life.

2. Listen to your teens. They need under standing far more than criticism. When you listen to them, you are telling them that you value them and care for them. You will also begin to discover how you should pray for them.

3. Clear a path. As Robert Folkenberg, president of the General Conference, once said, we need to "get out of the way." Do what you can in your field to provide opportunities for, and take some risks with, your youth. Give them responsibility and authority. Entrust them to the Holy Spirit. What would happen if the church let the youth and young adults of today blaze a trail of faith, hope, and adventure for God as it did in the 1840s and 1850s?

4. Create opportunities for ministry. Take a group of youth with you to visit those who need pastoral care the lonely, the discouraged, the sick, the grieving, as well as the workers and warriors who may benefit from prayer support for their ministries. Allow your teens to put their hands on the people and pray for them. I have yet to witness a negative experience.

5. Focus on Scripture. Provide a time and place for teens to discover the Bible. With just a few hours of training in the Discovery Bible study method, your teens can lead one another and the rest of your congregation in a life-changing experience in God's Word. A description of the Discovery Bible study method is available through the North American Division Prayer Ministries office.

6. Dream big. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:9). Do not limit God with small ideas. Allow Him to speak through your youth. God loves to do the impossible with the unlikely. There's no better way for His love and power to be revealed.

7. Expand their horizons. Let the youth look beyond themselves. Let them share with others what God is doing in their lives. Let them involve others in prayer, fellowship, Bible study, and ministry. You will see in them the greatest spiritual growth.8

8. Work behind the scenes. This requires a special discipline and a secure ego! When teens lead out, you will see great results. As a minister, I now have a new policy: don't leave home without the youth. In fact, I often send teens to do what I've been asked to do.

9. Give guidance by modeling. Don't lecture. Don't preach. Take advantage of teach able moments that occur as you work with youth in ministry. Allow experience to be the catalyst for honest inquiry as you debrief with them.

10. Cast a vision. Take off after it. Invite others to follow.


* All Scripture passages in this article are
from the New Revised Standard Version.

1 Dwight K. Nelson, in an introduction to
a sermon series on Generation X, Pioneer
Memorial church, Berrien Springs, Michigan,
October 8,1994.

2 Dwight K. Nelson, "Lord of Generation
X, Church of the Baby Busters," Adventist
, Sept. 28,1995, pp. 13-16.

3 Michael Stevenson, "Revival Fires on the
Campus," The Ministry, February 1971, pp. 6-9.

4 The Discovery method of Bible study has
been adapted from Oletta Ward, The Joy of
Discovery in Bible Study
(Minneapolis: Augsburg
Pub. House, 1975), by Gary Parks, Paradise,

5 Stevenson, p. 9.

6 See J. Edwin Orr, The Flaming Tongue: The
Impact of Twentieth Century Revivals
Moody Press, 1973); The Fervent Prayer: The
Worldwide Impact of the Great Awakening of
(Chicago: Moody Press, 1974).

7 Lee made this appeal at the North American
Division year-end meetings in Battle
Creek on Thursday, Oct. 12,1995.

8 See Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956),
p. 80; Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1952), pp. 268-271.

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Gary Burns is the pastor of the Dakota Adventist Academy church, Bismarck, North Dakota.

October 1997

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