Attempts to reach our youth

Crucial pastoral principles in relating to young people

L Albert Mathewson is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Recently I attended a Christian convocation. Having worked with young people for much of my life, I was interested in what had been planned for the young people, and so I stopped in at the youth meeting with my 15-year-old son to observe.

I watched a multimedia presentation which was a candid interview with the conference president. He answered questions about things that related to teenagers, and did so with charm and admirable candor.

What followed totally surprised me. Several young men led the song service. They played electric guitars, a keyboard, and a drum set. By the end of the second song, some of the kids were dancing in the aisles and I was dumbfounded.

What was almost more amazing was what popped into my mind as I watched and listened. Through the years I have somehow garnered a reputation for being a progressive Adventist. In earlier years I had stood, guitar in hand, where the song leaders now stood leading a more "contained" song service. So it was surprising when this popped into my mind:

"The things you have described as taking place in Indiana, the Lord has shown me would take place just before the close of probation. Every uncouth thing will be demonstrated. There will be shouting, with drums, music, and dancing. The senses of rational beings will become so confused that they cannot be trusted to make right decisions. And this is called the moving of the Holy Spirit." 1 Hard on the heels of these words came some others: "Judge not that ye be not judged."

I was determined to cast the event in the best light possible and, lacking the courage to directly confront the leadership, I assumed that the conference had invited this group in an attempt to "reach our young people." For years, I have worked with honest individuals who have been worried that—with television and movies, video games and the Internet— our young people will no longer be content with the "plainness" of religious meetings.

I now fear, however, that our attempts to "keep up" with modern culture will cause us to create "nominal" Christians.

Stages of growth

Before the age of five or six, kids are eager to acknowledge that Jesus loves them and they love Him right back! But all too often something happens: The same people who as kids loved to come up front and listen to the children's story find themselves in the back row of the balcony with sleeves rolled up, ties loosened, and minds far away from the church service.

Many teenagers are unsure of their feelings for God, but do wonder if God can still love someone such as themselves. I think the key to keeping our young people and reclaiming our youth is to translate the assurance of their standing before God into a language that they can hear.

The problem I have with that youth program is not the drums or the tempo of the music itself. In fact if you read the above citation from Ellen G. White carefully, she does not directly condemn drums. She was concerned instead, that the totality of what was going on in the name of God had confused the rational senses.

When I think carefully about this, I must conclude that in our efforts to reach others for Christ, we must be careful not to introduce anything that has a way of confusing or blunting the senses of the people we are ministering to. We cannot afford to bypass or exploit the rational component of the individual. Instead we must appeal to this crucial part of human consciousness in such a way as to help people to understand that being a Christian involves a conscious rational choice.

We have to carefully and purposely integrate into our evangelistic methods what child development experts have learned about cognitive development, especially as it relates to our children.

Jean Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor period (birth to 2 years); preoperational thought (2-6 or 7 years); concrete operations (6-7 to 11- 12); and formal operations (11-12 to adult). I would like to concentrate on the latter two.

Too much, too soon

In many churches attempts are made to reach our children while they are in the concrete operations phase. Some say that if we do not get our children baptized before the age of 10 or 11, we are much more likely to lose them. But at this age or stage, while they can understand and repeat a religious doctrine, they cannot yet perform abstract problems or consider all the logically possible outcomes. In other words, we are trying to reach them before they are fully "rational beings."

It is not until children reach the formal operation stage that they are suitably capable of thinking logically and abstractly. At this point they also reach the place where they can reason theoretically.

This raises an uncomfortable question: Does our desire to baptize our children at such an early age stem from our insecurities that our faith will not stand logical scrutiny from our young? I hope not! Of all Christian denominations, ours is seen to be the one in which all of the doctrines fit into a logical whole!


In our attempts to rush our children to salvation have we done them a disservice? If so, what can we do to reach our young people?

First, we must surrender the notion that we have to compete with the use of the modern technology and special effects in entertainment. We can, of course, use technology to our advantage, but to think that we must compete with the entertainment market lowers the gospel to a commodity and changes our pastoral role from minister of the gospel to entertainer. We were not called to entertain, but, in partnership with God, to reach the minds and hearts of people.

The language we use tends to betray us! Do we preach from the platform, or the stage! Do we stand before the audience or the congregation! Are our deacons ushers, or are they deacons'! The church, no matter what it does, can never compete with the entertainment industry. Entertainment intentionally plays to the emotions; worship to the soul.

The second thing we must do and do well is to teach our children, starting at age 11 or 12, how to think and apply spiritual principles to their lives. Doctrines are important. What we believe about the state of the dead, the Second Coming, and the Sabbath are only going to become more important as we face the eschaton. But doctrines in and of themselves, crucial as they are, are not enough. Unless we can challenge our young to think and reason about God's place in their lives, they will simply warm a pew, if they even stay.

We must openly admit to the various issues with which we struggle and model an effective way of struggling with them before our young people. We must show them how we apply God's Word to our own life, if we would have them learn to do it for themselves.

The sad truth is that many among us are in fact stuck in the concrete operations phase and are threatened by those who would openly question and abstractly apply God's Word.

Another thing we must do is to integrate our young people into leadership and active ministry. I am not talking about dragging up the children's division on Thirteenth Sabbath to sing a couple songs. I am not talking about having a "Pathfinder Sabbath" in which a youngster reads aloud the sermon his father helped him write. I am talking about giving our young people genuinely significant responsibilities. Our young people must know that they are actually contributing to the life of the church and to the lives of people all around them.

Our 11- and 12-year-olds can help in cradle roll so that the parents can attend a lesson study nearby. Our 13- and 14-year-olds can assist with the kindergarten room in leading song service, teaching the lesson, and helping with crafts. Our 15- and 16-year-olds are more than able to assist in the primary room. If a church is concerned over the loss of warm bodies in the upper classes of the children's division, the class could be divided into two teams and alternated between helping lead in the lower Sabbath School divisions (or whatever the service activity may be) and attending Sabbath School on a weekly basis.

Young people can help in numerous other ways. There is no reason that a 16-year-old individual cannot organize and develop any number of active ministries. Instead of lowering the bar and attempting to entertain our youth, we should give them responsibilities and help them transition into adulthood.

Finally, we must listen to our youth. Every pastor should spend at least as much time listening to the concerns of his members ages 11 to 18 years as he does giving devotionals to the church school or Pathfinders. A pastor may know perfectly well every possible concern a young person could have, yet without engaging in the process of listening to them, the youth will not fully enter into a relationship with the pastor.

While we do not believe that as ministers we stand in the place of God, we are deceiving ourselves if we do not realize that in the most signif icant ways the minister does represent the church, especially to the youth.


During my entire adult life, I have witnessed the church struggle with how to reach our youth. I don't think we have taken the highest path in trying to do so.

While we wonder how to reach our youth, we fail to remember that God largely used teenagers to help lay the foundation for a highly significant end-time movement, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He used a 17-year-old girl to give His message, and then building on that base, used her well into her golden years.

In the nineteenth century very young people assumed responsibilities on a regular basis. Perhaps by moving the focus from the "young" in "young adults" to the "adult," we could bring true significance back into the way these up-and-coming "people" view the church.

1 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 2:36.



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L Albert Mathewson is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, Knoxville, Tennessee.

February 2005

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