My life was heading in a downward spiral,” writes Colby. “And all because I had all the wrong friends in my life. But then I experienced a new me and a new life. I thank God for that. I was a newborn Christian at the time, and the [effect] you all had on me was incredible. Thank you all for that.” 1
“Last year,” writes Erin, “was an amazing experience that really changed my life (specifically my walk with God). I want people to know the God that loves them more than they can ever imagine and have the opportunity to have their lives changed as well.”
We read a lot about young people. They are interested in how to and how not to. They want nonnegotiable authenticity. They can smell a lack of genuineness a mile away. They seek connectivity and expect speed.
We hear the painfully overused but often heartfelt expression “Young people are not the church of tomorrow, but the church of today!” But what makes young people switch on for the kingdom of God so they choose to invest their time, talent, skills, energy, and creativity into service?
The young people quoted above did not attend an event. Instead, they participated in a carefully organized, structured outreach program. They responded to Jesus’ “Go” in Luke 10: “ ‘Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves’ ” (Luke 10:3). 2 They actively engaged in aggressive— and often difficult—evangelism.
What are some simple steps to achieve this? The story of Jesus, the evangelism Coordinator, gives us some answers.
Carefully select young adult leadership. Choose well in whom you will invest. Jesus first “appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out” (Mark 3:14). Later, “the Lord appointed seventy others also” (Luke 10:1).
Notice Jesus’ selection, or appointment, of defined groups. First, the Twelve. Then, the Seventy. On other occasions, 3 He chose only three—Peter, James, and John. This means that there were times He intentionally excluded the nine. In spite of these selections of defined groups, one factor remains solid: that is His call, “ ‘Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden’ ” (Matt. 11:28). Jesus’ invitation to come to Him and experience the rest He offers stands open to all! —but this should not be confused with the careful selection of those whom we are targeting for leadership positions. We see some elements of exclusivity necessary in mentoring leaders, and this is especially true of young adults. 4
Note that this exclusivity does not mean that we need to make decisions based on who looks good or who appears to have the most talent. Often, we cannot tell initially who is a David and who is an Eliab or Abinadab (1 Sam. 16:6–8).
God also calls young leaders from various backgrounds. One of our strongest young adult leaders describes herself as an improbable candidate: “I come from a broken home and I’m a statistic!” However, at age 15 she preached a full evangelistic series to as many as 10,000 people in Ethiopia. She attended SOULS West Bible College, 5 became a Bible worker, and now mentors other young Bible workers. Furthermore, this careful selection of young adult leadership does not confine itself to religious groups. Two of the most famous organizations that have historically engaged young people in “mission” and action are the Hitler Youth and the Communist Young Pioneer movement. These organizations emphasized midlevel, young adult leadership and utilized slightly older young people to lead/mentor those who were somewhat younger. This midlevel leadership harnessed the power of peer influence: What young person doesn’t want to be like someone just older than him or her?
Furthermore, these organizations brimmed with vision, action, and resources. 6 They did not need a Barna study to confirm that young people make fertile soil: “Give us the child for eight years,” said Lenin, “and it will be a Bolshevik forever.” 7
Writing to young people, Ellen White confirms what we all know intuitively: “Young friends, if you take hold of the work right where you are at the present time, doing what you can, be sure that you will have the help of Jesus. Begin the work by laboring for your companions. Ministers, or churchmembers advanced in years, cannot have one-half the influence over your young associates that you are capable of exerting; and you ought to feel that a responsibility rests upon you to do all you can for their salvation.” 8
Put them to work. Jesus “sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. Then He said to them, … ‘Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves’ ” (Luke 10:1–3). Young people desperately need a mission “game” in which to put into play what they learn. If they do not experience it, to them it may not be real. “I am so tired of living for myself,” writes Vania, “that I’ve finally found true happiness in reaching others; it has changed my life.” From Michelle: “One of the reasons I [participated in the evangelism] was because I was so sick and tired of living for nothing, and I wanted to have something to stand firm on.”
Ron Hutchcraft writes, “The problem with most Christian young people is that they have no game. We keep giving them all the things they need to do as Christians—read the Bible, have devotions, study, pray, do God’s will, do the right thing—but they have no reasons to do all that. There is no game to use it in. They need a mission.” 9
Comparing today’s Adventist youth with the youth societies of the late 1800s, Cindy Tutsch writes, “The reason today’s young people do not appear to have the same appetite for evangelism as evidenced by the members of early Youth Societies may be that they’re getting little exercise in evangelism. Adventist youth in the twenty-first century, particularly in western culture, are often spiritual couch potatoes—over-entertained and under-challenged, bored, apathetic if not overtly rebellious—and filled with spiritual junk food. To appreciate the meat of the Word and the beauty of a living relationship with Christ, they must once again organize and seek training in order to experience the rejuvenating reality of evangelism.” 10
Dillon agrees: “Struggling this summer was the mostrefreshing thing I have ever done. I had acloser experiencewith God than I have ever had in my whole life. And I can honestly say that I have experienced God’s love. It was a powerful experience to see the students this summer have the same experience and their faces glow.” So does Janet: “Last year’s program affected me spiritually: I learned to feed myself spiritually.”
I serve in the Central California Conference where we have experienced eight consecutive years of one-milliondollar-plus evangelism offerings. The committee has consistently (and wisely) committed to investing a good portion of this in youth and young adult outreaches, such as youth preaching events, overseas ShareHim trips, literature evangelism programs, and young adult Bible work programs.11 The evangelism offering seeded a new program called GLOW—Giving Light to Our World 12 —initiated and executed exclusively by young adults, which promotes simple methods of tract distribution. In just over four years, GLOW has printed 26 million tracts in 32 languages; 22 conferences in the North American Division have adopted the program. Young people love action!
“I really enjoyed working with the group and growing in my relationship with God every day,” writes Elizabeth. “I cannot think of anything else that I could have done this summer that would have been better than working with other youth who had the same purpose: letting others know about God’s love for all of us.”
My favorite illustration may be from a young Bible worker who recently took on a new church assignment. Within the first few days he wrote to me: “Here’s what God did: Five teenagers went out door-to-door yesterday for five hours. We were blessed with over thirty interests. As a result, within less than 12 hours I had a Bible study with someone I just met yesterday, and the youth are on fire and are making a documentary on evangelism and how it affects our walk with Christ. Evangelism with much prayer still works!”
Give concrete, specific instruction. “'Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road. But whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house.” And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you. . . . And heal the sick there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” ’ ” (Luke 10:4–9). Jesus gave definite instruction on what to say, what to do, how to deal with rejection. In fact, in just eight verses (vv. 3–10) Jesus uses nine imperatives, explaining what to take with them, what to say to people, where to stay, and even what to eat and drink.
One girl wrote to us when applying for a summer of evangelistic activity: “I want a program that is very spiritual as well as structured. . . . I would like to know more about programs that are very structured and successful.” One young man thrived in the structure of a steady daily schedule that included a devotional time: “Before last summer, I never read my Bible; but now, as soon as I am up in the morning I read it.”
One of the challenges with any evangelistic work is the possibility of rejection. Jesus knew this, and faced it squarely: “ ‘But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, “The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.” But I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day for Sodom than for that city’ ” (vv. 10–12). Here, He instructed them how to relate to rejection—a big deal for a young person whose self-concept has not quite finished developing.
Realize the power of the debrief. “Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.’ And He said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven’ ” (vv. 17–20). “And the apostles, when they had returned, told Him all that they had done. Then He took them and went aside privately” (Luke 9:10).
After a summer of aggressive ministry, Sasha wrote, “This is the happiest I’ve been in my entire life”—mirroring the disciples in verse 17, above.
In both Luke 9 and 10, the disciples’ return from outreach provided Jesus with perfect “teachable moments,” and He used those moments powerfully. Notice how Jesus maximizes this opportunity. He relishes the fact that their mental blocks have disappeared; He knows that, fresh off of satisfying experiences watching the Holy Spirit use them, they have an openness unmatched by virtually any other time in their lives. So He teaches them: (1) The great controversy between Satan and Me is real! (This is a favorite spiritual theme that interests young people.) (2) I am more powerful than the enemy, and I am delegating that power to you. (3) Warning—do not savor being powerful! Do not think about tackling Rome and setting up that earthly kingdom that I know lies near the front of your minds, else you might begin to love power and display, and forget that the kingdom of heaven is not like Herod or Tiberius. Instead, be happy because I have given you eternal life!
I get to watch and engage with more than 1,000 young people as they “return with joy” from their outreach experiences. Their openness and the depth and solidity of their Christian experience at those moments make me tingle. And there is nothing I enjoy more in ministry than addressing a group like that.
Furthermore, young people of “the feedback generation” expect their leaders to offer constant responses and evaluations. Some time ago one of my young adults stopped what she was doing in the adjacent office, came into my office, sat down, and said nothing. I looked at her mutely until she said somewhat sheepishly, “I just feel like I need some feedback.”
Inreach/outreach? Does outreach and evangelism solve every problem? No. Young people need care, time, nurture, etc.—and the unchurched need bridges to the body of Christ. We all acknowledge this. However, could it be that we have erred on the side of “safety,” maximizing inreach and minimizing outreach evangelism?
Listen to 22-year-old Philip, reflecting on his time of evangelistic outreach: “I just wanted to let you know that . . . this year I probably made the best decision for my spiritual well-being. Personally, [Bible college] was a good choice as well, but since growing up as an Adventist, there was not much new to learn besides all the prophecy interpretations. However, being out in the front lines of God’s army and actually doing the action part of my faith was very rewarding” (emphasis mine).
Tutsch concludes, “It is yet possible that this generation of youth will re-capture the vision of early Adventist youth societies and become that segment of the church body who model, lead, and inspire the church at large to engage in Spirit-led inclusive evangelism.” 13
I hope she’s right. If Colby, Erin, Philip, and their comrades have their way, this generation of young people will respond vigorously to Jesus’ command, “Go.”
1 All testimonies from young people in this article are real and unsolicited. Some names have been changed.
2 All Scripture passages are from the New King James Version.
3 For example, Mark 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33.
4 Some commentators such as Ray Vander Laan believe, based on various factors, that we can place most or all of Jesus’ disciples in the young adult category—35 or under.
5 Soulswest.org. SOULS West is owned and operated by the Pacific Union Conference.
6 Of course, we are not affirming all—or even most—of the methodologies or ideologies of these organizations.
7 An interesting case in point: the kidnapping of 30,000 Greek children and taken to Communist Eastern Europe in 1948.
8 Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 278.
9 Ron Hutchcraft, The Battle for a Generation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 63. Dr. Cindy Tutsch quotes Hutchcraft at ssnet.org/blog/2011/11/where-goeth -adventist-youth-ministries (quote attributed to Kevin Ford).
10 ssnet.org/blog/2011/11/where-goeth-adventist-youth-ministries. Cindy Tutsch is an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate.
11 These offerings are first and foremost an answer to united prayer by the prayer partners of the conference. However, the public testimonies of the young people also stimulate giving, which, in turn, supports those young people with resources for their aggressive outreach ministries.
12 sdaglow.org. GLOW is a ministry operated by the Pacific Union Conference.