Church Planting as Youth Ministry is an ongoing column which draws together insights from two crucial spheres of ministry: youth ministry and church planting. Authors such as Tim Keller have quantified the effective disciple-making that happens through church planting. While established churches attribute 80%-90% of their growth to churchgoers transferring membership between congregations, up to two-thirds of the growth that takes place in new church plants comes from people who were not previously associated with a worshiping body. This trend is encouraging when applied to youth — one of the largest generational mission fields in history. Studies reveal that only 15% of American millennials believe the gospel, and that less than 4% of people born after 1999 embrace a biblical worldview. Youth workers are on the “front lines” of this spiritual battleground, and would do well to study the missionary methods of church planters. Likewise, church planters would be wise to learn from effective student ministers, as youth are clearly integral to the success of the church’s mission. Both groups strive towards a common goal: to see students surrender to Jesus and find belonging with his people. This column serves as a place where ideas and wisdom can be exchanged between these two groups.
Many modern-day churches are obsessed with numbers. Attendance at services is tracked. Participation in groups is monitored at weekly, monthly, and yearly intervals. Worship services are orchestrated down to the exact second. And, of course, a weekly financial report determines whether the offering from the past Sunday represented a “good week” or a “bad week” of giving.
None of the above is explicitly condemned by Scripture. Yet I find it highly ironic that, in the information-saturated, numbers-crazed age in which we live, the implications of two important statistics have been largely ignored by the modern-day church. Each statistic directly involves some of the church’s youngest members, and the Great Commission implications are too potent to ignore: both for youth workers who desire to see students come alive in the gospel, and for those (like myself) who are laboring to plant missional, discipleship-oriented local churches.
Statistic #1: There is a Particular Evangelistic Effectiveness Among Young People
The Barna Group reports that two-thirds (64%) of born again Christians made their commitment to Christ before turning 18. An additional 13% of those surveyed reported deciding to follow Jesus before turning 21. Shockingly, “Less than one out of every four born again Christians (23%) embraced Christ after their twenty-first birthday.”
Granted, those identified by the Barna Group as “born again Christians” were so classified based on affirming that they had made a personal commitment to Jesus that was still important at the time of the survey. There is no way to test the fruits of these individuals so as to verify their self-described conversion (Matthew 7:15-20). But statistics this striking at least point us to reality, through general trend lines if not through precise snapshots:
For reasons unbeknownst to us, God has ordained for children and youth to be particularly receptive to respond to the proclamation of the gospel in saving faith.
Statistic #2: Youth Have a Profound Influence Upon Their Peers
Both in Scripture and in contemporary research, parents are described as having both a weighty responsibility for, and an immense influence upon, the development of the children whom God has placed under their care. Ministry leaders are right to build discipleship structures which affirm and equip parents in this important role. As co-editor of Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry, Jon Nielson, wrote, “In general, children who are led in their faith during their growing-up years by parents who love Jesus vibrantly, serve their church actively, and saturate their home with the gospel completely, grow up to love Jesus and the church.”
The above notwithstanding, a host of contemporary research illuminates a second key influence upon the behavior of the church’s youth: other youth. For instance, in their peer-reviewed article entitled, “Peer Influences on Adolescent Decision Making,” authors Albert, Chein, and Steinberg describe a series of computer-based tests used to ascertain the effects of peer influence on adolescent decision-making in high-risk settings. The results of their research are fascinating, and pregnant with implications for the spiritual discipleship of young people.
“When tested alone, the participants from each of the three age groups engaged in a comparable amount of risk taking. In contrast, early adolescents scored twice as high on an index of risky [decision-making] when tested with their peers in the room than when alone, whereas late adolescents were approximately 50% riskier in groups…”
“If adolescents made all of their decisions involving drinking, driving, dalliances, and delinquency in the cool isolation of an experimenter’s testing room, those decisions would likely appear as risk-averse as those of adults. But therein lies the rub: teenagers spend a remarkable amount of time in the company of other teenagers…the company of other teenagers fundamentally alters the calculus of adolescent risk taking.”
Anecdotally, I can say from experience that youth also rely on the influence of their peers outside of risky decision-making. As a student pastor, when I would invite a student to be part of a special group or retreat opportunity, my invitation was often met with the response, “Who else is going to be there?” I have found that youth are influenced by their peers because they want to find belonging amongst their peers.
The Important Role of Youth in the Mission of the Church
The above statistics have established two important truths: that young people are particularly receptive to the gospel message, and that they are deeply desirous of the affirmation and acceptance of their peers (and, thus, heavily influenced by them).
The implications of these statistics? Two are plain and straightforward. And the first will not come as a surprise to most churches, ministry leaders, and parents.
1.Because they are peculiarly likely to respond to the proclamation of the gospel message by surrendering their lives in faith to King Jesus, children and youth should have a special priority in any church’s vision for evangelism and discipleship. As a group, they tend to embody the “fertile soil” described by Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13: able to produce gospel fruit in measures of thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. What a return on evangelistic investment!
For some reason, many churches seem to be ignorant of the second truth these statistics imply. Or else, they simply choose to ignore it. But within this second implication is an important insight upon which the Great Commission effectiveness of the modern-day church depends (at least in part).
2. Because they are disproportionately influenced by their peers, one of the greatest tools to reach youth is other youth who love Jesus and find belonging in the community of God’s people. In other words, youth are some of the most effective missionaries amongst members of their own age bracket.
Think about it. Youth can convince their peers to risk their lives in order to find acceptance. Why not expect that they can also influence their peers to lose their lives for the gospel, in order that they may experience the abundant life of the One who accepts them already?
If the influence of peers can make young adolescents twice as likely to engage in detrimental decision making, how much more might a young person be drawn to life and peace through the collective witness of other young people who evidence the saving grace of Jesus?
Pastor, youth worker, ministry leader, and parent: does your view of the church’s youth anticipate their unique Great Commission effectiveness? Or do you consider the avoidance of negative peer pressure and/or empty moralism to be the benchmarks of fruitfulness during the teenage years? Does your Great Commission thinking include the mobilization of youth as key players in God’s rescue mission to the world? Or, do you simply arrange them as pawns who set the stage for the older, “more qualified” members of God’s family to engage in meaningful ministry?
It is to these question we turn our attention in our Church Planting as Youth Ministry articles to come.