1. Please describe the context in which you minister (geographically, ethnically, socio-economically, etc.)
In a culture so dominated by both secularism and Roman Catholicism, the Gospel of Grace is not easily understood and is often under attack from both groups of people. The Gospel is either stupid and unnecessary because God, sin, and judgment aren’t real anyway, or the Gospel is a New Law declaring what we ought to do without giving us the ability to do it.
Practically speaking, most teenagers around here don’t seem to think too much about moral decisions. It’s not that they’re more thoughtless than other teens, but they’re simply postmodern and think with their feelings and impulses. As the Ben and Jerry’s Bumper Sticker says, “If it doesn’t feel good, why do it?”
2. What approaches have you found helpful in dealing with the aforementioned stumbling blocks such that you effectively can share the Gospel with students in your area and bring them in to the life of the Church?
One of the most effective things you can do is to invest your time to gain the trust of parents. Evangelical churches (especially Baptist churches like mine!) are often viewed with suspicion and distrust. This makes earning the trust of parents both difficult and essential. I’ve had a number of students get plugged into the youth ministry who wanted to attend our Sunday morning worship services; but they have been told they aren’t allowed to come “because we’re Catholic” (even though they rarely attend Mass). I’ve had students drop off the map for a season because they had to attend CCD in order to receive their first communion. It’s becoming a bit “trendy” to emphasize parents today, but I’m increasingly convinced that we need to minister to the whole student, and that means we need to reach out to the whole family… parents included.
I often hear youth pastors from around the country talk about the importance of plugging into the local schools, and I agree that’s really important, but in New England it’s extremely difficult to do. I’m not allowed to eat lunch with students, and even if I was, I’m not sure how many students would be willing to put such a huge target on their back by allowing me to sit with them and their friends. I’ve been a volunteer coach for one of the local high school’s Track & Field teams and that’s been a great blessing and a great challenge. A few years ago one of the students I had already coached for a whole season was surprised to find out I’m a pastor (I have no idea how she didn’t know, since it comes up quite a bit) and proceeded to ignore me for the rest of the week because she was so weirded out that one of her coaches was a priest.
3. What encouragement would you give to other youth pastors in your area trying to reach teenagers?
Don’t give up, and stay somewhere long enough to make a difference! We’ve all heard the statistics about how short most youth pastors stay at a church before moving on… I want to encourage you to try breaking the record as the longest-tenured pastor in your church’s history. I’ve been serving at my church for seven and a half years, and it wasn’t until year four that I felt that I really had gained significant trust from the parents at church (so how much more of a challenge will it be to gain the trust of parents from the unchurched community!).
You will see mini-revivals break out among families, churches, schools, and communities through your ministry the longer you stay, the more consistently you model the servant-love of Christ, and as you continually proclaim that amazing grace of the Good News. Don’t set out trying to be Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield or whoever else… set out to be faithful in your calling to serve the students and families God has given you and trust Him to bear the fruit as you scatter the seed.
Besides, we all know New England is the American Church’s best-kept-secret… God is doing a mighty work here! Friends, stay faithful.