The Boston Marathon bombing has hit me on two personal levels in a way unlike any major tragedy in the past. First, one of our most faithful, beloved Sunday school teachers was within a mile of the bombing when it occurred. Her children have participated in our ministry. Yes, that hits home fast.
Secondly, one of the perpetrators was a nineteen year old, who went to a public school in America. Allegedly, an adult, his twenty-six year old brother was influencing his spiritual life for the worse, converting him to a violent strain of Islam. I am a youth minister. My calling involves influencing teenagers spiritually, encouraging them to follow Jesus and to live for His Kingdom.
Given my direct and indirect connections, I have these four questions for myself and my colleagues in youth ministry, which confront areas of complacency in my ministry and shortcomings in the way I disciple students.
1.) Did anyone ever share the Gospel with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or pray earnestly for his salvation?
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lived in America in an area where churches reside, I would assume. He went to school with kids who attend these churches and perhaps their youth ministries. Along the way, I wonder if anyone ever shared the Gospel with him. Did he ever get invited to attend youth group by a peer or adult? Did anyone ever see that he did not follow Jesus and pray for his salvation? I do not know the answer to these questions, and this is absolutely not an indictment or accusation of local churches in that area (as you will see in the next few questions.) Perhaps he rejected many invitations and offerings. I see a tragic turn of events, where a young man who peers describe as industrious, affable, and encouraging, transforms into a person who participates in a near-massacre and then comes back for more, killing a security guard. I wonder how different life would have been for this young man had he embraced Jesus as Savior and Lord. These questions lead me to ask this: if Dzhokhar attended school with the kids in my youth group, would they have shared Christ with him or invited him to our church?
2.) Who was more likely to share Christ with or pray for Dzhokar: a youth minister or his classmates?
So often my view of evangelism is confined to me offering Jesus to teenagers. Let’s be honest: who was more likely to bring Dzhokar to Jesus, his buddies on the wrestling team or the local youth pastor? Unfortunately, I put less emphasis on equipping my students to interact respectfully with nonbelievers and on teaching them how to share the Gospel with friends. Dzhokar most likely was not going to voluntarily wander into the Wednesday night youth event at a local parish. If it is very challenging for youth ministers to have access to students at local schools in Birmingham, AL- the most churched city in America- and illegal for coaches and teachers to do so, I would imagine that student ministry leaders in Massachusetts face similar or greater barriers.
At the same time, Dzhokar seemed to have many friendships at school. He built relationships with friends on his wrestling team. He bonded with buddies in his college dormitory. If anyone had an opportunity to introduce him to God’s unconditional grace and a lifestyle committed to self-sacrificing love and non-violence, it was his peers.
3.) Would my students be motivated and equipped to share Christ with him or pray for him?
In meditating on these matters, I have had to take a sobering look in the mirror about my commitment to equipping students for evangelism. Maybe along the way of doing ministry in a postmodern world it has become unfashionable to talk about and train kids in sharing their faith with others. Perhaps, we think, “That’s for the fundamentalists.” Perhaps we succumb to consumer-oriented Christianity where we focus only on giving the kids what they want and do not think about training for discipline that makes them nervous and uncomfortable. But I have to ask, how many classes have I taught on evangelism? How often do I encourage kids to pray for their friends who do not know Jesus as Lord and Savior? When I talk about following Jesus, how emphasized is evangelism?
4.) Where do I go from here?
It is not time for me to freak out about, but I do think God has used this circumstance to nudge me in a good direction. Australian youth ministry guru, Tim Hawkins, had a very simple strategy he shared at the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference. He encourages his students to identify two non-Christian peers for whom to pray daily and for them to hold each other accountable to do so in their small groups. It is simple; it is feasible; it is a start. It is step one for me.