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Learn how to reach teens amid today’s realities, speaker says

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Youth leaders who want to communicate to teens about God must learn their language, said Phillip Herring, minister to students at First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va.

“If you were going into another culture as a missionary, you would learn that language, wouldn’t you?” Herring told participants in a “Teaching Students Truth: Discipling Postmodern Teens” workshop during Discipleship and Family Week at LifeWay Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center June 29-July 5.

“To reach postmodern teens, we have to think about ways to get them connected to God,” Herring said.

Some of the activities and influences on teens today that concerned the youth leaders attending the workshop included extreme living or living on the edge with no regard for consequences; movies, music and media; and seemingly no concern for their own lives because they feel they have nothing to lose.

Other issues youth encounter, Herring said, include:

— An increase in single-parent families.

— More affluence which leads to material indulgence.

— The proliferation of technology, including computers, electronic calendars and games, pagers and cell phones.

However, some of the issues teens today share with youth who lived before them include peer pressure, cliques and problems with families.

Projecting a mural of America in the ’50s on a large screen, Herring noted: “We don’t live here anymore.

“This generation of teenagers is greatly influenced by the new culture that is being called postmodernism,” he said. “Because of the tremendous influence of this new way of thinking on society, it is important to know how students are thinking if we are going to reach and disciple them.”

Herring defined postmodernism as the rejection of absolute and objective truth.

“What is true for me, may not be true for you if you do not believe it to be true,” he said, explaining the concept. “It is also the belief that moral values are relative: there is no right or wrong.”

Other characteristics of postmodernism, he said, include:

— Tolerance as a fundamental virtue. “There is an arrogance to anybody who suggests anything is wrong with the gay lifestyle,” he explained.

— No stability in life. “They don’t count on a lot staying the same.”

— No meaning in life. “If they buy into the evolutionary way of existence, it doesn’t give me a lot of credibility as a believer.”

— Acceptance of fragmentation, discontinuity and the chaotic. “They are not bothered by chaos. In worship services, there can be a preacher, some music, drama and a video on a large projection screen going on at the same time and it doesn’t bother them.”

— Restlessness.

— Rejection of permanence.

— Ambiguity.

— Unsystematic thought. “Most of us moderns are systematic in our thought. We like an outline with points and subpoints. We like organization. But researchers say this isn’t true of this generation of teens. They are very global in their thinking. They are just scattered everywhere.”

— Self-gratification. “If, indeed, they buy into the fact they are not created by a personal God, it is very easy for the world to become all about them.”

— Pluralism and multiculturalism.

— Religious pluralism and multiculturalism. “They believe all religions are OK. They acknowledge all cultures as equal.”

While Herring said he does not believe that all characteristics of postmodernism are negative, “It does mean that we will have to shift our thinking as we minister to teens.”

How leaders approach students with the gospel is very significant, he said, adding that not all young people are of the postmodern mindset.

“Many kids are living in this postmodern age who are still traditional kids because they were raised by parents who instilled in them modern ideals.”

Because some youth have not been exposed to postmodern ideas and mindsets, he said, they will need modern approaches to evangelism.

Herring used the FAITH model of evangelism as an example of a traditional or modern approach and the “Share Jesus Without Fear” model as a postmodern approach.

With FAITH, the Christian who is witnessing does most of the talking, but with Share Jesus Without Fear, the Christian and the lost person are engaged in a conversation, he said.

While in the ’50s and ’60s, most young people probably would have some knowledge of Jesus Christ and the church as an organization, Herring said, “We can no longer assume that today.

“Today’s generation may not know the stories of the Bible; they may not have a clue about who Jesus is. We can’t assume those kids can walk into our Bible studies at church and understand what is going on.”

What worked 20 years ago will not work today, Herring said.

To reach young people in the postmodern generation might mean using a missionary model of going into other cultures, he said.

“You might have to begin by explaining the narrative of the Bible, the world was created by God, man sinned, and so forth.”

Author Leonard Sweet challenges youth leaders to move away from what is familiar in order to reach a new generation of kids, Herring said. Sweet writes about the concept in his book, “Postmodern Pilgrims.”

“Sweet believes churches can be effective at reaching and discipling teenagers in a postmodern culture by becoming E.P.I.C. churches,” he added. The concept of E.P.I.C. includes:

— Experiential. “If churches are to effectively disciple postmodern teens they have to help them experience God.” Herring used the example of Centrifuge camps, which began in 1978. While the Centrifuge camps have continued to grow in popularity, M-Fuge camps, started about six years, have nearly reached the size of Centrifuge camps because of their experiential nature, he said. In M-Fuge camps, the youth go out and serve the community through volunteer efforts. “Parents will pay for their kids to do something tangible and make a difference,” Herring said.

— Participatory. “Postmoderns are not going to simply transmit the tradition or culture they’ve been taught. They want to transform and customize it.” An example, he said, is the popularity of praise music, which has dramatically affected worship. “They want to be a part of the process, not detached from it.”

— Image-driven. “Think about how many churches today have logos. The best tool religious leaders can give postmoderns is a metaphor on an image.”

— Connected. “The paradox is this. The pursuit of individualism has led us to this place of hunger for connectedness to communities, not of blood or nation, but of choice.”

Herring recommended youth leaders check out the discipleship resource, “Vital Truth,” which is a two-year study plan that instructs teens in 24 basic truths of Christianity. Topics range from prayer and family to knowing Jesus and making friends, he said. The LifeWay resource can be purchased online at www.lifewaystores.com.

Discipleship and Family Week at LifeWay Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center and LifeWay Glorieta (N.M.) Conference Center are sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • Terri Lackey