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Rainer: 72 million teens have God on their minds, but not in their hearts

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Most teenagers today have God on their minds but not in their hearts, and they are searching for spiritual answers in a culture that has replaced the nurturing love and support of family with the fear and isolation of a multimedia-driven society, said Thom Rainer, a seminary professor and author of a book on modern youth culture.
What, then, is the church going to do to reach the second-largest generation in U.S. history? Rainer asked of the 72 million “[from whom], in many ways, we have the greatest to fear and is a generation that we have the greatest to hope for.”
“You’re about to get the greatest numerical wave of teenagers, and I was about to say in your church but that may really depend on what your church is doing,” Rainer said during “Culture Shock ’99,” an annual youth ministry conference held Sept. 20-22 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.
Unless the church changes its course in youth ministry now, “we might as well look them straight in the face and say, ‘Go to hell, we don’t need you, we don’t want you,’” said Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.
“We have failed them because we have done everything but evangelize them,” Rainer said. “After all, the young people don’t pay their way do they? And they come in and mess up the walls and scuff the floors, that’s what they do. … Many times we care more about preserving the way our churches are than the eternal soul of a young person.” In his research for his book, “The Bridger Generation: America’s Second Largest Generation, What They Believe, How to Reach Them,” published in 1997 by the Broadman & Holman division of LifeWay Christian Resources, Rainer said a survey of nearly 5,000 individuals revealed that of those between 16 and 18 years of age less than 4 percent claimed to be a Christian.
The youth also say “how infrequently someone from … a Baptist church … will show up at their home or any other place where they are and tell them what they believe,” Rainer reported. “They told us about the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The African Americans told us about the black Muslims. They told us about the gangs. They told us about all these things, but they ask the question, ‘Where is the church?’”
The “Bridger Generation,” so named because this generation bridges the 20th and 21st centuries, consists of those born between 1977 and 1994. Only the “Boomer Generation,” those born between 1946 and 1964, number more at 76 million.
Rainer, who has three teenage sons, said it was his interaction with his teenagers, as well as their friends, that prompted him to spend two years in focus groups and conducting surveys which resulted in his book.
In the survey of nearly 5,000 people, those claiming to be Christian were represented in the following generational categories: 65 percent of the “Builder Generation,” those born before 1946; 35 percent of the Boomer Generation, born between 1946 and 1964; and 15 percent of the “Buster Generation,” born between 1965 and 1976.
Not satisfied with merely studying dry statistics to gain insight on the Bridger Generation, Rainer has opened his home to his sons’ friends and provides a “haven” for the teenage boys. It is in this environment of unconditional love that Rainer gets the opportunity to put into practice what he preaches about meeting the needs of young people on a day-to-day basis.
The concerns and fears of Bridgers, Rainer said, include getting a good education, becoming victims of violence, losing parents to divorce and dealing with daily stress. Add to this the failure of the church to reach out to Bridgers, and you have a generation in crisis, he said.
Cultural influences shaping the lives of today’s youth, Rainer said, are high-tech multimedia, disappearance of moral boundaries, escalation of violence, gender confusion, the issue of personal rights, devaluation of life, commercialism and the disappearance of community and familial relationships.
“This is a generation that is begging to hear that there are absolutes, that there is truth,” Rainer said. “And there does not need to be compromise or confusion whether in the teaching or in the pulpit. They want to go to places where the pastor preaches the clear, inerrant Word of God. They want to go to places where they can get in Bible study and really learn.”
Added to those issues is concern for their families in which the theme has changed from “father knows best” to “father isn’t home,” Rainer said. And for the first time in history, a majority of a generation will grow up in day care and not under direct parental supervision, Rainer stated.
Rainer said the key for churches to reach out to Bridgers is through personal evangelism. “Don’t tell me that you cannot still confront people with the truth claims of Jesus Christ, and don’t tell me that personal evangelism is dead,” he said. “We can talk a lot about methodologies, and we can talk about the latest way to confront the culture, and there are a lot of good things out there. But there’s one simple little thing that we need to remember — just share Jesus, just share Jesus. They are ready to hear about Jesus Christ.”
To prove his assertion, Rainer said, “in the course of the survey, nearly 300 people of the 5,000 we telephoned accepted Jesus.”
Stressing the need for personal evangelism directed at teenagers, Rainer said his research revealed that 83 percent of those who profess to be Christians in this century made their decision by the age of 20, and 75 percent made their decision by the age of 14.
“We’ve got to reach these kids while they’re still kids,” Rainer said. “God has given us the message that the time to reach them is now. Our churches have to get off their pews and say, ‘We’re going to do everything it takes to reach this generation for Jesus Christ.’”
Some practical steps for churches to reach Bridgers cited by Rainer include showing unconditional love, setting clear boundaries and high expectations, developing a cultural awareness, having adults mentor youth, and being willing to get confrontational on current issues.
“We found that churches that had high expectations were churches that were more likely to reach Bridgers,” Rainer said. “In so many churches we have dumbed-down so much of what it means to be a part of God’s church that it means nothing.”
“[This] is a generation [which], no matter which path it takes, appears to be a generation of great intensity and commitment,” Rainer said.

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  • Greg Carpenter