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Spiritual awakening among youth creating passionate followers of Christ

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–The “youth group” of Crestwood Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., made a strategic shift in 1998 to becoming a “youth ministry.” Everything now is focused on making disciples, with campus clubs serving as the evangelistic “front door.” Passionate God-centered worship defines midweek meetings. Newcomers who are Christians are immediately plugged into ministry teams where they can start serving. Spiritual highs and lows that traditionally plague youth ministry have largely disappeared.

“What I came to realize is I am not the youth minister as much as I am the youth pastor. They are the ministers,” said Rick Long, minister of youth and evangelism for the church. “The pastor’s role is to shepherd and guide. The minister’s role is in the one-on-one relationships.”

The transition at Crestwood is typical of what churches across the country are experiencing, according to a number of national leaders in youth ministry. A passion for prayer, worship and a desire to see those around them come to Christ is a movement of God, leaders say, comparable to some of the greatest spiritual awakenings among youth in this century. Evangelistic growth and increasing commitment to short- and long-term volunteer missions service is the tangible result.

“To me it started about five years ago when there just seemed to be a real groundswell of spiritual awareness — a revival among students — starting to break out in different pockets around the country,” said Len Taylor, director of youth evangelism for the North American Mission Board.

“It’s like a drop of water. This ripple comes out from the center, and it just starts spreading. And you get enough drops through the country going, and you’ve got these ripples of revival going out and affecting everybody,” he said.

Wesley Black, professor of youth/student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, traced the modern youth ministry climate back to the early 1990s. See You At the Pole prayer rallies on school campuses and True Love Waits pledges of sexual abstinence gave youth the opportunity of staking their own claims for their Christian faith publicly.

The concept of discipling youth by allowing them to take the leadership in their own youth ministries is not new — dating back to the 60’s and 70’s, Black said. But it has increasingly become the norm as churches have moved from an entertainment-based model of youth ministry to ministry and training with greater spiritual depth.

“”We used to think of adolescence as a fun-filled, goofing-off time,” he said.”… Nowadays there’s a real hunger for the spiritual things. And I think a lot of the youth are as attracted to good solid spiritual guidance and teachings as they are to the pizza parties and banana splits.”

It is this aspect of youth ministry culture, in fact, that differentiates the spiritual awakening among youth of the 90’s from the earlier movement, according to Johnny Derouen, minister to youth at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth and a veteran of youth ministry since the 1970s.

“The youth revival movement of the late ’40s and ’50s, those were very evangelistic. But it’s almost like this generation is taking it a step further into worship and prayer,” he said. “And they want to be involved in the actual discipleship process of their peers and friends, carrying out the work and ministry of the church and the campus clubs.”

Richard Ross, founder of the True Love Waits movement and currently a professor of youth/student ministry at Southwestern Seminary, said he once felt that the campaign of asking students to pledge sexual abstinence before marriage was “an end in itself” in order to “bring glory to God and to avoid the human tragedies that always accompany immorality.”

“But I now sense that True Love Waits was simply a prelude to coming revival,” he said. “It is difficult to imagine teenagers leading the Church into revival while being sexually involved at the same time.”

James Lankford, youth ministry specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, noted how different typical youth worship services are today from only 10 years ago.

“You could go to youth ministries on a Sunday or Wednesday night and see a little bit of singing, but it was mostly fun, silly songs … and a few spiritual songs. I go to youth ministries now, and I don’t even hear the silly songs any more. Instead of five minutes in an opening song and then a speaker, they might spend 20 minutes on worship.”

Randy Record, a campus evangelism missionary for the North American Mission Board and a youth evangelism strategies coordinator for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, contrasted the current climate in many church youth groups with what he saw in his own youth group as a teen.

“I went to church every Sunday, and to every youth camp and retreat that you could be at,” he said. “But there was an element missing there. Nobody was equipping us to go and be Great Commission students for Christ.”

While baptism statistics actually indicate a plateau in youth baptisms during the ’90s, Taylor and others attributed that to a modern mindset among teens that tends to reject formal affiliation with denominations, or even particular churches. In fact, NAMB hopes to address the importance of baptism among teens with a five-year “Celebrate Baptism” emphasis that begins in January.

“We’re trying to address the issue of celebrating the baptisms, instead of making it a solemn event,” he said. “We’re trying to stress that this is very exciting. Let’s grill some hamburgers, have a party and celebrate a changed life.”

One milestone in the development of youth ministry has been the Supreme Court decision in 1990 to uphold the Equal Access Act, which specified the parameters of school based Christian clubs. The leeway was broad, the court said, as long as all activities were student-initiated.

While student-led ministry had been advocated and was being practiced in some churches, the trend began to grow concurrently with the rise of movements like See You At the Pole and the organization of student-led Christian clubs. Today, such efforts are frequently central to church youth ministry strategy — and serve as an ideal arena for developing youth leaders.

The groups have also become more focused in their purpose. Many organizations in recent years have adopted a four-week cycle for their meetings centered not on fellowship, prayer, or Bible Study — but on evangelism and making disciples. One of the latest organizational plans is the “FiSH!” strategy — being promoted by the North American Mission Board in partnership with the evangelical organization Campus Revolution.

The FiSH! cycle begins with Focus week, when students focus on how God is working in their lives and pray for the friends God is leading them to reach. During Inspiration week, students are inspired in their mission by an outside speaker. Testimonies are shared during Share week, and the cycle concludes with Hook week, invited students have an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel.

A similar strategy in Henderson, Ky., helped a new club in one school grow from 12-15 students at the first meeting to as many as 70-80 students some weeks, according to Andy McDonald, youth minister at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. About 20 professions of faith were recorded during the year.

“I watched several Christian kids who initially were skeptical or leery of what we were doing who by the end of the year were excited,” he said. “The church is also commissioning campus missionaries to encourage those sharing Christ. And our Wednesday night student worship has taken an incredible leap in quality, a quality of passion for Christ in worship.”

McDonald also felt that it was hard to pin the change in youth ministry on anything but a “a movement of God’s spirit among youth ministers and among students.”

“We are tired of youth ministry that is us-focused and focused on fun. There is nothing wrong with that; you invite a friend and if they get saved, great. But now everything is focused on being passionate about Christ in worship, and then going out in our mission field.”

Long, the youth minister at Crestwood Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., echoed the sentiment, remembering the days when a central focus of youth ministry might have been the annual trip to an amusement park. Now, they might still do an amusement park trip in addition to various other ministry efforts, but “our focus is not on the amusement park trip, but on how we can expand the kingdom through an amusement park trip.”

At Crestwood the clubs are where new students are introduced to the gospel, and then the next stage might be participation in the Wednesday worship service. Sundays are primarily for the core group, with Bible Study on Sunday mornings and discipleship in the evenings.

The emphasis on evangelism forces students to be more concerned about their own spiritual growth, which in turn leads to greater spiritual maturity, Long said.

“So it’s a full-course circle. Everything we do interconnects with everything else.”

Taylor noted that the emphasis on campus evangelism — including the commissioning of students by churches to serve as missionaries to their campuses — has created a new awareness that “we don’t have to go load up on a van and go to Florida. We have a mission field right here in our community.”

But concurrent with the passion for evangelism close to home has been a new interest in broader missions involvement as well.

Andy Morris, director of volunteer mobilization for NAMB, noted the overwhelming level of commitment at YouthLink 2000 — despite actual attendance of about 45,000 that was significantly below projections.

“We wanted hundreds of thousands of students there, and we thought that God might call 10,000 people to missions commitment,” he said. “Well, we didn’t have hundreds of thousands of people there, and we still had 10,000 people called to missions commitments.”

Black, at Southwestern Seminary, concurred that there are accepted guidelines of what percentage of youth will typically respond at a conference, and “YouthLink 2000 just blew that right out of the water.”

The interest in mission trips has grown steadily since the popularity of youth choirs and choir tours peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, according to Black. And for many of these students the next step is commitment to summer or semester missions or career missions service.

In Oklahoma, Lankford said they have seen the number of decisions recorded during their summer youth weeks at Falls Creek Baptist Assembly rise at a rate of about 50 percent annually since 1998, from 566 that year to 1,110 this year. Students increasingly are venturing out on mission trips as individuals, including one 13-year-old girl he knows who spent 30 days in Budapest, Hungary, with 20 other youth from around the Country

“I started noticing it about probably five years ago, where we started seeing just a swell of students with very much of a servant heart who just wanted to go wherever God led,” he said.

Ross, founder of True Love Waits, has joined others in advocating that Southern Baptists families begin planning to sponsor their children routinely in a one-year missions commitment on the completion of their formal education. The only reason this is not done routinely by many students, he says, is simply the lack of financial resources.

Morris also said that he has seen the trend toward deeper levels of worship during World Changers projects each year. But he also noted that it was not anything that World Changers organizers or any other adults could truly take credit for.

“We’ve just to got point them in the right direction and get out of the way,” he said. “The challenge for us those of us who work with students … is to not be a stumbling block for what God is doing in their life.”

    About the Author

  • James Dotson