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Student ministry leaders assess efforts

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Baptisms of Southern Baptist teenagers have been in steady decline for three decades, reaching an all-time low with slightly more than 80,000 12- to 17-year-olds baptized in 2006. It has been more than 20 years since Southern Baptist churches collectively baptized more than 100,000 teens in a year.

The situation is cause for alarm, a youth ministry expert at LifeWay Christian Resources says.

“We’ve taken a hard look at ourselves and youth ministry and have come up with a question that challenges our thinking and will shape the future of what we do,” said Scott Stevens, LifeWay’s director of student ministry. “And that question is this: As student ministry continues to mature, are we developing students, or student ministries?”

About 100 student ministry workers wrestled with that question during a LifeWay conference in Panama City Beach, Fla., to address the challenges student ministers face. Wondering whether the point of student ministry has been missed is a tough -– but necessary -– topic, Stevens said.

LifeWay is “on the front end of this as an organization,” Stevens said during the three-day gathering in mid-September, “but we think it’s time to put a laser-like focus back on the spiritual development of students. That’s what’s going to make a lasting impact. Not that all the fun things youth ministries do is bad, it’s just that teens need to be spiritually equipped when they leave our youth groups.”

The task of reversing some alarming trends is daunting, Stevens said. Two studies conducted by LifeWay Research this year reveal at least two significant challenges. In one study, the majority of church-going teens, when asked, could not clearly define that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. In the second study, 70 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds who regularly attended church during their teen years dropped out of church for at least a year and 35 percent of those said they would never return. Both studies are available at www.lifewayresearch.com.

LifeWay’s student ministry team also revealed a number of misperceptions adults have regarding today’s teenagers. According to “Transforming Student Ministry: Research Calling for Change information,” a PowerPoint presentation shown at the conference that included data from the National Study of Youth & Religion:

— Rather than rebellious, the lives and faith of most teenagers closely reflect the lives, faith, culture and institutional settings of the adult world they inhabit.

— The majority of teenagers raised in Christian homes are inarticulate about faith, its practices and its meaning or place in their lives. They find it almost impossible to put basic beliefs into words.

— Teenagers are “functional deists.” They believe God exists, created the world and set life in motion, but the only time He becomes involved with them in a personal way is to make their lives happier or to solve some problem.

— Church teenagers have not resisted the influence of those who want them to be politically correct and “tolerant” in all their religious conversations and in fact are incredibly well-trained in using “correct” language so they will not offend anyone in public. Away from church, they cannot bring themselves to say that Jesus is the only way to God.

— There is strong evidence that many evangelical teenagers do not understand grace or the basics of salvation.

— It is not true that teenagers in the church are no different than teenagers out in the community and, despite its weaknesses and lack of influence, religious practice does indeed make a clear significant difference across all standard measurable outcomes in adolescents’ lives.

“We believe we’ve lost focus on the spiritual development of students,” Stevens said. “We believe the solution to the problem is not in a better plan for student ministry but to find a biblical model for student spiritual development that functions within the context of the two main institutions God gave us -– the home and the church. Luke 2:52, Matthew 22:37-39 and the Sermon on the Mount provide us a biblical framework for just such a model.”

That biblical framework, Stevens said, is reflected in an emerging emphasis currently named the “KNOWN Strategy for Student Spiritual Development,” which utilizes the words “Know,” “Own” and “Known” drawn from the three passages of Scripture.

The objective of Know is that students come to know Jesus, gain a clear understanding of the lordship of Christ and move toward a practice of spiritual disciplines. Own is coming to understand one’s identity in Christ through growth in Christian character and spiritual discernment, while Known encompasses living out one’s faith through relationships for the intentional purpose of influencing others in a spiritually positive way. Stevens said parents still play the primary role in influencing their teens in these areas, but that LifeWay wanted to help equip youth ministers so as to effectively supplement what teens should be getting at home.

“If it were possible to develop students apart from cultural influences it would be easier,” said Michael Wood, vice president of Teen Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill., “but the reality is that today’s culture strongly influences a teen’s world.”

“Teens today Google their way through life,” Wood told the audience. “Things become obsolete very quickly. For a teen it is literally here today gone tomorrow or here today better tomorrow. Their world is constantly changing. They are growing up in a world where there is an aftermarket for everything. E-Bay has taught them that.”

Stevens asked the audience to think about the implications of Wood’s presentation in relation to faith, particularly in response to the trend of teens looking for easy answers to their needs.

“Faith is not always an easy thing to live out,” Stevens said. “There are hard things in a life of faith that are worked out over time. Living a committed life isn’t a quick fix. The challenge for us as youth ministry workers is learning how we transfer the hard things of faith and get them to stick with our teenagers while living in a disposable world.”

Paul Turner, national student ministry leader for LifeWay, turned the focus from youth to youth workers as the place to begin having an impact in the lives of the teens in their charge, noting that leaders need to have a clear understanding of God’s grace.

“Do you live … and take ownership of your faith?” Turner asked the youth ministers. “Christ came and gave us a new operating system, but the problem comes when we try to do ministry and live the Christian life in our own strength through our own wills. We are still trying to run old programs on new operating systems. We think if we do more ‘ministry’ God is somehow going to love us more. That’s the wrong answer.”

James Jackson, a member of LifeWay’s student events team, said it is when this truth is lived out that students begin to take possession of their faith and become equipped for outward ministry, labeled Known in the strategy.

“How much sweeter is the reward when we teach students how to share the Gospel with their friends and they lead others to Christ,” Jackson said. “Light only makes a difference when it is shining in the dark. Are you developing students or student ministries? If we develop students, we will see them know Christ, own their faith and make Him known.”
Chris Turner is the media relations manager at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Additional information on student resources and events can be found at www.lifeway.com/students and more information on the emerging “KNOWN Strategy for Student Spiritual Development” can be found at www.lifeway.com/studentstrategy.