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To reach millennials is to know teens, say youth specialists

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Last year, nearly half of the Southern Baptist churches reporting baptisms through the Annual Church Profile Report did not record a single baptism under the youth category, according to statistics released by the North American Mission Board.
Of the approximately 38,000 churches reporting, 17,400 churches recorded no baptisms in the 12-to-17-year-old category and 23,500 churches reported baptizing one or less.
Despite the gloomy statistics, the founder of a popular Southern Baptist summer youth camp contends that the teenage culture today is not a hopeless cause.
“Teenagers today are no more difficult to reach for Christ than they were 30 years ago, 40 years ago, the bottom line is we’re just not doing it,” said Rick Gage, founder of the “Rick Gage ‘Go Tell’ Youth Camp,” headquartered in Atlanta.
Speaking at the Culture Shock ’98 youth ministry conference held Sept. 14-16 on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., Gage said youth ministry has lost its focus in too many churches. He said prayer, Bible study and evangelism are the fundamentals of a God-honoring youth ministry.
“We’ve lost the victory that is involved in winning people to Jesus,” he said. “I believe all of Heaven gets more excited when a young man or a young lady comes forward and gives their heart to Jesus, than to see 99 people get together Monday for a Bible study.”
“The youth ministry ought to be in the lost people business,” Gage continued. “If it doesn’t center around reaching people for God, we don’t need it.”
Citing another NAMB statistic showing only nine of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 40,887 churches recorded more than 100 baptisms in the youth category last year, Gage said there is a pervasive misconception about teenagers and the church.
“Don’t tell me you can’t preach to kids,” he said. “I don’t buy it. They want to be preached to. You don’t have to sugar coat it. You don’t have to give them Kool-Aid and cookies. My friend, I’m telling you today’s generation, they want it hot and they want it heavy. They want it black, they want it white. ‘Give me your best shot,’ that’s what they want. Preach, preach, preach to your kids. Preach the gospel to them.”
Gage said 25,000 teenagers have attended his summer youth camp over the last 10 years including 4,000 this summer from 20 states and 150 churches. “Kids are responding,” he said. “They are getting saved. They’re getting right with God and they’re going back home and they’re turning their schools upside down for Jesus.”
Allen Jackson, assistant professor of youth education at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said during the conference that teens today are impressed more about the aspect of having a personal relationship with Jesus than they are by the authority of Scripture.
“There is a person who loves them right at the center of the faith,” Jackson said. “It’s the only religion in the world where God takes the initiative. It’s an authentic religion.”
Jackson said time is of the essence when it comes to reaching “millennials” — those born since 1983. “If they don’t respond to Christ by the time they are 20 years old, there’s a one in 10 chance they never will,” he said.
Jackson described the millennial generation as “schizophrenic” and suffering from insecurities brought on by the “changing family,” “media influence,” “moral relativism,” and “hopelessness.”
“Extremes are greater, and stakes are higher,” Jackson said comparing today’s teens with youth of past generations. “In the 50’s teens lost their innocence, in the 60’s they lost their authority, in the 70’s they lost their love, in the 80’s they lost their hope with AIDS, and in the 90’s they lost their safety.”
Jackson said the church must reacquaint itself with the teenage culture if it is going to make a difference for the cause of Christ. “We have access to the greatest story that’s ever been told,” he said. “We need to know (millennials) before it’s told.”
With about 73 million “millennials” currently in the United States, projections call for there to be more teenagers in the country than any other time in history by the year 2006, Jackson said.
“All of these stats and all of these figures, all of this stuff is fine, but unless Jesus is at the center of it, we become great sociologists and lousy evangelists,” he said. “Let’s learn the culture so that we can take the message to a culture that hurts.”
Jackson said when the church reaches out to teenagers it “validates their existence and place in this world.” He said adults should discuss openly with teens about their fears of the future. “Thinking about the future is the key to thinking about eternity,” he said.

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  • Lee Weeks