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Veteran youth pastor says teens are underchallenged

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Once a teenage heroin addict growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., Kenny St. John knows firsthand about the perils of adolescence.
For nearly half his life, St. John has worked tirelessly to steer teenagers toward a Christ-centered life. Over the years, he has impacted hundreds of young people’s lives for the cause of Christ while serving as youth minister at two Southern Baptist mega-churches.
While serving as senior youth pastor at First Baptist, Jacksonville, Fla., the church registered in the top three in the Southern Baptist Convention for youth baptisms during his 10-year ministry.
During a recent three-year stint as senior minister to students at First Baptist, Snellville, Ga., St. John’s program grew from 40 students to 350.
Last fall, shortly after resigning from his post at the Snellville church, St. John and his wife, Cindy, headed for Wake Forest, N.C., where he is enrolled as a full-time student at Southeastern Baptist Theological College. With two children in college, St. John is pursuing a degree in biblical studies, an ambition he had put on hold since entering youth ministry two years after his radical conversion as a 21-year-old drug addict.
St. John said he’s convinced most people in youth ministry underestimate the role of their youth in God’s kingdom work.
“I’m concerned that most (youth ministers) are basing their ministry on their lack of faith in the spiritual capacity of their young people,” he reflected.
When a standard of excellence is set in youth ministry, St. John said, young people will rise to the challenge of changing the world with the power of the gospel. “I do believe that nothing represents the cutting-edge and the carrying out of the Great Commission for the church more than its ministry to children and youth,” he said.
Now more than ever, St. John said, youth ministry is crucial to the future of the church. “There are more opportunities for a young person to fail today than ever before,” he said. “There’s always been the temptation for the young person to do wrong, but there’s never been as many opportunities as there are today for young people.”
St. John has this challenge for youth ministers today: “Be creative, contemporary, but not compromising.”
Reflecting on God’s blessings on his ministry, St. John dwells little on the booming numbers of young people who have come through his ministry. Instead, it’s the smaller numbers — such as the five students currently attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary who grew up under his ministry — that St. John seems to cherish the most. In fact, dozens of St. John’s former students have surrendered to God’s call on their lives by going into full-time ministry.
“(Great youth ministry is) not to just see young people come to Christ, but then to see them live a life of Christian excellence,” he said.
St. John is no typical inconspicuous student on a busy campus filled with hundreds of faces. Look for him on the Wake Forest campus and you may find others around him gleaning knowledge and insight from his years as a Christian education director or pastor.
Scott Swain, a master of theology student at Southeastern, is a product of St. John’s ministry at First Baptist, Jacksonville.
“He challenges youth to think bigger than they’ve ever thought before in terms of God’s will for their lives,” Swain said. “He challenged me to pursue excellence in whatever I did, and that’s affected me not only in college but in seminary,”
Homer Lindsay, co-pastor of First Baptist, Jacksonville, said he hired St. John as a 23-year-old former drug addict because he had a burden for lost teenagers. “So we set about to train him, because he had the qualities that I liked,” Lindsay said. “He witnessed to everybody he met and was just on fire reaching people for Christ. This is what I wanted with a leader, to lead the young people to live separated lives, lead them to live holy lives, and to be soul-winners.”
Larry Grays, a 1996 Southeastern graduate and winner of the seminary preaching award, is another product of St. John’s ministry.
Grays, now an evangelist based in Orlando, Fla., said St. John’s ministry has been fruitful because it’s “purpose-driven.”
“(He understands) the theology behind what you’re doing — not just doing things to be doing things, but doing them with a purpose and with a solid foundation as to why you’re doing them.”
St. John is currently directing a summer youth evangelism camp called “The Rick Gage Go Tell Camp.” Through his work with the summer youth camp the past eight years, St. John has ministered to more than 15,000 teenagers and equipped hundreds of youth leaders to reach teenagers in their communities for the cause of Christ.
“(Kenny) and I have the same heartbeat,” said Rick Gage, founder of the youth camp. “We have the same vision as far as reaching teenagers.”
Gage, son of longtime evangelist Freddie Gage, and one of today’s premier evangelists in Christian youth ministry, said St. John inspires youth workers to challenge teenagers in their Christian walk. “They can’t absorb enough of Kenny’s insight and his expertise when it comes to building a godly, evangelistic, soul-winning youth ministry,” Gage said.

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  • Douglas C. Estes