RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Churches that simply entertain young people instead of engaging them in ministry and service are losing a generation, said Joel Carter, student ministry specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“They are not the church of tomorrow. They are the church of today,” said Carter, director of a new youth discipleship camp called Converge.
Fifty-seven students, ranging from sixth-graders to high school graduates, participated in the first Converge youth camp June 27-July 1 at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville, N.C.
The camp utilized a small group approach, with an emphasis on specific ministry training and intense Bible studies, with, of course, plenty of recreational opportunities as well.
“Teenagers today want depth and personal touch. They want relationships,” Carter said. “There’s a gap in student camps when it comes to discipleship and leadership. Most camps do a great job getting kids excited about their faith, but then they get home and don’t know what to do with it. Converge is equipping them with the tools to go home and be a part of other ministries.”
For many Converge participants, it was the first time they saw themselves as leaders — the first time anyone had shown them how to teach a Bible study or connect with their church’s men’s or women’s ministries or communicate the Gospel during nursery duty.
“This isn’t like other youth trips we’ve been on, where you just get all excited,” said Courtney Getkin, 18, of Columbus, Ga. “Our knowledge has just been stretched. It’s not that we’re not on a spiritual high. We are. But it’s that we’ve definitely learned a lot that we can apply at our church, in our youth group and also in our lives.”
Getkin and her friend Ashley Childs, 17, were struck by the genuineness and sincerity they observed during worship.
“It’s so real here,” Childs said. “We’re in a simple room, sitting on these simple chairs, and there are no big lights or big musical production. There’s just a keyboard, and God is here. God’s presence is here.
“Our church is going through a lot of struggles right now,” Childs said. “A lot of our youth leaders have moved on, and a lot of us aren’t stepping up. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas about that.”
Carter said many churches are abandoning the large praise groups for a return to small group ministries, in a philosophical shift toward accountability and attendance rather than having an “experience.”
“They’re going back to the small group model because they grow faster and they grow deeper. This whole generation is craving God, and that’s why you see such a rise in spiritual things,” Carter said.
“We as a church don’t bother to let kids serve,” he continued. “They get entertained. They get. They get. They get. They need to serve and they want to serve.”
Carter said today’s youth are looking to be included in the life of the church, not segregated into separate activities to keep them busy without responsibilities. Too few adults put an arm around a teenager and say, “Man, I’m glad you’re here,” Carter said.
Jonathan Moore, 18, of Charleston, Tenn., has been coming to Ridgecrest just about every summer of his life. His father, Paul, is pastor of Charleston Baptist Church in western Tennessee.
“I’ve enjoyed this week a lot more than usual because it’s more focused on growth. All the fun is there, but it’s not as much of the silliness,” the recent high school graduate said.
“I heard this was going to be different, but I didn’t know what that meant,” Moore said. “Something I’ve noticed is that there is a lot more depth in the preaching and the focus on discipleship. It’s been really helpful for me because I can ask a lot more questions of the staff and camp pastors since the size of the camp is smaller.”
The camp coincided with Discipleship/Leadership Week at Ridgecrest, and many of the participants came with their parents.
Sue Patchel came to the discipleship conference with a group, including her son, Owen, 13, and two of his friends from Cape Hatteras Baptist Church on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“Our hope,” she said, “is that our children are going to take on the responsibility of being leaders in the church,” while “the younger ones need role models.”