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Youth minister seeks ‘eternal impact’

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (BP)–After nearly 40 years in youth ministry, Richard King is sure of one thing: “Teenagers are teenagers.”

Whether it’s 1972 when, at age 23, he entered the ministry or today at age 60, many of the issues youth face remain the same, King says. Pimples. Girlfriend/boyfriend problems. School grades. Pimples. Lack of dating options. Peer pressure. Girlfriend/boyfriend problems. Pimples.

“I don’t think the kids have changed that much, but the toys they play with certainly have,” says King, who has served the last 25 years at Mountain Park First Baptist Church in metro Atlanta. “Kids are kids with the same basic problems they have always struggled with. The biggest problem I see is that we as adults just don’t have time for them like we used to.”

While peer pressure always has been a problem, King sees today’s pressure to succeed as being the driving force for so many of the teens among whom he seeks to impart godly values.

“College has become so expensive, $80,000 and up for four years for so many youth, that they are being programmed to devote a growing amount of time to bolstering their resume through campus civic organizations or sports involvement,” he says. “Getting that scholarship has become the driving force that overshadows nearly everything else.”

It’s not that King thinks youth should be unconcerned about personal advancement, but he fears many teens -– and their parents -– are losing perspective of what is important in life.

“I remember when I started out we would have kids at church for five or six hours a week to ground them in the Word, to shape them into Christian leaders. Today we only have the most committed for three hours, if that. The vast majority don’t come close to that to experience true discipleship,” he says.

King believes part of the problem is many parents simply do not understand the biblical mandate to disciple their children. If the church is the only place where mentoring occurs, rather than supplementing what is taught in the home, he sees the partnership between the parents and the church as one-sided.

“Too many parents are concerned with helping their kids to make the sports team or being socially adept so they will succeed in college. They have become too focused on filling up their teen’s schedule with things that, to be honest, have little eternal impact.”

King is quick to say he understands the challenge parents face, having raised a daughter, Joy, with his wife Betsy. Yet he feels there is room for improvement when it comes to equipping youth with the skills to compete in a world increasingly hostile to Christian values.

“I have seen the pressure build from seventh grade onward when a parent first sends their child to a soccer or other athletic camp. A coach honestly tells them their child has potential for the sport and may be gifted and could get a scholarship if they worked hard at it. From that point forward, the parent sees a glimmer of hope of financial relief and begins pushing their child for the next five years until high school graduation.

“Sports and other extracurricular events are good and well, but the time and energy that is put into that pales [in comparison to] what is of eternal good in the life of their child. The teen may come out on the other side as a great athlete but will have no understanding of what it means to be a Christ-follower.”

King is not against sports involvement. For the past 20 years he has served as chaplain of Parkview High School’s football team and is lay coach for the high school’s girls cross country and track teams. He just believes there should be a better balance between the two.

Part of the problem is that many adults did not have adequate role models themselves or grew up in non-Christian homes, King says. With no point of reference, parents don’t know what is expected of them when it comes to Christian parenting.

“I don’t think we have done a very good job of helping to teach parents about the important role they play in the life of their children. It’s not the church’s role to teach them all they need to know; all it can do is supplement the foundation that is laid in the home,” he says.

“It’s incredibly easy for parents to become so wrapped up in their children’s schedules that there is no time left to mentor or to have a regular heart-to-heart with their children. After being out until 10 p.m. at a basketball game or other event, there is no time for anything else when they get home.”

King is not saying that parents need to have a daily devotional time with their children, though that might be the ideal. But they do need to be sensitive to teaching points that occur throughout the day.

“That’s how you model the Christian lifestyle, by your words and through your actions,” he says.

“I would like parents to lead their teens to understand that going to their church youth retreat … might be a better choice than going to a sports camp or being involved in some other activity at school. The teen needs to understand that while the school experience might be good, they need to ask what eternal value will they gain from it.

“There will always be another sports camp to attend” whereas now might be the time “to become more involved with their peers at church.”

“Once a parent sifts through all the demands on their child’s time, they need to understand that the only really important thing their teen has to do is go to school as mandated by law. All other activities are optional. Parents need to help their teens make the right choices that will build them into being the mature Christians that Christ wants them to be.”

While youth ministers may be seeking to instill a biblical worldview in the lives that are being entrusted to them, parents don’t seem to be on board with the agenda in many cases, King says.

“Our youth today are simply not being trained to think, to learn how to solve problems. We could do much better in teaching them to think for themselves.

“Oh, they may be able to give a superficial regurgitation of the story of the woman at the well or a parable or two, but they have not been taught to grasp the underlying, life-changing story that Christ was intent on teaching.

“When they read Scripture they need to instinctively ask themselves, ‘What is Christ trying to teach me in this? What is the real story He wants to take root in my life?’

“It is only when they come to that point that Christ becomes the true Lord of their life.”

Commenting on Richard King’s longtime ministry to youth, Richard Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “A youth minister shepherds a ‘congregation’ made up of teenagers, parents of teenagers, and volunteers. As youth ministers age and mature, they get more effective every year in ministry with two-thirds of that congregation—parents and volunteers. And those who know how to form genuine heart connections with students (offering more than superficial ‘coolness’) find they can have life-altering relationships with students for a lifetime. Richard King is living proof of those facts. And his life and legacy ought to cause many churches to rethink who they will call as their next youth minister.”
Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index (www.Christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

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  • Joe Westbury