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Youth ministers challenged to color outside the lines

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Current evangelism methods are not working for today’s youth and must be changed to reflect the way today’s students think, said youth expert Mark Matlock, creator of PlanetWisdom.com, the Internet ministry of WisdomWorks Ministries of Dallas.

Sharing the emerging trends in student evangelism he has learned from research conducted for his ministry by the Barna Research Group, Matlock told youth ministry scholars at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s third annual Youth Ministry Institute that teens in this postmodern culture are more resistant to the Gospel and therefore, current evangelism approaches that were effective in the modern culture are not working anymore.

Matlock was one of 16 speakers of this year’s YMI “Color Outside the Lines” conference, held during the weeks of Jan. 7 and Jan. 14 with more than 120 youth ministry participants. Other guest speakers for the two one-week-long events included nationally-recognized youth ministry leaders, such as Chuck Gartman, Go To Youth Ministry, Franklin, Tenn.; Sam Davis, Right Track Ministries, Spartanburg, S.C.; Sue McAllister, Reach Out Ministries, Tupelo, Miss.; Len Taylor, North American Mission Board; Huey Bratton, a licensed professional counselor from Jacksonville, Fla.; Jim Minton, a psychology professor from the University of Mobile (Ala.), and other experts from Southern Baptist churches and entities.

Explaining that today’s generation is spiritually active — they outpace adults in the areas of spiritual activity, church attendance, Sunday school participation, prayer, small group interaction and evangelism, Matlock said that the data from over 600 students in the Barna study [balanced for gender, geography, and age-range] shows that “we are just breeding Christians.”

The churches with the most children have the most converts, he explained.

“The problem is that we are missing huge generations of teenagers,” Matlock said. He pointed out that the probability of a person accepting Christ between the ages of 5 to 13 is 32 percent. There is a four percent probability of doing so within the ages of 14 to 18; and a six percent chance from age 19 to death.

“Ninety-six out of 100 teens will be lost for eternity if we do not figure out how to reach them,” he lamented.

According to the Barna study, though four out of five of the students interviewed identified themselves as Christian, when pressed, only 32 percent could be identified as “born again,” Matlock reported. Forty-nine percent were severely questionable regarding salvation, he said.

“There is a need for comprehensive biblical teaching and thinking theologically because the basic teachings are overlooked too often,” he determined. He cited examples from the study, which indicated that 61 percent of the students in the study did not know the John 3:16 passage, 94 percent did not know the Great Commission passage, and 66 percent did not know what the Gospels were.

Furthermore, even the “cream of the crop” youth evangelizers (those who said they shared their faith at least once in the past year) are lacking in their basic doctrine. To note, one in ten believe that the Bible is not accurate in all that it teaches; one in five believe that Jesus sinned while on earth; one in four do not acknowledge the real existence of the Holy Spirit; one in three do not acknowledge the existence of the adversary Satan, and one in two believe that truth is relative, Matlock accounted.

“It is not good for students to have zeal without knowledge,” he said, pointing to Proverbs 19:2.

“We must reevaluate the way in which we do things and reach out to people,” Matlock said, stressing the importance of understanding the postmodern generation, which is not as rational as the modern culture, and to whom authenticity, reality, and genuineness matter more.

As an example, Matlock, known for doing magical illusion tricks as an introduction to evangelism, compared the modern magician David Copperfield with the postmodern street magician David Blain. Copperfield does what is logically impossible, but does not engage the audience in the experience, Matlock said, explaining that his methodology worked for the modern thinker. On the other hand, Blain, who is much less precise in what he does, engages people, having learned that today’s culture would rather be in the experience than see a perfect show.

Noting the emphasis on personal involvement and individuality, Matlock cautioned against putting evangelism in a “box.” He noted that the world is marketing uniqueness and individuality, and that Christians stress that every life is uniquely created, yet Christians tend to use the same evangelism methods over and over.

“Instead of using the same tool for sharing Christ with every unique individual, we need to adjust our evangelism as a tool box where different things may be pulled out in each situation,” he said. “There is no one approach to reaching all students.

“God has made each individual unique and placed youth ministers in ministries with unique students. We must wrestle over this and become shepherds that focus on disciple-making verses convert-making,” he said.

“The reality is that we need to change the deep structure of our strategy, not simply our style of evangelism,” he said. “We have to move from teaching that evangelism is leading a person into the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ and realize that it is more of a disciple-making process that’s needed.

“We must present evangelism as a long-term process, rather than a simplified ‘microwave’ experience,” he added. That approach does not work with today’s students, he said, particularly in light of the way Christians are viewed.

“For better or worse, non-Christians do not tend to see much difference between Christians they know and other people who are not Christian,” Matlock noted. “In all, 83 percent of non-Christians said that, based upon their impressions of Christians they know, they would say that Christians are not significantly different from other people.”

Therefore, people need to ask permission to share the Gospel and must respect the listener, he stressed. Drawing from Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing, Matlock said that many people today see evangelism as an interruption. “We must not teach the Gospel with wise and persuasive words, but with the power of the Gospel,” he said, pointing to 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.

“We must eliminate the ‘pitch’ type presentations of the gospel, and focus more on prayer evangelism, and service evangelism,” he said. “We must teach students how to identify needs of people and train them how to meet them.”

Matlock said that youth ministers also must equip their students with a Christian worldview, which is the premise for his student conferences and web-based ministry, www.planetwisdom.com. Utilizing the unique teaching talents of Matlock and others, WisdomWorks provides churches with quality resources and events to draw their students toward a deeper walk with Jesus Christ. In addition to their programs for teenagers and college students, WisdomWorks offers cross-generational events for family camps and father and son retreats and provides ministry programming for the Student Conferences with Mark Matlock and MercyMe.

More than a replication of undergraduate and graduate classes offered during the regular academic semester, NOBTS’ YMI exposes students to youth experts who make presentations on a wide range of leading edge topics for student ministry, bringing over 200 years of collective youth ministry experience to the classroom.

“The YMI strategy is to extend the mission of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary through leadership in advanced research, practical application, quality training, and on-going dialogue for those who work with youth,” said Allen Jackson, NOBTS associate professor of youth education and director of YMI.

“Each year, we try to focus on the ‘bread and butter’ of youth ministry — discipleship and evangelism,” said Jackson. “Our evangelism emphasis this year challenged students to ‘color outside the lines’ in order to strategize youth ministries that will reach students with the Gospel.”

To review each speaker’s notes from this year’s YMI, visit online at www.nobts.edu/ymi or www.youthministryinstitute.org. For more information on the “Teens and Evangelism Report,” conducted by Barna Research Group for Mark Matlock and WisdomWorks Ministries, visit the resource store online at www.planetwisdom.com.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: EVANGELISM METHODS NEED CHANGING and MATLOCK WITH JACKSON.

    About the Author

  • Shannon Baker

    Shannon Baker is director of communications for the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey and editor of the Network’s weekly newsletter, BRN United.

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