The summer of 1996 I took a vow never to serve again as pastor at a week-long youth camp. Not because I hate teenagers or camps – on the contrary, I love them. But at this particular camp, I ignored my age and physical shape (I should say lack of shape), and entered the mud volleyball tournament. My team – the counselors – beat the best youth team. I apparently talked too much trash, unfortunately, because after the game, I got creamed by about two hundred (okay, maybe six or seven) boys. When they got off me, I could hardly walk, but I was too proud to admit I was hurt. I think I said something like, "I have a rock in my shoe," to hide my pain. For the next three months, I hobbled around until I discovered I had a broken hip. Soon I was facing two realities. First, a major hip operation was in my near future (which will ruin your whole day!). Second, I faced the fact that youth camps are hazardous to my health.
Unfortunately, it seems that most churches have abandoned the opportunity of reaching young people with the same zeal I have toward avoiding youth camps. In the SBC, we are simply not reaching young people effectively. With only slight and rare exceptions, youth baptisms have declined steadily since the early 1970s. But the opportunities before us are too good to miss.
In his recent book, The Bridger Generation, Thom Rainer reminds us 80 percent of people who are saved come to Christ before age 20.1 Could it be that a major reason we have lost ground in evangelism in America is because we are always playing catch up? Could it be that we work too hard to gear worship services for adults, provide materials for adults, focus all our energies on those who pay the bills, while neglecting the younger generation?
We have been deluged with information about baby boomers and baby busters. The oldest boomers are in their fifties, and the youngest busters are now adults. Who in America is under 20, making up this potential 80 percent of the people we reach? It is the bridger generation, born 1977 to 1994. Also known as the millennials, boomlets, and echoboomers, this is the second largest generation in American history, 72 million strong (boomers numbered 76 million).
So much has been written about boomers – my generation, born from 1946 to 1964. Boomers have been described, all too often correctly, as self-absorbed. We now see billions of dollars spent on reaching busters, born between 1965 and 1976 have you seen those Generation NEXT Pepsi commercials?). But in the church, our efforts to reach boomers and busters have often come too little, too late. Generationally, we are losing the battle.
If we are to reach the leaders of the new millennium, the following seven priorities must be addressed at the local church level:
1. We need to strategically seek to reach this generation. "The time to reach the bridgers is now," says Rainer, "not 2010."2 In the SBC, there has been a general decline over the past twenty-five years in the number and percentage of youth baptisms. Not since the Jesus Movement in the early 1970s, when we reached more youth both in terms of percentages and numbers, have we as a denomination effectively reached youth. Now that the numbers of youth in America are increasing, will the church intentionally seek to reach them? There is a great deal of talk in our day about revival. Many are praying and fasting, and some hopeful signs are apparent. What is almost totally missed in most discussions regarding revival is the obvious role youth have played in past awakenings. What would happen if our churches stopped treating teenagers like fourth graders and began to see young people less as peripheral and more as essential to what God wants to do in revival? In the past three years, I have been in several churches where God moved mightily with a touch of true revival. In every church, without exception, there was a strong youth group integrally involved in the life of the church.
2. We need a paradigm shift in how we do student ministry. A friend who is a prominent evangelist in our convention met recently with student ministers from some of the strongest churches in the SBC. He told me one of the admissions of the group is that they had personally lost sight of their need to be personal soul-winners. Youth can be reached. When I was privileged to serve in Indiana, I was grieved to find that our state declined in baptisms every year in the 1980s and youth baptisms declined the most. We made a strategic attempt to focus on reaching young people. The youth evangelism conference grew from 200 to 2,000, and baptisms increased four consecutive years. Youth baptisms played a prominent role.
We can more effectively emphasize the importance of building biblical, evangelistic student ministries. Such ministries focus more on relevant biblical teaching than ski trips, and evangelizing their peers more than pacifying their parents.
3. On a larger scale, there remains a serious, urgent call to churches to shift in mentality concerning the very purpose of the church. The church is not a hotel for saints, it is a hospital for sinners. Our failure to reach youth is symptomatic of larger failure in evangelism.
4. Let us see technology as our friend in evangelism. Rainer notes that the Internet will affect the bridgers the way TV affected boomers. At its best historically, the church has been at the forefront of technology. Think of how the printing press was used to publish the Bible and how trade routes helped in worldwide missions expansion. In recent history, we have lagged behind. On several occasions I have led someone to Christ via the Internet. The technology is available. Compare TV evangelists to MTV in terms of influencing culture! The Internet may become one of the most viable tools for reaching this generation.
5. Let us seek ways to use the media and the arts in biblical ways to declare Christ clearly to this generation. Music and other arts play a heavy role in their lives. Can't we use the arts, created by God, to reach this group? No one epitomizes the buster generation any better than Alanis Morissette. Her in-your-face, filled-with-angst lyrics speak volumes. If Morissette speaks for busters, then the current bridger-aged group, Hansen, who are ages 16, 13, and 11, speaks for many millennials. You may have never heard of them, but their smash hit Mmm-Bop, with its "nostalgic-for-a-simpler-time feel,"3 demonstrates the surface happiness bridgers show when contrasted with the more pessimistic X-Generation. Through the arts, we can strike a chord among millennials that other approaches may miss.
6. We must remain lashed to the cross and the truthfulness of Scripture. Rainer appropriately encourages us to confront the pluralism of the bridger generation, not with a compromised gospel but with the bold declaration that Jesus Christ is not the best way, but the only way to God. An uncertain ocean requires a strong hand and a sound rudder. We must confront the pluralism of the age with courage not compromise.
7. Demonstrate intimacy with God and others. Youth crave intimacy. The millennials are a fatherless generation. The numbers of fatherless children (homes with no father present) have grown from 14 percent in 1970 to almost 33 percent by 1993. Further, the percentage of mothers with school-aged children who work outside the home has increased from 39 percent in 1960 to 70 percent by 1987. Since 1975, 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.4 The crumbling of the home paralleled with the rise of gangs points out the desire for intimacy. As I drove down the Atlanta freeway recently, I flipped to a radio station with a DJ speaking to an adult. She put her child on the line, a young teenager. "What would you like to say to the DJ?" the radio personality asked. "Play more Hanson!" she answered. The song he played included these lyrics: "We'll be your friend now and forever," and "we all need somebody we can cling to, someone who always understands." Then the chorus chimed, "When you have no light to guide you, no one to walk beside you, I will come to you." The millennials are looking for guidance, closeness, and intimacy. We can show them true intimacy with the Light of the World, Jesus.
We have the opportunity and the responsibility to reach this generation of young people. To do so impacts the next millennium, indeed all of eternity. And it can be done! If we are willing to set our sights and take the steps, it could lead to the next great awakening. But the time is now.
1. Thom S. Rainer, The Bridger Generation (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997).
2. Ibid., 14.
3. Thus the group is described on their official Web site at www.Hansonline.com
4. Rainer, 54-56.
Adapted from Introduction to Evangelism by Alvin L. Reid, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998). Used by permission.