Too many youth ministries today are like cotton candy – youth love it, parents enjoy it, and it looks so good, but when you get to its heart – there simply is nothing there, according to Calvin Carr, high school youth educational director at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla.
"Cotton candy ministry tastes good, but when you bite into it, there is nothing to it," Carr said during Culture Shock '99, an annual youth ministry conference Sept. 20-22 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.
Carr described cotton candy youth ministry as that which does not change lives. Conversely, biblical youth ministry should be modeled after Christ's example in the New Testament in which He impacted people's wills and lives, he said.
"If Jesus Christ doesn't change us, do we really have Jesus?" Carr asked. "Do we really have the real thing if we are no different? In a cotton candy youth ministry there are no changed lives. There is no challenge that is given regarding the claims of Christ."
Carr said First Baptist Jacksonville's youth ministry challenges students to live for Christ in a way that shows they are different.
"Our goal is a teenager who is saved, a teenager who is disciplined, a teenager who has a heart for the lost, a teenager who is morally pure, willing to stand alone, has a Christ-centered self-image … and has given his or her future to Christ and understands God-given authority," Carr said.
More than 1,300 students are currently enrolled in the youth Sunday school program at First Baptist Jacksonville. Last year, the church baptized 257 teenagers, ages twelve to seventeen. And since 1980, it has recorded more than 3,700 youth baptisms while ranking in the top fifty Southern Baptist churches for youth baptisms throughout the past two decades. "We use the Sunday school as the primary ministry organization," Carr said.
Carr said First Baptist's youth ministry is effective because the church places high expectations on its youth.
Youth ministry that is the "real thing" will know that character is important and seek to build it into their youth, Carr said.
"What's it going to take for us to really build character into the lives of young people?" he asked. "Well, that's what we are all about in youth ministry … not just saying that we have a big group or a lot of people, but to see people's lives changed from the inside."
First Baptist Jacksonville uses its summer camp to rally its youth to live for Jesus throughout the school year, Carr said. "We schedule five hours of Bible study a day," he said. "We try to cut them off from the world as much as possible." No radios, CD players, or television allowed.
"By Monday night they are a little stir crazy, and by Tuesday night they are almost rebellious. Well, by Wednesday, what happens is that a young person begins to think straight … [and] they are softening to God's will."
At that point, Carr said, many of the youth are ready to commit to a long-term course of discipleship. "For the student who says, 'Hey, I want to be a disciple of Jesus, I want to be challenged, I want to be held accountable,' we have a thirteen-week discipleship program starting the weekend after camp."
Youth meet every Saturday for three months from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. "We give them a challenge," Carr said. "It's the things you do daily that will change your life. We kind of think that the experiences we have will mold and shape us, but it's the things we do daily, like spending that time with Jesus every day, that will impact our lives."
More than 350 students are currently enrolled in First Baptist's discipleship program. The challenging-but-attainable requirements include: perfect attendance in Sunday school with compulsory note-taking; perfect attendance in the Sunday night program, with participation in choir or orchestra required; perfect attendance in each Saturday's visitation/discipleship meetings; a $20 discipleship fee; and bringing at least two high school visitors to Sunday school.
And yes, there is a dress code: no jeans or T-shirts; dress slacks and collared shirts are required for the boys and skirts (below the knees) and blouses for the girls.
Most of the kids make it, Carr said. Their reward for such an accomplishment: a ski trip to West Virginia during Christmas break. But First Baptist Jacksonville believes the eternal reward goes way beyond any earthly incentive.
On the bottom of their requirement form it states: "This is a rigid program that will, in the long run, produce great spiritual blessings in your life if you are faithful to participate. Know of our love for you and our desire that you will COUNT THE COST and serve the Lord all the days of your life!"
"The principle is that Jesus poured His life into the Twelve … and they shook the known world," Carr said. "And I guarantee that He would have never done it through a cotton candy approach where there was no confrontation, no accountability, no challenge, no Scripture memorization."
First Baptist's youth ministry is directed by "a major emphasis on separation – the doctrine that says we are to be different from the world," Carr said. The church is extremely selective of the type of contemporary Christian music it endorses, for example.
"I don't care if you dress the words up and put Jesus in it all the time, there is a connotation that is attached to [some of] it; it is associated with rebellion and worldliness," Carr said. "I believe with all my heart that we've got to wrestle with the fact that God has chosen the foolishness of preaching. The gospel is the only thing that is going to get the job done and see people's lives changed."
Using a funnel to explain First Baptist's methodology for leading youth to maturity in Christ, Carr explained that the top of a funnel, at its widest point, represents students who simply attend the program.
"I was doing all of my events up here trying to get people to come," he said. "And what I eventually realized [was] that I was never, ever getting students down this funnel to where they would become disciples. … I lived in constant frustration because I felt like that was to be my goal.
"The goal," Carr said, "is to reach new students for Christ at the entry point of your youth ministry, and as you begin to grow them, they come down the funnel and one day you've spit out world changers for Christ."
Carr said the church's best tool for impacting its culture long-term is through its youth ministry. A Christ-centered youth ministry, he said, can instill a Christian worldview in teens which motivates them to seek God's will for life's three most important choices: their master, mate, and mission.
"We have an opportunity to take a person before they get into sin, before they get way out there away from God," Carr said. "The sins of a lifetime begin in the teenage years, folks, and if you're working with young people you're in a significant ministry. … If we can change the life of a teenager, if we can see Christ impact their life, then we'll see them impacted on and on and on for their entire life. … We've got to see youth ministry not just necessarily as a stepping stone to something bigger; we've got to realize we're in it right now. This is where it is. This is where the action is."
An essential component of a life-changing youth ministry, Carr said, is its adult leadership. "We take seriously the recruiting, training, and convictions of our adult leadership," he said. "Your teenagers will never rise above the adult leadership. That's why we have our adult leaders sign a commitment card of what they're going to do. … We go after the very best, the cream of the crop, and we ask our adults to have some convictions in their life."