Friday, February 24, 2012

Reaching the Young Indirectly

It is a common refrain to hear people all over the church about how this generation's young is being lost to the world. They hear it from other 'experts.' They talk about the challenging 'new' era while comparing with the 'good' old days. They are persuaded by statistics that purport to prove that the younger generation are less spiritual and more worldly, less keen on church and more keen on hanging out with their friends. I know of some young people who stay away from Church simply because they perceive Church as basically a gathering of a bunch of hypocrites.

A) The Direct Approach - ROI

I have been in Church long enough to see how Church people solve any problem. Take a typical Church with a dwindling youth population. First, they identify the problems.
  • Our younger folks are not coming to Church anymore.
  • Some find church boring. 
  • Some believe that church is full of hypocrites.
  • Others do not feel the way their parents feel about faith matters.
  • Others say their friends do not go to church, so why should they?
  • Why should anyone go to Church? Church doesn't do anything for me!
Second, they propose some solutions.
  • Hire a youth worker or pastor.
  • Build a gymnasium for them to hang out with friends
  • Have a more 'contemporary' church service
  • Make Church a more exciting place to be in
  • Give them free food, fun, and games!
  • Pray for them.
Third, they implement their solutions. I look at some churches I know and the results are depressing. One Church I know spent lots of time and money building a games room, complete with XBox, pool table, sports equipment, and stuff that the young used to do. After a novel first month, the young starts to complain: "Boring!"

Another Church has got a dynamic youth worker, who reaches very well to the young. As the young meets, they bring their friends. The numbers quadripled within a few months. Things look good. Until the youth worker leaves. Yet, another church works hard to keep their young. Unfortunately, the best efforts do not result in any return. After a while, they shut down the youth department.

In business circles, people use the term ROI to measure their returns on investment. By constant monitoring of this figure, they will be able to report back to their shareholders, employees, and the public the performance of the business. A high ROI means a positive result, a high efficiency to the use of funds that lead to a high yield to the investment. Unfortunately, Church work, especially youth work cannot be measured with such ROI statistics. I have served Sunday School long enough to realize that a 7-year-old kid winning a Bible quiz is no guarantee he will remain in his faith. Other more important factors figure. I call the direct approach the identify-attack-conquer approach. It is direct. It is proactive. It is a short-term effort with a short-term result. In fact, some statistics have shown that 80% of the youths who say they intend to stick to their faith, end up abandoning their faith.

B) Reaching Out indirectly (ROi)

Three ways to Reach Out Indirectly
Youth ministry is not for the faint hearted. It is a very transient ministry. A pastor friend of mine who have been working with youths shared that every youth program has to be revised once every two years. Let me offer an indirect outreach approach to supplement the conventional direct approach above. I call this the ROi, (Reaching Out indirectly). Instead of investing something to expect results on an immediate manner, we need to involve the whole Church to invest in lives for the long term. ROi is the proposed outreach to the young through PARENTS, through ADULTS in Church, and through APOLOGETICS. This is the three-pronged approach to reaching the younger generation, especially those inside the Church.

TRAINING PARENTS: Apart from their friends, who do children spend most time with? Obviously, it is the parents or guardians. The recent movie COURAGEOUS was made and shown based on one common goal: Develop courageous fathers. According to the research on crime, a majority of crimes committed by young people, especially boys, have a common source: Lack of a strong courageous fatherly figure. Kids as they grow become more sensitive to what they see and observe. They are not easily persuaded by teaching methods or information. They are more convinced when people practise what they preach. What if parents live out their faith? What if parents who tell their kids to read the Bible more, are themselves NOT reading the Bible? What if parents do not pray or take their spiritual disciplines seriously? Will that not speak louder than words? If Church can in some way empower parents to live out their faith more in the home, they will be reaching out to their kids in a more powerful manner. Church can reach out to the younger generation indirectly through parents.
  • Have regular sessions in Church to educate parents on understanding the culture our children are living in;
  • Share with parents some best practices. Some of the best lessons are available right within our congregation!
  • Let parents share their ups and downs more with their teenagers.
  • Tell stories that will relay a certain message. Teens are not easily convinced by theories and lessons but they are ready to listen to a real life story.

THINK ORANGE:  If there are two words to use, it will be 'Think Orange.'  Reggie Joiner calls this the result of combining the colours red and yellow. The family is seen as red while the church is yellow.  These two presents the two most formidable resources in the reaching out to the young. When we think orange, we are thinking how to ensure that the best education and spiritual formation can occur when the family and the Church work together to help reach our children. In an interview, Joiner says:

"For too long, parents have turned their kids over to children's and student ministries and expected them to do the spiritual work in a young person's life. Or they didn't expect anything more than a drop-off babysitting service. It works the other way too. Too many churches look to parents as add-ons or obstacles, not partners in a child's spiritual formation. But Orange says that if we combine the light of the Church (yellow) with the heart of the home (red), we get something stronger and more powerful: Orange. Two combined influences have more impact than either influence alone." (Jonathan Morrow, Think Christianly, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, 63)
  • Let Church workers and parents communicate regularly about what they are doing
  • Maintain a consistent messaging that is simple and practical
  • Equip parents to be more intentional in the spiritual formation of their children. Praying is a major part.
  • Involve the Church to be interested in the children. Have an uncle or aunt drop in periodically to tell the kids that they are praying for them.
  • Mention stories of how young people have impacted the world. (For example, Jeremy Lin)

TACKLE APOLOGETICS: The third component of ROi, is apologetics.This is different from evangelism. While evangelism is about pointing the way to God, and to secure some commitment from the hearers, apologetics is about giving people the reasons why we believe Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Apologetics engage the difficult questions of life. It explains our faith, and if necessary, provide reasons why we believe what we believe. Apologetics do not shun away from tough challenges to the Christian faith. It engages head on the many doubts that young people raise. After all, we want all our children to grow up thinking well about what they believe instead of simply absorbing everything without asking any questions.  There is a kind of faith that leads to doubt, like brainwashing, or indoctrinating, or wholesale acceptance of a teaching. There is also another kind of doubt that leads to faith, like honest probing, earnest struggles with issues that matter. Here are some ways to engage our young.

  • Mentoring: The young can ask honest questions about Who is God personally to the people they trust. Mentors can listen to them, and if necessary, provide a guiding thought or alternative ways of asking the same question.
  • Peer-to-Peer: Encourage the young to encourage one another. This forms relationships among themselves, and at the same time offer opportunities for them to explore matters of specific interest to their generation.
  • Topics of Interest: On a periodic basis, have a topic of interest to teens. Talk about Facebook and social networking. Listen to how the teens talk about pros and cons. Learn the language of teens. Know their worldview.

Summary of the ROi

Church is never meant to be delegated only to a few good persons. It is meant to be for all people in the Church. The education of the young cannot be subcontracted to a paid staff or youth volunteer. The parents, the volunteers, and the whole Church needs to be involved. We need to adopt a 'Reaching Out indirectly' that is more long-term in perspective. Train parents. Think Orange. Tackle apologetics. These are the three important ways to reach out to our young indirectly.


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