Youth work – now and then.

I wonder how different to ours will be the Lord’s record of church history in the 20th century?  Reading the historical books of Scripture I see that the writers often focused on happenings that I may have omitted, but left out things I would have loved to have known.  Eternity will reveal all.

It seems to me that the greatest work of reaching the nation in the last century was done by inter-denominational youth work.  I know that there were some famous preachers who preached in their churches or who reaped through their ‘crusades’ but as far as consistently extending the frontiers to get alongside and win the lost, the most effective and enduring work was done by a variety of youth ministries.  Youth for Christ, Christian Endeavour, Crusaders, Girl Crusader Union, National Young Life Campaign, Covenanters, Inter-School Christian Fellowship, Inter-Varsity Fellowship and a variety of summer camp works and beach missions covered the nation and together reached all types of teens with the gospel.  Reading their histories thrills the heart as you discover thousands attending their ‘rallies’ and large groups their regular teaching meetings.  They had fun, loved the fellowship of other young Christians, enjoyed hospitality at the homes of the leaders, were creative but sought to faithfully win and teach teens Christian principles. 

The inter-church organisations meant that young people from small churches met with those of a similar age from other churches.  They were not so isolated. They were of mutual encouragement. They could invite their unconverted friends to events where there were scores of other teenagers, whilst still being committed to their often smaller churches.  Evangelism could be arranged without the slow channels of change which can characterise churches but irritate young people who want to get on and do the work.

These inter-denominational works were mostly led by volunteers who had demanding secular jobs but possessed the attitude I heard expressed by one of them, “To pay my bills I am a lawyer but my main business is to win people to Jesus Christ!”  Although much older than the teens they were working amongst, the leaders were well respected and related to the young people.  They certainly had no ‘9 to 5’ attitude to their Christian work.

There was a commitment, which was well expressed in the words of Wycliffe Bible Translators’ song:  ‘Every person, in every nation, in each succeeding generation, has the right to hear the news that Christ can save.’

So what went wrong?

There are many reasons why most of these works have declined or closed.  Two world wars saw millions of young people lose their lives or return scarred by cynicism and scepticism about religion; technology and increased materialism provided so many attractive alternatives to attending Christian events; society, education, the media all undermined traditional beliefs and values; many churches lost confidence in the gospel and lowered their standards to try to accommodate the whims of the lost; then, following on from various scandals, parents became wary about trusting their offspring to youth workers, even if they were Christian leaders.

But there was something else.  It became an evangelical ‘mantra’ in the 1970s and 80s to argue that ‘God’s way is the local church’ and to patronisingly criticise ‘para-church’ organisations.  This contributed to the undermining of what were very effective evangelistic ministries.  But the churches which were arguing this line rarely stepped up to the mark to fill the gap that was being left by the demise of these inter-denominational works. Church work focused on the youth from Christian families rather than young people generally.  And the teenagers in the churches began to be viewed differently: they became the mission field rather than the mission force reaching out to win their friends to Christ and being involved in more daring regular evangelism.

Forty or fifty years later we now find ourselves in the dire situation where a generation has grown up in society that does not know the Lord.  It is trendy for teens to call themselves atheists, without any knowledge of either the Bible or the Christian gospel.  The overwhelming majority of young people are living with no consideration of God, having the straight forward desire to revel in pleasure and possessions, admiring the beauty, riches and life-style of celebrities.  If ever they think of Christians they view us as odd-balls believing something that is neither true nor relevant.

If this seems over pessimistic, think about the majority of churches you know, and ask how many teens are coming who are from non-Christian families?  Most churches will have none at all, which is a situation that can be repeated throughout England, Wales and Scotland.  Compounding the problem, the church is haemorrhaging the children who have been brought up in Christian families.  And this when full time youth workers are being appointed.  Thankfully, we still have the opportunity to go into some schools and teach something about the Lord, and some, usually larger churches have thriving youth works.  They are the exception rather than the rule, but may they long continue.  But we need a radical change if we are to halt the inevitable acceleration of the closure of churches throughout the country, which, humanly speaking, will happen rapidly if the young are not converted to Christ.

Clearly, we must pray.  We need to remind ourselves that what the teenagers do with their lives and, more crucially, with the Lord Jesus, will determine their eternal destiny.  We need to believe again that the heart of God is toward them.  How often He would gather them, even if they are not willing.  He wills that none of them should perish.  Then we need to reach out by providing settings and events in which they are comfortable and valued, that are compatible with a Christian ethos, yet where the gospel is uncompromised and proclaimed.

So what do we do?

I am encouraged by what is happening with Christian camps.  For decades summer camps have proved to be a fruitful ground of reaching teens; I pray for them to be multiplied throughout the land.  Today we have a number of all year round camps: evangelistic centres for children and teens working through the year.  They are doing a wonderful work.  Once in a while I see a church, usually one which has large resources, effectively reaching teens in its locality.  In Northern Ireland there are still many very many like this, though even there the numbers are declining.

Fifty years ago evangelistic coffee bars were common and a fruitful means of outreach for a decade or so … could they or their equivalent be re-introduced with a 2017 feel to them?  Perhaps we could share more about other gatherings for young people that are proving effective not only in gathering them together, but in sharing the gospel and helping them so that they themselves become disciples and unashamed soul-winners.

Young people both love their own company and being with other young people.  They enjoy it when people spend time with them.  When a young Christian is invited, with a friend or two, to the home of their youth leader or minister, a Saturday activity, or even going on holiday or a mission together, it will be something looked forward to and enjoyed, resulting usually in great spiritual gains. 

I have known week-long, youth missions to be very effective in reaping a harvest with teenagers.  A programme of events designed for young people where the proclamation of the gospel is the focus, can be a blessing to the teens in a whole locality.  By all means let us ‘sow seeds’ in schools but youth mission provide reaping opportunities. (10ofthose.com will send an article on how to organise these).

Personally, I would be delighted if there were to be a resurgence of inter-church youth work in our land.  It is something which has been singularly blessed in the past.  It breaks the barrier of a ‘club/denominational mentality’ which has characterised the Christian scene in recent decades – a mentality which only feels at home with our own very narrow grouping of Christian friends.  The new denominationalism is not helping evangelistic endeavour, and is overlooking the younger teens, or especially those who do not go to university.  But, if for some reason, inter-denominational work cannot resonate, then surely it is incumbent on individual churches to ensure that teens of all types - those who will go to universities, and the majority who will not - are reached with the gospel.

As Christians across the land we need to brainstorm for ideas.  Let us be asking the question in our church meetings and conferences as to how we can effectively reach youth with the gospel.  Let us not be satisfied until we are engaging with those who have not yet had contact with Christians.  Then urgently put into action prayer-saturated, ambitious outreaches to teens, and be ready to start from a position below ground zero as far as Christian understanding is concerned, to see them first won to Christ and then built up in the Lord Jesus.

Solomon speaks to us all, and we must ask ourselves what we are doing to see that his wisdom is being noted by young people today: ‘Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth.’  I beg us to think, plan, pray and act looking to the Lord to turn around the situation.

Roger Carswell