Maximizing the Power of Influence

October 6th, 2009

We in youth ministry have the tremendous opportunity to affect not only the teenagers of today, but also the folks who’ll one day be the leaders in the church. I always cringe when I hear adults say that kids are the future of the church, for I’m of the belief that teenagers are a vital part of the church today. And yet, it’s obvious that they will one day be the ones leading the church. I’ve read research that suggests that up to 75% of adults who call themselves “Christian,” first came into a relationship with Jesus as a teenager. If this is the case, and I believe it is, then we in youth ministry must take our task seriously.

There are four stages to effectively influencing teens. In order to equip students to be salt and light in a tough world, we need to be systematic in the way we influence them for a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ.

Stage 1: Call Them

I love the example we find in Mark 1:17 when Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to be his disciples: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” That simple line reveals much about Jesus and a lot about how we can influence and challenge teens in their discipleship.

Jesus understood where Simon and Andrew were coming from. These fishermen were simple people and Jesus knew how to talk to them. Surely the mere presence of Jesus must have been powerful, otherwise why would these men leave their livelihood behind to follow him? It could’ve been that his reputation preceded him, but even in that case Jesus had to have made quite an impression. You and I can have that same reputation with those we serve. Our mere presence and interest in their lives speak volumes. Our ability to speak their language and to understand the idiosyncrasies of teenagers give a powerful impression. It says to them that we are worth listening to and worth taking seriously.

I’m impressed with the way Jesus doesn’t judge these fishermen. Surely being a fisherman wasn’t the most glamorous of jobs, yet Jesus calls them with a task they can understand. The kids you relate to are used to being judged each and everyday. They aren’t judged for the content of their personality but their appearance—this at a time of awkwardness and uncertainty about themselves. We must look past the appearance to the heart of the person when calling them to be followers of Christ.

Just by calling them, Jesus is essentially saying, “You’re worthy.” At the same time, the calling isn’t a simply one, but one that will engulf their lives. We have to make sure we’re calling teens to a relationship with Christ first and foremost. It’s easy to mistake calling them into a group or church as the same as calling them into that relationship with Jesus. In Mark 1 Jesus says, “Follow me.” We have to make sure that we’re saying, “Follow him.” It’s easy to get mixed up and have youth follow us. The power of our call in their lives is to connect teenagers with Jesus and nurture that relationship to greatness.

I’m part of a denomination that often frowns on altar calls. This is too bad, because kids need the opportunity and challenge to commit. To simply stand before them and talk about giving their lives to Christ and what a great thing this can be and then leave without setting forth the challenge to commit is a mistake. Some will argue that teenagers come forward out of a sense of peer pressure. When I read the calling of Simon and Andrew in Mark 1, I can’t help but wonder if maybe these two brothers weren’t exerting a little peer pressure on each other. What would have happened to Andrew if Simon had said “no” to Jesus? We can think of lots of excuses for not challenging students, such as offending them or making them feel uncomfortable, but the challenge to call kids into a relationship with God should far out weigh those concerns.

Stage 2: Equip Them

Encouraging youth in a long-term commitment with Jesus Christ is stated best in Proverbs 22: 6: “Train children in the right way, and when they are old, they will not stray.” The equipping stage is just as important as the calling stage—if you call teens to a relationship with Christ but don’t help nurture that, when tough times arrive they may not know how to deal with them. Teaching and modeling a balanced life of prayer, worship, study, and service is vital. Providing training and experiences in these areas help kids for the long term.

Equipping is similar to raising a child. As newborns, we nurse them along, carrying them, spoon-feeding them, and sometimes cleaning up their messes. Soon, if we’re doing our jobs, they’ll be able to take a few steps on their own. As we hold their hands during those first steps, we’re teaching them to face each situation as followers of Christ. Before you know it they’re walking on their own. Keeping up with them can be tough, but from time to time we need to be there to catch them if they start to fall. One day they’ll no longer need us; then we’re able to see if we’ve done our jobs.

Shouldn’t simply be about getting them in the door, but should be about equipping them for the rest of their lives. I’m always saddened when kids leave our ministry and head to college only to stop going to church. The excuse many of them use is that they can’t find a church like the one they grew up in. While some of this is to be expected, there should be great disappointment for it calls into question our ability to equip them for a long-term relationship with Christ and not just a short-term relationship with our ministry. The very nature of youth ministry is that teenagers can’t stay in it forever. Our job is to call them, equip them, and then send them.

Stage 3: Send Them

I often wonder what the disciples felt in Matthew 10 when Jesus sent them out two by two. Surely they doubted whether or not they were ready as the potential for failure was high, and the need for commitment and trust even higher. Teenagers have never been ones to sit around. Actively engaging in the things that interest them is a part of who they are. We, as the church, must be willing to find ways to engage them in the ministry of Jesus Christ. To simply call them to a relationship with God and encourage them in discipleship isn’t enough if we don’t, at the same time, offer them opportunities to serve.

I’ll never forget Jimmy. He was a young man with a pretty colorful background who found his way into our church. During a brief conversation one evening after youth group he told me that things were tough at home and not getting any easier. Since he started his relationship with God his dad had left home and his brother had been picked up for drug possession. And Jimmy was struggling with a family that thought his new-found faith was a joke.

I encouraged Jimmy to travel with us to Chicago on an inner-city mission trip that following summer. His life was transformed. He was able to better understand his faith because he was able to see it in action. While his personal life was falling apart around him, Jimmy could see that God was at work through the experience of serving in the inner city. It propelled him into a state that allowed him to face the challenges at home and continue to grow in his faith.

Sending kids allows them to invest in the ministry of Jesus Christ. That investment leads to a sense of ownership which propels them to a point where they’re able to realize that they aren’t simply observers of the Christian faith, but participants in the Christian faith. For most teenagers life is spinning out of control. Most are so busy they never seem to get control. This loss of control can lead to a sense of doubt about themselves and the direction their lives are heading. Helping them invest their lives in Jesus Christ through calling, equipping, and sending will give them the sense of purpose they hope for. While the world teaches our teenagers that they’re nothing more than consumers, we have the opportunity to teach them they’re participants in the Christian life and have been equipped by God to make a real difference in their own lives and in the lives of others.

Stage 4: Encourage Them/Build Them Up

The night before I asked my wife to marry me we went to see the movieSweet Home Alabama . I’ll never forget the sinking feeling of inadequacy as I watched the scene where Andrew Hennings, played by Patrick Dempsey, asks Melanie Carmichael, played by Reese Witherspoon, to marry him by taking her to Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue in New York City and telling her to choose whichever ring she wanted. For the next twenty-four hours I had visions running in my head of my wife-to-be laughing as my way of asking her was paled by that on-screen performance.

Every single day of their lives teenagers are bombarded with images and messages that scream out, “You aren’t good enough!” They constantly compare themselves to the messages seen in magazines, heard on the radio, and watched on television and movies—they’ll never be able to live up to them. (Not even those models are able to live up to their own images since they’re all airbrushed or computer enhanced.) Our job as mentors to teens as outlined in Titus 2:2-13, is to build these young adults up.

We can encourage them by celebrating each person’s uniqueness. The world shouts to look, act, and do a certain way; we can be the voice and force in their lives that’s constantly pointing them to the God of creation who made us all special. Being unique is important to understand, but it must remain in the context of us all coming together to serve God, as talked about in 1 Corinthians 12.

We must never underestimate our ability to influence teenagers. Many youth workers find themselves in situations where their abilities to influence are not celebrated and encouraged. Nonetheless, the power of our influence is vital to the church today and the church tomorrow.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.