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Ultra Live! One Youth Worker’s Journey toward Radical Outreach

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October 3rd, 2009

As a teenager, I was invited to many parties—but one particular invitation blew me away. Why? The party was at a church.

It was my freshman year in high school, and my friend Stuart invited me to a dance party called Teen Friday at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Minneapolis. At that point in my life, I didn’t think of church as a place where teens could have fun—much less dance! I went to church every Sunday with my mom, but most of the time I was bored out of my mind. I thought church was for adults. The music, the preaching, and the praying seemed geared toward old people. I would say to myself, “One day when I’m old, I’ll get serious about church and God.” But in spite of the obstacles in my mind, I decided to go with Stuart to Teen Friday.

When I walked through the doors of Tabernacle Baptist Church that night, I couldn’t believe my eyes—or ears: Music shook the room. A dance floor was full of teens. Lights flashed and bounced off stained-glass windows. Older women cooked fried chicken dinners and mixed up blue Kool-Aid. But it was the sight of fellow teens, laughing and having the time of their lives in church, that had the biggest impact on me.

I had a great time that night! I danced, laughed, and made new friends like Greg, Jamie, Sonya, and Tonya (the latter two were twin sisters). They reached out to me and made me feel welcome—I’d never met “church kids” like this before. The women who cooked the dinners were friendly, too. It seemed as if my having a good time was everybody’s most important mission.

I’d never experienced church the way I did that night. Fun and excitement without the pressures of drugs, alcohol, and other negatives that plague many teen parties. I simply never knew you could party for God. Soon after, I joined the youth group and got involved in the youth choir. My life was changing. I had a new outlook on church and, more importantly, on God. I’ve been involved in church ever since that night, and I eventually embraced God’s calling into ministry.

Where’s Tabernacle Baptist!?
When I began parachurch youth ministry work in urban Minneapolis, I got to know a number of teens who either hadn’t or wouldn’t step foot inside a church. To make matters more difficult, none of the churches within my immediate community seemed very teen friendly.

I began thinking back to Teen Friday—the place I first understood God, the night that God became flesh to me. “If only there was a place like that!” I wished. But I couldn’t take these teens to Teen Friday—Tabernacle Baptist no longer existed. (A new church took over the building, and the leaders there didn’t like the idea of dancing in church.)

But I soon learned of a Christian music club in Minneapolis called The New Union that puts on weekly concerts featuring local and national Christian bands and DJs—and also provides a juice bar, record shop, and video games. Also I got involved in a ministry called Urban Street Level which sponsors a monthly outreach called Friday Night Live— basically a praise and worshipparty. I began to take my teens to the New Union and Friday Night Live, and I saw lives changed—just like mine was years earlier. The sight of hundreds of teens dancing and jumping up and down to hip-hop music rivaled even my own experiences years before.

At the time I was working with Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was a high school girls basketball coach—and looking for opportunities to share Christ with the players. My assistant coaches tried inviting girls to camps and church, but that approach didn’t work. Then during one particular Friday Night Live, I was surprised to see one of my players, Donna, walk in. As the evening progressed, I could see Friday Night Live was having a tremendous effect on her. By the end of the night, Donna approached an adult woman leader in tears wanting to know more about Jesus.

That moment left a deep impression on me. When I left Minneapolis for my current youth ministry position in suburban Ohio, I decided that I needed to create similar opportunities to reach kids.

Ultra Live! Is Born
Outreaches like Friday Night Live can serve as bridges for many teens to make decisions for Christ—and become radical disciples for him. Of course not all teens who come to these events become Christians. But seeds are planted—and at least they can see that being a Christian is fun, exciting, and on the cutting edge of life.

There are other reasons why I’m sold on dances and coffeehouses as vehicles for radical outreach:

1. It helped me learn the difference between evangelism and outreach—and how to separate the two. If a teen invites a friend to “Sunday school,” often the answer is, “Yeah, right!” But with a cutting-edge outreach on the agenda, the answer is more likely to be positive. Six months ago our youth ministry started a monthly outreach called “Ultra Live!” On the first Saturday night of every month, we turn our discipleship center into a Christian teen nightclub and coffeehouse where we play the latest in Christian music. The key is that UItra Live! is outreach—not evangelism.

We have another event called Madhouse Live! that features cutting-edge praise and worship music—rap, hip-hop, alternative, and hardcore rock. But there’s also a drama, and I do an evangelistic message with different themes (self-esteem, identity, friendship, love, dating). Madhouse Live! is a chance for teens to respond to the gospel. It’s evangelism.

Ultra Live! is a Christian alternative for social development—an alternative to parties, drugs, alcohol, sex, and other typical teen pursuits. But we’re not passing out tracts. We’re not preaching. And still these non-Christian kids are walking into an environment where the Spirit of God is evident—where Christian teens can deepen relationships with their non-Christian friends. And it’s hopefully a stepping-stone to a place where the gospel can be shared.

The last few times at Ultra Live! I was the DJ! Kids would come up to me, not knowing I was the youth pastor, too, and ask when I was going to play Snoop Doggy Dogg, Marilyn Manson, and Limp Bizkit. My answer? “Hey, this is underground music, stuff you’ll never hear on the radio or anywhere else. Do you like it?” They usually do, especially knowing it’s “underground” music—which is true of many Christian alternative, hardcore, rap, and dance bands. That approach always keeps them coming back.

What’s more, I found my youth group kids really took off and made this thing their own. Some created a room for Ultra Live! called The Fishbowl where you’ll find mellow music, table games, and conversation. Some set up their air-hockey and ping-pong tables. The adults get into the fun, too, selling soda, candy, chips, and jumbo pickles. College students serve as DJs and hospitality coordinators. There are television screens all around the Ultra Live! club that show “Scooby Doo” and “Spiderman” cartoons. The best thing, though, is that this event is 100 percent cool—and 100 percent God.

2. I used to believe that youth pastors are the primary agents for all outreach and evangelism to teens. In those days, I had double duty. Not only did I have to create an environment where non-Christians would feel welcome, but I also had to hit the lunchrooms every day. When Friday night came around, I had to get to the football game—and bring along a few tracts in case a conversation turned to spiritual things. I’m not saying these pursuits are bad or wrong—not at all. But for me, there was so much pressure. Immense pressure. With all the kids coming to youth group, how do I decide what my territory is? My mission field? How do I prioritize who to reach? It was too much.

That’s when my perspective changed. I began reading in the Bible about the many young people God had used through the ages—Timothy, Esther, David, even Josiah becoming king at the age of eight! I decided that I could safely raise the bar a little—and let my students become the ambassadors to their friends.

Now I believe my primary job is to create an environment where my youth group kids do the primary outreach and evangelism—instead of me driving to every lunchroom in every high school and middle school, traveling to all the shopping malls, attending every athletic event, and making myself visible to every teen. Now I can spend more time training my students to share with their friends and more time creating cutting-edge, teen-friendly environments—places where my students can feel excited and confident inviting their friends.

3. These outreaches can attract a greater number of adults to lend a hand. Maybe some adults don’t feel comfortable leading small groups, but maybe they’ll sell soda at a dance party. Maybe they’ll serve as “hospitality people,” making sure teens are having a good time. More importantly, getting adults involved at this level can help to break whatever stereotypes and prejudices they have concerning kids—churched and unchurched alike. Remember the older women who cooked chicken dinners and mixed blue Kool-Aid at Tabernacle Baptist? Their roles behind the scenes were equally important as any other role. We’re all part of the same mission.

4. We get a lot of the music free just by calling record labels and telling them about our vision—which also allows us to throw in some music giveaways, too. At this point, record labels are calling us! Gotee Records recently sent us a bunch of Knowdaverbs samplers for everybody who came to Ultra Live!

It costs a lot of money (and is a ton of work) to sponsor local and national bands for live concerts. But at dance parties, DJs play the music—and more of it. The greater musical diversity means you can reach a greater number of kids. Our church is just outside Dayton, Ohio, and there are no contemporary Christian radio stations. The Christian bookstores are more geared to adults. That means our outreaches are the sole vehicle to introduce teens to the fact that cool, danceable, Christian music really does exist.

Watch Your Motives
I understand that dances aren’t every Christian’s cup of tea. I haven’t been without my critics. Recently, after finishing a talk at a Christian high school chapel, a group of kids came up to me and said, “Those dances you’re doing? They’re not of God.” One kid even looked at me and said, “You’re going to fail.”

Whoa! At first I felt like telling them off—that they didn’t know what they were talking about. But instead I took a look inside and prayed, “God, I don’t want to do something outside your will.” So I did an extensive study on praise and worship, and I discovered that there’s a wide, broad range of what that means. People danced and played instruments. I discovered that there’s something inside us—inside all of us—that yearns to praise and worship something outside ourselves. It just depends on what—or who—we’re going to praise.

What’s helped us to stay on course is continually checking our motives and making sure our actions are biblically based. If you plan on taking this outreach route, my advice is to search your motives all the time. We can get so caught up in the sound and the lights and the music that we can forget the reason we’re putting on Ultra Live! in the first place.

At one of our recent Ultra Live! events, a teen came up to me and said, “What’s the name of the song playing right now? I’ve got to buy it! You know, I don’t go to this church, but this is cool. I never thought that church could be like this.”

That’s what it’s all about. Church can “be like this.” It really can.

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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.

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