reaching 21st century teenagers with the gospel, part 2

this is part 2 of an article i wrote last year for the christian camping magazine. with summer coming up, i thought it might be timely. i’m posting it in two parts — the first half yesterday, and the 2nd half here.


So, finally, I’ve come to see spiritual decisions (especially the “biggies” made at camps and retreats) as Ebenezers.

Remember that great Old Testament word? Samuel put a big rock up, called it an “Ebenezer”, and said it was to commemorate a spot where God met us (1 Samuel 7:12). An Ebenezer is a spiritual marker. Significant spiritual decisions – when not manipulated – become spiritual markers for students. And when a 15 year-old girl finds, six months later, that she doesn’t “feel” God anymore, she – hopefully – can reflect back on her Ebenezer from summer camp and say to herself, “But I know I felt God then; I know God is real, because I know God was real then.”

Sure, this is a bit simplistic – and even Ebenezers can be forgotten with enough landscape in-between. But a series (there’s that word again!) of spiritual markers is the journey that seems to most accurately reflect the reality of the spiritual life for those of us with a few more years perspective.

Now, that was the good news (about The Good News!). But there are new challenges with teenagers these days also.

Let’s start with a bogeyman: relativity. Yup, today’s teens are part of a pluralistic cultural stew that honors no set of beliefs above another set. And the dominant postmodern mindset of their everyday world tends to relativize any proposed absolute. But this doesn’t scare me (we have no cause for fear!). To be honest, I see more upside here than downside (though there certainly is downside).

The upside is (and it’s a big upside): our spiritual assertions no longer have to be held up to scientific scrutiny. We no longer have to waste effort trying to “convince” teenagers of the truth of the Bible and God’s claims. The beauty of this is that we can focus our programming and effort and counseling and speaking on helping students encounter the living God who desperately wants to know them. We get the awe-inspiring task of telling “God’s Big Story”! I’d rather do this any day rather than telling them “God’s Big List of Reasons Why You’re An Idiot If You Don’t Believe.”

So, I suppose that felt like a bait-and-switch, didn’t it? I told you I was going to talk about “the new challenges”, but then went on about what a great new opportunity we have. Deal with it – this new challenge is a new opportunity.

The other challenge for those of us presenting the gospel to kids in this new day, of course, is that in an era of relativity, students have a fairly common tendency to take the pieces of Christianity that they like and blend them with the pieces of other belief systems that “work for them.” Again, my overarching word to you on this is: don’t be motivated by fear.

But this piece-meal faith-system building does beg us for new ministry priorities. And these new priorities are a good adjustment to some wrong-minded approaches in our past. We are forced (finally!) to move beyond our one-size-fits-all approaches to conversion. Sure, you can still present God’s Big Story to a group of 100 or 1000 teenagers, and see God move in powerful ways. But that can’t be the end. Real ministry with teenagers, and real application of any decision made by kids, must be done in an ongoing relational context. That means camps have to work closer than ever with youth workers. Camps must see themselves as a service to the ongoing ministry of the local church – not as a corrective stop-over where the important stuff happens.

Yes, I admit: that one is a challenge.

But we have hope! We know (not from scientific proof, but from our own life experience) that this God-stuff is the real deal – and following Jesus is the only way to really experience the fullness of life. So get out there this summer and help teenagers build some Ebenezers!

One thought on “reaching 21st century teenagers with the gospel, part 2”

  1. Marko — Thanks for reposting this wonderful article. My heart resonates with so much of what you’ve said.

    I have gone through a similar journey in my ministry to youth when it comes to the big decisions. For awhile, I stayed away from the “last night” decision-time dramatics as well, out of the same desire not to manipulate students. I even joked about it with my prayer group in seminary (bunch of jaded youth pastors!) — after sharing our hearts, and before praying together, one of us would inevitably say, “Can somebody turn down the lights? Thank you, brother. Now, with every eye closed and every heart open, I want you to make a decision…”

    Life is a series of decisions, as you rightly noted. Some, of course, are bigger than others, but each is part of the overall process. These days, I try to provide our students with a variety of ways to respond — in both big and small ways.

    I find the Ebenezer idea very appealing as well. A couple of times, our students have brought home literal Ebenezer stones (on which they’ve written something meaningful) as reminders of what they have experienced and committed before God at a particular retreat. In fact, we refer to our students’ testimonies from their retreats as “Ebenezer stories.”

    I know it might be an issue of semantics, but I have tried to steer students away from making a distinction between their retreat experiences and “real” life. I remind them that God is more real than the air we breathe, and that what they experienced with Him at a retreat is just as real (maybe even more real, if that’s possible) than the daily grind of school. And, just as you pointed out, when they’re no longer “feeling it” down the road, these spiritual markers can bring them back to reality.

    I think if we’re being honest, all of us — not just teens — take a mix-and-match approach to faith. This is a humbling reminder to me that I don’t have all the systems and theologies figured out (and never will) and how important it is to walk the path with students individually.

    Sorry for the long comment — like I said, there was a lot of great stuff in there!

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