About five years ago, I was serving my Director of Christian Outreach internship as a long-term missionary with LCMS-World Mission in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I had been living in the country for one and a half years and was feeling relatively comfortable with my language and culture skills. Those skills were about to be put to the ultimate test.
In January of 2005, a group of eight college students (plus a professor and his wife) descended upon Kazakhstan for a 10-day mission trip. Their mission: help to start a youth group at one of our Russian-speaking Lutheran congregations. I had some experience working with youth in the United States, and I knew there were members of the team who were quite gifted in that area. Yet, I still wondered–would the same strategies for reaching youth in the United States work for reaching youth in another country? Did I have any idea what I was doing–or would this end up being a huge disaster?
The first issue we needed to tackle was how we were going to attract youth to the congregation in the first place. We knew that Americans tend to attract attention in Kazakhstan and we also knew that many schools taught English to their students. Combining these two ideas, we decided to approach the local school and ask if our team of Americans could come and teach some of their English classes for a week. They said yes! So the Americans came, entered the public schools, and taught English. I’m not sure how much of the English language the students actually learned from the teams smorgasbord of children’s games and songs, but our goal was not to create English professors. Instead, we wished to create relationships. We met the students, the students became interested in the Americans (us), and we then invited the youth to come in the evenings to the home where the team was staying. The first evening, we waited at the home to see if anyone would show up. That night just a few came. The second night, a few more. We continued this pattern each day: teaching English at the schools in the morning, then inviting the youth to the home at night. By the end of the week 30 youth were showing up at the house!
What did we do with the youth when they came over? We played games, sang songs and tried to communicate as much as we could (always a challenge due to the language barrier). The biggest question was, though, how much of the Bible would we share with the youth? We weren’t allowed to talk about God in the school. So, our only chance to share Jesus with these youth was in the evenings at the house. Yet, we wondered, would this offend people? If the youth were expecting to just come for a fun evening with Americans, would they leave if we starting talking about Jesus? We weren’t sure. Yet, we knew we had to do it anyway. The team had come to share Jesus, after all, not just to make friends and share American culture.
So, we shared Jesus in simple ways. We shared Him through our actions–by living our lives in Christian ways. Yet, we also shared through our words. Some members of the team would share a simple Bible story, yet this was difficult since many of the youth did not understand English very well. So, we would sing songs. Many well-known worship songs are available in both English and Russian. The team would start by teaching the youth the song in English, and then later the youth were given the words to the same song in Russian.
Did we offend? One song we started singing in English and everything seemed to be going well. Yet, when we switched to Russian, one of the youth (who apparently had not understood the English words) suddenly realized what the words meant and got up and left the room. Was it wrong of us to use that song? Was it deceptive to start singing in English and then switch Russian? What do you think? Does the Gospel offend?
At the end of the week the youth were invited to come to the worship service on Sunday to perform the songs they had been learning during the week. About five youth came that day. A small percentage, but a seed planted nonetheless. Praise Jesus!
What happened after the team left? A local church leader took over leading the youth group. She would go to the house and meet with whoever came. They would sing songs, pray, and discuss Bible stories. A few youth began coming to church services regularly.
So, can we use the same strategies for reaching youth in other countries as we use for reaching youth in the United States? What do you think? How can we apply these same learnings to reaching youth in our own country? Do you have youth in your area who may be of a different culture or background than the majority of your congregation? Are you changing your strategies to reach out to a different demographic? Do we even need to?
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belong to our God.'” Revelation 9:1-10