As a bubbly, exuberant eighteen-year-old bursting into my brand-new dorm on the first day of college, it hit me head on:
My roommate--an incredibly beautiful, fun, extremely talented girl--wasn't a Christian.
My roommate had never stepped foot in a church in her entire life, had never heard the words "Holy Spirit", and had no clue what a chapel service was. She had never been baptized, had someone offer to pray with her, and had no idea what a youth group did.
In fact, while watching the Passion of the Christ with me for a mandatory class assignment, she started bawling at the scene where Jesus is whipped mercilessly. As the blood poured down his back, she cussed at the screen and then hit pause. She sobbed, "They don't kill him, right? They wouldn't kill Jesus! He didn't even do anything! He doesn't die, right? Just tell me He lives through the end!"
Yep. Born and raised in America her entire life, and she had no idea that Jesus had been crucified.
Why was she at our Lutheran college, bunking with a girl who was enrolled in a church-work program? Simply because she had applied to a number of private schools in the California area, and this was the one that gave her the best scholarship package. In fact, she didn't have a clue what a "Lutheran" was, but she didn't give a hoot about that.
We became close friends, confiding in each other every day and loving the time we could spend together. It was in those first few nights of college that I began praying for her intently, watching her wrestle with challenges in her life with no Anchor to hold her steady.
I shared my faith with her all the time, crying along with her when she cried, praying with her, and even taking her to chapel once. I helped her with her religion homework, answered her many questions about God, and did my best to be a positive model of Christ's love to her. But, by the end of our freshman year, we went in different directions and parted as we had begun--me with my faith, and her without anything.
As we geared up for graduation a few years later, we crossed paths again and caught up. I had continued to pray for her every day without fail, but quickly discovered that my roommate hadn't changed at all--she was still identifying as a non-Christian and still living a crazy life.
Sharing my faith had been challenging, but handling that repeated rejection--and seeing no progress in the life of someone I loved dearly--was a bitter pill to swallow.
That year taught me a lot about true evangelism--and I don't mean that door-to-door stuff. I learned about what it meant to have an outreach lifestyle that went beyond a three-hour service project or a week-long mission trip. And, along with that, I learned all about trusting that the Holy Spirit was working through me, even though I couldn't see any tangible results.
Since then, I've shared my faith with people of all different ages--on planes, in gas stations and restaurants, at universities and schools, at grocery stores, and on mission trips. And after all of that, I can say that it's still utterly demoralizing to see someone turn a deaf ear to what your entire life is all about.
So when my middle schoolers complain about how challenging it is to talk about God to their friends, I get it. When they tell me that their friends make fun of them and that their teachers refuse to talk about Christianity, I completely understand. More than they'll ever know.
The question I face as their youth leader is this: How can I attempt to harness their incredible potential for sharing God's Word with others, while preparing them for the rejection they'll eventually face--all without breaking their spirits?
In other words, how can we help young teenagers learn how to do outreach properly?
Yeah, it's a doozy. I know.
However, I've learned a few things that adults can do to help our teens share their faith more easily:
Start With The Right Base.
With middle school students, I think the best place to start with outreach training is by re-explaining the foundational truths of Christianity in simple terms. Without fail, almost every student I ever encounter is absolutely terrified about saying the "wrong thing"--as if somehow they're going to start accidentally spouting off verses from a Mother Goose fable when someone asks them who Jesus is.
This terror encompasses public prayer, too--when I first started working with middle schoolers, I couldn't understand why they would freeze up when I asked them to pray aloud.
In time, I realized that their nervousness is just another trademark of the awkwardness of this developmental stage they're in. And because their faith is important to them, they worry about "messing up" this important thing when they tell others about it. The best thing I can do for them is give them simple and straightforward truth, and remind them that they do know this stuff.
For instance, my youth now tease me for a phrase they've heard me say for years now: "Prayer is just talking to God. And if you can talk to your friends, you can definitely talk to God. And just as there's no wrong way to talk to your friends, there's no wrong way to pray--after all, He's your best friend!" As simple as this phrase seems to me, it's made a huge difference in the way our youth now tackle prayer--instead of being worried about screwing it up, they're now comfortable with the idea of praying aloud and have no problem with it at all. Simple truth, re-explained--that's all it is.
Oh, and you want to hear the icing on the cake? The Holy Spirit is working through them, giving them the strength to share their faith and the words to say. And when the Creator of the universe is on your side, why sweat the small stuff?
Be A Vocal Support.
Adult support is incredibly important to middle schoolers as they venture into outreach. Be present, be invested, and above all, be encouraging. Sharing your faith is challenging for most adults--and for a teenager whose biggest struggles include popularity and peer pressure, it's even more daunting. Being a constant support and encourager, and being there to process with the kids as they encounter challenges, frustrations, and rejection, is essential.
Middle school is a turbulent time--even for the kids with their heads on straight. I think that being a quiet pillar of support and steadiness speaks volumes to these kids. In a world of shaky friendships, ever-changing bodies, and heartbreak over lunch period, sometimes our best ministry is just listening and letting them know that we're behind them 100%, no matter what--and that includes their successful and not-so-successful outreach attempts.
Get Their Eyes Focused Off Of Themselves.
Oh, I know--you have to work double-time on this with middle schoolers. By nature, they're almost always entirely focused on themselves. It's just another benchmark of middle school. Remember, it's a time of self-discovery--so their obsession with themselves isn't all bad. But every once in a while, you need to drag their attention away from themselves and focus it on others, especially when it comes to outreach. Often, I've found that they don't quite see what's obvious to me: "No, she's not being snotty to you, she's just shy."
By coaching them to see others in a different light, I think it makes it easier for them to see how they can approach others. It takes some of the sting of rejection away, as well, by eliminating the highly personal affront that they'll probably feel if they're shot down. And sometimes, by pointing out how blessed they are compared to others who aren't as fortunate, it opens up a whole new world to them--one that they might not have even thought about in their previously self-focused state.
Take Advantage of Every Moment.
When it comes to outreach, I think we tend to build up grand pictures of what that epic Gospel-sharing moment will look like. At least, I do. My dream always seemed to center around me sitting in a dimly lit coffee shop, my Bible open and cappuccino cup empty beside me, fervently preaching to a stranger about how much Jesus loves them...and BAM! The stranger gets it, and her entire life does a one-eighty as she starts crying and confessing Jesus as Lord.
Reality check, please.
In real life, every instance in which I've shared the Gospel has been because I just jumped into it after a tiny, split-second, relevant opening in conversation occurred. For example, someone asking, "Oh, you work with youth at a church? How did you get into that?" is a chance for me to share my faith with that person.
Teaching youth this same thing--that waiting for some non-existent "magical moment" is fruitless--is important. They need to learn that the most life-impacting instances spring out of spur-of-the-moment opportunities. Some of the most memorable conversations I've ever had with my youth have been times where I've been tooling around with kids in my car, sitting with them at Denny's at one in the morning, hiking around a theme park with them, or sitting on linoleum floors in a boring hallway with them. Don't discount the ordinary--God's at work there, too.
Give It All Up to God.
I say this as a student myself, not a master. I definitely struggle with handing over my worries and cares to God. 1 Peter 5:7 tells me to "cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you"--but darn it, sometimes my arms don't feel like throwing my troubles to Him! However, it's essential that our young teenagers acknowledge that God is in control, not them. They're merely lighthouses, while the Holy Spirit is the brightly shining beacon that pours out of them.
God powerfully reminded me that everything is in His control, not mine, a few days ago. Remember my college roommate--the one who graduated from our Christian college without ever connecting with her Savior? I realized while driving home from work one day that I had experienced a nagging feeling for months that I couldn't shake, a feeling that I should talk to her and see how her life was going.
I hadn't talked to her for nearly two and a half years, and didn't even think I still had her cell phone number. To boot, I wrestled with feeling like I'd done enough, simply because I'd been praying for her every night for over six years. After all, if I could live with her for an entire year and make no impact on her faith life, why would now be any different? Why put myself through the sadness and rejection again?
No matter what excuse I came up with, however, that nagging feeling persisted.
I finally texted her a lame, "Hey, is this you?" message. She instantly responded, and over the course of our conversation for the next half hour, I discovered that she had, in her own words, "finally thrown up her hands and said to God 'I can't do it without you!'" My roommate had finally embraced her Savior, and her entire life was upended and changed for the better.
As she told me, "Every time I think about how lucky I am to live for Him and by Him, I cry tears of happiness. I feel so blessed! This is the happiest I've ever been."
In the end, we can only see a tiny sliver of what's going on in the big picture of life. As I realized while staring at a painting once, it's like we're ultra-focused on one tiny stroke of a paintbrush--and on this side of heaven, we'll never be able to step back and see the entire masterpiece that God is creating before our very eyes. And, as far as painters go, God's the best. So, I'll leave it all in His capable hands--it's the best possible place to be.
While not every outreach attempt has a perfect Hollywood ending, I do know that every word shared about Christ's love is important...and that you never know exactly how or when God is using you to eternally impact a life.
And even when your roommate cusses out the television, God can (and will!) still work on her heart, too, in unfathomable and magnificent ways.