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Missional Youth Programs

We live in exciting times–times ripe for a wonderful converging of culture and Christians.  Say what you want about postmodernism and the Millennial generation; youth today are champing at the bit to talk about God and faith. All they need is the right message and the tools to spread it.

The current youth population (a.k.a. Millennials, Mosaics, Generation Y) was born between 1982 and 2002, and are just now beginning to enter the workforce. Sociologists have identified some wonderful characteristics of this record-breaking population (which is even larger than my own Baby Boomer generation). Sociologist Kathy Miller points out that “Millennials are more accepting of diversity and practice it…. Millennials are team-oriented and achievers who seek meaningful careers. They feel more connected to other people, believe substantial change is needed and are eager to make a positive difference.” A recent Special Report in USAWeekend.com describes this generation as having “a growing reputation for service that’s making waves across the nation. A higher share of high school students are [sic] community volunteers today than ever before measured, going back half a century.”

They see a world in need of change, and they’re ready to do something about it.

This is also a “spiritual” generation. Most Millennial youth believe in God (86%), nine out of ten pray regularly, and three out of four pray daily. They are open to religion, but seek an experiential relationship with God. Millennials are not committed to denominations; “they are more concerned whether a religion can bring them into contact with God,” says Tony Jones, youth pastor and author of Postmodern Youth Ministry.  Jones reminds us that young people today are more about spirituality, even mysticism, than propositional truth and systematic doctrine. “People are not necessarily put off by a religion that does not ‘make sense.'”

While it is true that this “spiritual” bent can lead to distortions of doctrine and practice if left to itself, today’s youth are open and ready to hear and accept theological concepts. The Church is filled to the brim with the rich history and spiritualism they seek. Teach it to them. Give them Church history, teach the liturgy and its meaning, introduce the “whys” behind doctrine and practice, and they’ll absorb the truth, believe it, and talk about it.

Case in point: Lutheran youth are leading the way among their peers in sharing their faith with others outside of the faith. A monumental research piece done by the National Study of Youth & Religion indicates that “Seventy-seven percent of Missouri–Synod Lutheran teens, and sixty-seven percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America teens…report sharing their religious faith with someone.” These teens are intentional and want to make a positive impact. They want to know God, talk about their faith, and serve one another. They are driven to find meaning and purpose in life, and many of them understand that meaning and purpose are found in faith in God.

Encourage these youth in missions, to serve as the witnesses of Christ’s great love for all people. In Scripture, God issues mission directives, a Gospel imperative, to all of His people, including teens. Give them tools, and let them loose.

Here are a few ways to get started. You may want to continue brainstorming with your colleagues for ideas well-fitted to your group.

Provide opportunities for teens to act on their faith and make a meaningful impact, while keeping in mind their maturity level and the challenging temptations they face. A great opportunity for challenging teens in safe environments is District- and Synod-sponsored Servant Events and Youth Gatherings. The LCMS has been involved in Servant Events since 1981; the youth we serve now may very well be born of parents who went on Servant Events and mission trips when they were teens. It’s the second generation of servant- and mission-minded people! In addition to the week-long Servant Events or Youth Gatherings, look into the short-term (two days to six weeks) team mission trips organized by LCMS World Missions and other organizations.  http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=9814

Use “mission language” in your church and youth programs to reflect a mission mindset.  View your church and youth room as mission outposts in the midst of a community that doesn’t yet know the Lord.

Spend time studying the Book of Acts to identify similarities between our culture and the culture facing the apostles in the early days of the Church (i.e. a pluralistic society). Note how, as documented in Acts, average believers were used in wonderful ways by the Holy Spirit. Ask, “How were cultural boundaries crossed by the Gospel then, and how can we apply what we learn to our situation today?”

Resist the temptation to quantify your mission. God doesn’t use spreadsheets, and the work you do may go unnoticed by all but Him for quite some time. Teach your youth to sow the seeds of the Gospel regardless of how they are received, regardless of how many new faces show up at Tuesday night Bible study. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the message.

Think long term as you make the commitment to be a mission-focused youth program. Effecting change in your own congregation and youth takes drive and commitment, and the payoff will be huge. We Christians have been empowered with a timeless message that changes people and fits them for eternity. The youth of today are ready to speak. Give them the tools and the opportunity, then sit back and watch what they can do.

Published July 1, 2006

About the author

Tim teaches DCE courses and theology at Concordia University Nebraska. He has been married to Kathy for 32 years. They have two grown kids. Tim has served as a missionary in Japan, DCE in Reno, NV, and Portland, OR.  He has been on faculties at Concordia Chicago and now Concordia Nebraska. He also serves as the DCE internship site coordinator and has placed about 200 DCE interns in the US and around the world.
View more from Tim

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