We hear many stories of teenagers being saved during those formidable youth group years. By the grace of God, many meet Jesus after hearing the Gospel at a lock-in or while building a campfire at a winter retreat. But balancing cultural—or generational—relevance with eternal truth is difficult. How do we appeal to this group? What should we do to declare and demonstrate His love to them? How do we make teenagers into disciples who make disciples now and in their years ahead?
Pastoring and shepherding the younger generation is critical. These teenagers will be the men and women who lead our churches and ministries in the decades ahead. We want these future church leaders to be Gospel-centered, mission-minded, Word-saturated, servant-hearted people, right?
There are dangers facing every youth group, and for the sake of the church, its flourishing and the advancement of the Gospel, we must address them.
Here are six common dangers:
1. Too many youth have a poor understanding of the Gospel and how it applies to their lives.
While many people can explain the Gospel in some way, shape or form, very few have learned to apply it to their own lives. The result is a religion largely motivated by legalistic rules that leads to guilt and shame when rules are not met or self-righteousness when they are.
Many students also struggle to see themselves as truly broken and in need of a Savior. Others will fall on the side of misunderstanding grace as a license for sin. Underneath it all is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel.
2. The American consumer mentality has severely skewed the way youth view the church.
Because so much of the emphasis on reaching youth is aimed at getting them in the door and staying there, many are not attracted by Christ but rather by entertainment or friendships. While this may be effective in initially exposing them to Christ, it cannot be their only experience of Him.
There will inevitably come a day when church will not be focused primarily on their entertainment. For many, this will be a time of disillusionment with the church and one of the reasons so many youth do not remain a part of a church body after they leave home.
3. Youth are more technologically connected than ever, yet experience more isolation than ever.
While youth may have more “friends” than ever before, they are being conditioned to only have friendships at a superficial level. They live in a world that prioritizes managing and puffing up their image, both online and offline.
As a result, youth have few people, if any, who actually know them truly and deeply and can help them in their walk with the Lord.
4. There is a tendency to swing the pendulum too far toward either mission or community, neglecting one for the other.
Youth tend to operate in extremes. Depending on their background or whom they follow on Twitter, many youth, full of zeal, will tend to overemphasize either mission/”outreach” or community/”going deep.”
Either bent, if not coupled with the other, will lead to burnout or a “huddle” mentality. The eventual result will be a church that slowly fizzles out.
5. Youth have a hard time seeing how they personally fit into God’s redemptive story.
Because many youth are new to the faith, they may have not yet seen God use them personally to impact the Kingdom. They see all of the “Christian celebrities” before them and can easily believe the lie that God only uses the more known or trained people with certain skills, passions and gifts to advance the Gospel.
They feel disqualified, inexperienced or inferior, paralyzing them in life and ministry.
6. Many youth lack the desire and ability to study and apply the word of God to their lives.
Because it is easier than ever to find teaching and blogs about the Bible, more and more youth do not know how to study the Word for themselves. Some are apathetic because they do not see the Bible as relevant to their life or situation, and others see personal study as too difficult and would much rather listen to a podcast or read the latest Christian book or devotional. Personal study of the Word is critical for every believer, including youth.
These six dangers are real, and as church leaders, we must address them with fervor. But how?
A few years ago, youth groups from across the country began to contact Verge and the For The City Network. They had concerns about the dangers facing their youth groups, and they wanted something different. They wanted to lead their crew of awkward, crazy teenagers well.
They wanted them to fall in love with Jesus and do mighty things for His Kingdom. They wanted to bring their teenagers to Austin to learn more about what it meant to love God and His people through seeking the restoration of all things. And they wanted to serve. And they wanted to make some fun memories.
So, together with the For The City Network, we created SWITCH to address these dangers and serve these youth groups. SWITCH is a weeklong experience for youth that is a little bit mission trip, a little bit conference and a little bit camp. Youth from across the country come to Austin to serve, learn and have a lot of fun.
Each of these experiences can individually address some of these dangers. But youth experiences are usually limited at one area (mission trip, conference or camp), so the other areas get neglected. We wanted to address all of these dangers in a weeklong experience, so SWITCH was born!
Every aspect of the week is designed with these issues in mind. Our hope is that after our summer experience, students will SWITCH their worldview and your youth group will avoid these dangers.
So, how does SWITCH help you address these dangers?
1. Gospel-Centered Teaching
The teaching is centered on understanding and applying the Gospel in our own lives and in the lives of others. We seek to challenge youth to serve their city or town while discussing the proper and improper motivations that can drive them to want to serve. The youth will also see and understand their own brokenness and the role of grace in their lives.
2. Fighting Consumerism With Service
Because serving is a key component of SWITCH, the consumerism that plagues this generation is constantly tested and challenged. Students leave knowing that they were not called to Christ for their own benefit alone, but to seek and save others as they reflect the glory of God around them.
3. Opportunities for Community to Grow
SWITCH provides opportunities for youth to grow in community. With skits, Bible games and other antics, there is a lot of fun built into the week and many memories are made together. We also create environments where they can get to know each other better and more deeply through processing what they are learning and putting into action.
4. The Best of Both Mission and Community
Summer youth experiences often reinforce the overemphasis on either mission or community. They are structured so heavily around one aspect that they woefully neglect the other. Traditional camps are great for building community and depth in relationships, but they are formed in the absence of mission, so they can break down in the real world once camp is over.
Mission trips are great for helping people see and understand how to live on mission, but can often do so at the cost of community. Conferences equip youth for ministry, but can have little practical application and implementation.
We designed SWITCH to have the balance of mission and community packed into one week. We like to say we’re a little bit mission trip, a little bit conference and a little bit camp.
5. Seeing How They Fit Into God’s Redemptive Plan
One of the reasons people have a hard time seeing how they fit into God’s redemptive plan is that they have not tried to fit into it at all. We often discover where we are called as we step out in faith and try new things.
We also must value the specific way God has made each individual teenager. He or she has specific passions and gifts, and as pastors and leaders, we must value these differences and encourage the younger generation to employ their specific passions and gifts for the glory of God.
When a person sees how a week of their life can impact someone else through trying new things and exploiting what God has written on their hearts, they can more easily see and believe that He can and will use them to do big things in the days to come.
6. Learning How to Value the Word
Each morning at SWITCH, we spend time in the Word, training students in how to study the Bible. They are then able to take what God is teaching them and apply it to their life as they are serving the city and connecting with their friends and leaders.
We want students to see that the Word of God is, in fact, living and active and applies to and guides their daily life more than anything or anyone else.
We know that one week cannot change these trends or completely remove these dangers. But what if youth made the SWITCH and believed in living on mission with community as their lifelong purpose for His glory?
Our prayer is that through SWITCH, God will move in their hearts, helping you pastor and lead them into a deeper love and passion for Christ and His calling on their lives.