"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Five Core Principles Core Principle #4: Penetrating the Student Culture

Rooting for Spiritual Underdogs

(Alternatives, Water Boys and Other Unreached People Groups)

Steve Miller

Rooting for Spiritual Underdogs
(Alternatives, Water Boys and Other Unreached People Groups)

I love to see underdogs win -- the Waterboy who becomes the star player, the Goonies who save their city, the nerds who finally get some respect. Maybe that's why I love missions. It's all about making winners of the spiritual underdogs -- those who, by virtue of their location or cultural identity, will be spiritual losers unless someone crosses a cultural barrier to reach them. How can we reach the underdogs around us?

Times were in youth ministry when the "trickle down" approach made sense. On many campuses, there were only two groups - the social elite (jocks and preppies) and the wannabes (everybody else). Set a spiritual fire underneath some key social elites and you'd not only attract other elites, but also those beneath them who desperately wanted to be accepted by them.

Problem is, today's youth culture is much more diverse. Many subcultures are not only content to be non-athletic and shabbily dressed, but relish in it. In such schools, spirituality would likely trickle down from the captain of the football team to other athletes, but not to the subcultures that don't aspire to be jocks. Spiritual interest may have to trickle-down from the most respected of each subculture, or move laterally within subcultures that don't contain clear-cut leaders and followers. If I'm on track here, then we can no longer reach an entire campus by reaching the dominant homogeneous unit and expecting it to move naturally from there. If we're successful with mainstream jocks and preppies, we may completely miss other significant groups. They are the spiritual underdogs, the ones nobody's reaching.

Jesus passionately pursued the spiritual underdogs of his day by reaching out to prostitutes, Gentiles, Roman Soldiers and tax collectors, those intentionally neglected by the religious leaders. When the spiritual elite bristled at His ministry to the outcasts, He explained that this was the very reason He came. After all, it's the sick who need a physician, not the healthy. And if you were counting your sheep and realized that one was missing, wouldn't any self-respecting shepherd leave the 99 to find the one that was lost?

Jesus' ministry was biased toward spiritual underdogs, and He didn't tell us to wait till our local ministry was perfect and complete before venturing out. His last words on earth challenged us to get the gospel into every culture, so that everyone has the chance to hear.

From my observation, most youth ministry (mine in the past as well), is biased toward mainstream kids. They're easier to reach. Our churches are better equipped to assimilate them. Nominal church parents don't get bent out of shape because of weird guys mixing with their preppie daughters. The pastor doesn't endure as many irate phone calls.

Thus, the kids most churches reach are the ones who already have the greatest access to the gospel. Christian bands abound that play music in their stylistic preference. They can hear the gospel in their language. But at the end of a day ministering to the spiritual "haves," I grieve for the spiritual "have nots," those kids who don't have a chance to hear the gospel in a culturally relevant way. I simply can't rest with that lost sheep on my mind.

That's why I moved my family to Slovakia after the fall of Communism. With my years of youth ministry experience, I felt I had something to offer other youth ministers. So where do I minister, here in the States where youth ministry training opportunities abound? Or, do I go to a place where I might be the best resource in the entire country, since I might be the ONLY resource in that country? In one year, the number of full time youth ministers in Romania had doubled…from one to two! Thanks to Communist suppression of religion, in Slovakia printed youth ministry resources were almost non-existent.

For me, my "call" was not a predominately emotional experience. It came naturally from assessing the gifts God had given me, getting wise counsel from others, and asking God, "With the gifts and passions You've given me, what's the best place on the planet I could serve to make the biggest splash in my few short earthly years?"

I saw myself as the spiritual equivalent of a linebacker, my mission statement reading: "to move the ball as far as I can toward the goal" (the completion of the Great Commission). The center hikes to the quarterback, who hands off to me. I glance to the left and see a few possible breaks in the line to wiggle through and perhaps gain a couple of yards. Then I look to the right to see a huge hole (the walls to Eastern Europe had fallen) opened up by my offensive linemen, wide enough for a Mac truck to drive through. I don't have to deliberate long to find God's will on whether or not to go through the hole. I'm a linebacker for heaven's sake! Opportunities like this don't come up every game. Go for it!

Years earlier, Josh McDowell challenged me to this approach. In a conversation with a medical student about missions, the student said, "If God opens the doors, I'll go." To which Josh replied, "Opens the doors?!? Right now, thousands of doors are open! God couldn't open them any wider! Why not rather pray like this, 'God, I'm planning on using my skills among those who need them most on the mission field. If you don't want me to go, please close the doors.'"?

After a short, but rewarding stint in Slovakia, God closed the doors. My wife was diagnosed with cancer. We had to return. But my burden remained for the spiritual underdogs, both locally and globally. If I can't go, I can produce resources. If I can't go, I can pray for those who go. And while I'm here, I love working with alternative kids who don't feel comfortable in most churches. I can carry on a local mission to the underdogs.

Since you're still reading, even after seeing the word "missions," you probably share my heart for unreached people groups. Here are some things we can do…

  • Identify the underdogs. Missiologists identified a "10/40 Window" (geographical location identified by lattitude) that is the most unreached area of the world, the final frontier for pioneer missions and the fulfilling of the Great Commission. I believe Jesus would challenge each of us to identify the "10/40 Window" of our community, those youth who won't hear the gospel in a culturally relevant way unless someone crosses that cultural barrier. Perhaps you're near an international student population. Does each racial group have strong ministries geared to them? In our community, FCA offers Jesus to athletes and churches offer Him to mainstream kids. Many alternatives here assume Christianity isn't for them (as if John the Baptist wasn't alternative!). I'm going after them. Perhaps a recent visitor to your group just doesn't fit in. Find a way to minister to that lost sheep.
  • Mobilize locally. There are so many exciting opportunities! Volunteer to help international students with conversational English. Start a mission with a pastor from a neglected ethnic group. Evaluate your youth group to see if any of your present activities would offend them if they came. Three out of four students at one church in Siberia are former drug addicts. Sometimes a church can pull this off. Other youth ministers may need to network to start ministries that would never fly in your own local church. Could you start a coffee house that uses the heart music of that group? Alternative kids don't tend to like mainstream music styles. For many black teens, Hip-Hop is their exclusive style of choice. No wonder so many can't relate to our white-driven, mainstream passion worship. We must start ministries that speak both their linguistic and musical languages.
  • Mobilize globally. Start with short-term missions. Consider North America's inner cities or going international. A short-term experience gets our feet wet, helping us determine if missions is really in our blood.
  • Drive a missions culture. If your church sponsors a missions conference, make sure that what goes on for the youth is quality. Make heroes of visiting missionaries. Get only the speakers that can relate to youth. Hey, why not start a revolution by making it a normal part of Christian student culture to spend a year doing a missions project before graduating from college? Answer the objections of nominal parents by letting them see the educational benefit of transforming a couple of years of academic foreign language study into fluency by experiencing language immersion.

John Joyce is my hero. We've been best friends since we both met Jesus in high school. When he decided to go into vocational Christian service, he dared ask the question, "God, Where is a place so remote, so barren, so devoid of the gospel that if I don't go there, probably nobody will?" For the past 20 years, he's devoted his life to planting churches in a remote village in Burkina Faso, just south of the Sahara Desert, home to the unreached Fulani people. He's in the 10/40 window. And I'm cheering for those underdogs.

Don't you love it when the underdogs get their chance to win? Who are the underdogs that God's laying on your heart?


Author Steve Miller leads Professional Youth Ministry in association with Reach Out Youth Solutions, providing resources such as lesson plans and illustrations and articles for youth workers at www.reach-out.org . Check out the series entitled "Making a Mark That's Hard to Erase" if you want to train and motivate your students in evangelism skills. It's in the Legacy Lessons section.


Used by permission, Group Magazine, Copyright 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539. Check out Group's Web site at www.grouppublishing.com .