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

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

The Keys to Cultural Relevance

Dan Slater

    We asked Dan Slatter, leader of the Warehouse youth church in Chichester, England, to pinpoint what he and his staffers do to reach and disciple unchurched teenagers in post-Christian Britain

    When I was 16 years old, I committed my life to Christ, but not to the church. I was frustrated with the church?s stubborn refusal to shift its focus from stiff rule-keeping to Jesus. I knew very little about Jesus, but I knew he was far from boring. Not so with the church. Several times I very nearly ditched God because the church did nothing to deepen my relationship with Christ. I had to dress a certain way, pray in a certain way, and use approved language to talk about God. And I had no idea what the minister was talking about when he preached.

    My story is a perfect example of the problems we?re facing here in the UK. The church in England is dying and something has to change?some researchers estimate right now it?s losing 2,000 young people a week. There are, however, pockets of life. That?s why I?m now leading a thriving youth church on the southern coast of England instead of floundering my way through life without Jesus.

    We?re just beginning to kindle a cultural shift in our thinking about church. Youth leaders in churches around the country, including those at the Revelation Centre in Chichester where I?m the leader of a youth congregation called the Warehouse1, are experimenting with new ways to make church relevant to an ocean of disenfranchised, de-churched young people. We have to find ways to stop the mass exodus of teenagers from the church, then dare ourselves to dream of growth.

    A couple of years ago, the adult congregation at the Revelation Centre commissioned its leaders to establish a stand-alone youth and student congregation. Not long ago we moved our growing youth church into an old fish paste warehouse attached to the Revelation Centre?s main offices. The leaders gave us the space, support, and encouragement to partner with young people in reinventing church. Our young people fill every leadership position in the Warehouse, and that has forced them to mature in their calling and develop their gifts.

    We?ve been sent out by Revelation?s main congregation to invade youth culture by communicating the gospel in the style and language of teenagers. So often the church has used an alien language in its attempts to share Jesus with young people. That?s like a Dutch person trying to speak to me in his mother tongue. Even if I was interested and wanted to listen, I?d still not have a clue what he was trying to communicate.

    Today?s teenagers and young adults are visually stimulated and respond to short chunks of information. That means a church that gathers teenagers must be highly visual, fast-flowing, and savvy about using communication tools that are familiar to them. And who should be doing the communicating? Well, the young people, of course. They are the best missionaries to their peers because they know the culture better than anyone. It?s our job to train, support, equip, and pastor them to penetrate their mission field.

    Along the way, we?ve discovered several keys to successfully reaching young people.

    1. We emphasize community and authentic friendships.

    In youth culture, community and friendship trump everything else. Most teenagers, especially those from dysfunctional homes, value their friendships over their families. That?s why we focus on building a strong community of friends that strongly welcomes young people who have little or no connection to the church. We continually remind our young people that the church must remain outward-focused or it will wither.

    Last month I got a phone call from a 15-year-old girl named Clare. A local government-run youth services organization gave her my number. This timid, frightened girl eventually plucked up the courage to tell me she was in the midst of a major crisis with her family, and she had nowhere to live. A youth worker at the government agency told her we might be able to help her because no one else could.

    As my wife and I walked through the agency?s door to pick her up, you could see the relief on her heavily pierced face. We looked to be two young, normal-looking people. Clare later told us she was expecting an overweight, balding man, who had only a passing acquaintance with soap and was wearing a big cross. Clare moved in with us that evening.

    Clare?s biggest need was community, and that?s what we gave her. She started coming to our Warehouse gatherings, and she soon built friendships with Christian teenagers who genuinely accepted her for who she was, not what she did or how she looked. Three weeks after we first met her, she gave her life to Jesus.

    2. We make youth-led cell groups the backbone of our ministry.

    Your ministry structure must work to serve your goals; it?s an ineffective structure if you?re working to serve its needs. Our youth-led cell group structure is helping us reach and keep young people. One of our cells had three regular attendees who were not Christians. Two of the three had no church background at all. Within just a few months they?ve all become Christians. We use our cells as an outreach tool, not simply a discipling strategy. Our cells are the basic building blocks for reaping and keeping our young people.

    3. We tear down the cultural hurdles that scare away young people who are seeking Christ.

    If our goal is to introduce young people to Jesus, it?s so important that we show them him, not an elaborate set of religious conditions. We must not ask these young people to culturally emigrate in order to follow Jesus. I remember when a young nightclub DJ named Kenny showed up at our church a few years back. He?d been told by a number of church leaders that his occupation was sinful. Trust me, he loved Jesus, and his mission field was an unreached group of young clubbers. His pulpit was his decks, and he played tunes with the intention of ushering the spirit of God into some very dark places.

    I went with Kenny to clubs when he played. I had numerous "God chats" with people while he worshiped God through his music. He?s impacted literally thousands of young people with the gospel in a cultural arena that no starched, middle-class pastor could ever have penetrated. There are many dark places in youth culture. But it should be our goal to redeem people who gravitate to those dark places, not avoid them like the plague. Darkness needs light.

    This generation of young people is crying out for Jesus. He?s the only one who can truly fill the void that modern-day marketers promise to fill with products. We must clear away the fog that obscures the real truth?Jesus.

    Author

    Dan Slatter is leader of the Warehouse, a youth congregation connected to the Revelation Centre church in Chichester, England.

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    Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright November/December, 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.

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