Five Core Principles Core Principle #4: Penetrating the Student Culture
The Case For Post-Christian Youth Ministry
How can the pioneering strategies of youth workers in post-Christian Britain fuel your ministry? You?ll reach more kids, more powerfully, more deeply.
The British Church Is A Punctured Balloon.
Across the pond, social researchers are warning that the Christian church in
England will effectively disappear in 20 years unless it can somehow cork up the
gushing human leakage (likely the first time those three words appear side by
side in the history of the English language). Just 10 percent of Brits go to
church?the figure is less than 1 percent for young people.
That means the country that spawned boot-shaking Christian heavy-hitters C.S. Lewis, John Stott, John Wesley, J. Hudson Taylor, William Booth, George Whitfield, and William Wilberforce is basically dead in the water and sinking fast.
Not really a water-image person? Let?s try some forest-fire comparisons.
What started as a tiny pagan campfire a few decades ago has whipped up into a monster wildfire that?s raced through the dry tinder of the UK church. When I was in England nine years ago, the cavernous old churches were lucky to have a smattering of elderly folks show up on Sundays. Forget youth-friendly; these churches looked like nuclear test zones?desolate, decimated, and sad.
And, it turns out, this is all really great news for the UK church.
Forest rangers generally see wildfires as necessary to a healthy ecosystem?they clear choking underbrush and pave the way for new growth. And today, out of Britain?s blackened church topsoil, radical new approaches to youth ministry are poking through and reaching young people in powerful ways.
Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in the UK tramping around the youth ministry landscape. What I saw upended my definitions of effective youth ministry and sparked a passion for strategies that promise to capture both churched and unchurched American teenagers.
Most British youth workers are forced to develop culturally relevant, outreach-savvy ways to capture kids with the gospel because the typical UK teenager is one or even two generations removed from any connection to the church. That means no ready-made church youth groups. So youth leaders must find ways to plant their ministry flag in kids? world, or they?ll have no chance of reaching them.
Roger Ellis, founder and an "apostolic leader" of the Revelation Centre, a fast-growing, youth-friendly church on the southern coast of England, says, "I remember a few years ago I was at a conference where they were talking about radical new models for discipling youth. And they had all these fancy ideas?this and that. And I said, ?Well, has anybody ever thought of church?? " Nobody thinks of church because UK churches have been pigeonholed as culturally irrelevant.
Now for the big aha...
You should pay attention to the youth ministry strategies that are emerging in England because the North American church is in a quasi-swoon of its own. Tom Sine, church futurist and author of The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, says, "Very slowly the church is going out of business?it?s graying. My generation got discipleship all wrong. We do discipleship around the fringes of our lives. Instead, we need to make discipleship our first choice?our jobs, marriages, and so on should follow after."
According to the Barna Research Group, just four out of 10 American adults attend a church service on a typical Sunday?a significant decline from the early ?90s when half the population parked themselves in a pew. Even more troubling, young adults are far less likely to get involved in a church than older adults?just 28 percent of Baby Busters attend church, compared to 51 percent of the over-55 crowd. Young adults are also much less likely to give money or volunteer their time to churches.
So let me take this opportunity to beat my forest-fire imagery to a pulp...The North American church has an opportunity to stave off a wildfire if it will learn from the mistakes and innovations of the UK church. If we don?t, who?s to say the cultural hurricane won?t whip our troubling little church "campfire" into a firestorm?
I offer you a little taste of what UK youth ministers are doing to recapture a lost generation. I hope your curiosity explodes into urgency...
Before I traveled to Britain, I was openly biased against the youth church model that?s found a smattering of support in North America. How could a model that purposely disconnects young people from adult relationships have long-term merit? But I buried my skepticism in a shallow grave when I visited the Warehouse Youth Church, one of four stand-alone "congregations" that make up the Revelation Centre in Chicester.
The Centre is a main cog in a fast-growing quasi-denomination of so-called new churches?almost 90 congregations loosely organized under the name Pioneer. About 200 teenagers are involved in the Warehouse, started by Pete Greig, one of the Centre?s three "apostolic leaders," and now led by 25-year-old youth minister Dan Slatter. The church meets in a former "fish paste" warehouse three Sundays a month, then joins with the Centre?s three other congregations for a large central Gathering on the fourth Sunday.
Each Sunday?s Warehouse meeting has a different focus. The first is an outreach-oriented, experience-based, three-hour worship event called Fluid. The following two Sundays?called Substance days?are focused on Bible teaching and experiential activities that challenge teenagers to grow spiritually. The youth-led cell groups that form the backbone of the church take turns planning each Gathering?s spiritual growth activities.
On the Sunday I attended, the theme for the Fluid service was Exodus?crossing the river into the Promised Land. Large river rocks lined the entry to the warehouse, then snaked their way across a chair-less floor to a large platform where a lone couch sat, dwarfed by two huge projection screens flanking either side of the stage. In the entryway two parallel walls of sheets hung from the rafters like two sides of a river canyon.
To the right of the stage, one of the Warehouse?s three worship bands kicked off the service with a popular song by mainstream rock band The Verve?the band?s leader encouraged the sea of bouncing, milling, spike-haired teenagers to redirect the song?s lyrics to God. Colored lights bounced off a mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling, and projectors beamed pulsing, colored line patterns onto the big screens.
Five or six songs later, one of Dan?s assistant leaders got up on stage to welcome everyone and explain the night?s Exodus theme. During the two hours that followed, teenagers...
listened to Dan?s funny/serious interactive talk show interview with visiting speaker Tom Sine and his wife;
prayed in small groups for local and international needs using ideas from the 24-7 Prayer Web site home page?the site was projected onto the big screens;
listened to a 15-year-old church member read her poetry;
watched a spooky-looking, six-girl dance team draped in sheets enter in the dim light, walk down the "river bed" toward the stage as eerie music and narration from Exodus played, then throw off the sheets and explode into a high-energy, choreographed praise dance routine; and
participated in a guided Promised Land experience, led by dance-club DJ Andy
Hunter from New Generation Ministries in Bristol. Perched behind a huge
semicircle of stacked "decks," Andy used techno music and a microphone
to guide the kids on a journey from face-on-the-floor humility before God to a
celebration of his grace and mercy. (Before the Promised Land experience got
started, Dan gave kids the option of following Tom Sine and his wife into the
Warehouse?s on-site coffee shop to have a Q & A session with him?about
50 of them did just that.)
The whole thing was amazing?made more so because it?s a youth-led ministry. Dan says he tells regular attendees, "Look, a lot of your friends have preset ideas of what church is about. Bring them [to Fluid]. This will blow their brains out because there?s a DJ, a band, creative dance, and visuals all over the venue....This is what church can be like."
Remember my foundational bias against youth churches? Well, I lobbed it out there, and Dan took a swing at it. He said the kids in the Warehouse would never darken the door of a traditional church. So it?s either youth church or nothing at all for them.
What happens when these kids get too old for a youth church? "Well, we feed them into the main congregations [of the Revelation Centre]," says Dan. "We?re very much still learning how to do this. We?ve made some howling mistakes. But we had our first batch go up three or four months ago....We created a ?bridging? cell group to help them make the transition. That cell can meet in a pub on a Wednesday night if that?s what they want to do. It?s a bit more their cultural style."
The ministry works because it?s led by young people who grew up unchurched, and, therefore, don?t feel anchored to traditional church practices or strategies. It?s orthodox Christianity wrapped in an unorthodox, culturally savvy tortilla. Underlying the whole thing are five foundational pillars...
#1?"You?ve got to belong before you?ll believe."
Most churches essentially require young people to "clean up their act" and learn to behave like mature Christians before they?re welcomed into the fellowship. But the Centre?s Roger Ellis says, "It?s not the responsibility of the young people to integrate with the older. Those that are older in Christ, more mature, should be the ones that change?do the denying and laying down?rather than the other way around."
The Warehouse leaders believe kids will come to Christ only after they?re welcomed into fellowship with Christians. So their cell groups are a mix of Christians and non-Christians. It?s evangelism through close-knit fellowship. Dan says, "Most people belong before they believe. They have to feel a sense of belonging first. They don?t go, ?I believe in God; I think I?ll join a church.? They come to Christ through relationships."
Essentially the Warehouse starts discipling young people before they commit themselves to Christ so they have an idea of where they?re headed. For example, Dan says some unchurched kids have signed up for time slots in the 24-7 prayer room. By watching others in the room, they learned what prayer was all about before they fully knew who it was all about.
#2?Young people learn best through experiences.
At a recent Fluid event, Dan and his leaders set up learning stations all around the venue to help kids explore the story of Mary and Martha. The focus was on Mary?s deep devotion to Christ. At one station kids were challenged to come up with words that represented blockages in their relationship with God, then write those words on a brick. Afterward they took their bricks outside and used a hammer to smash them to bits. At another station, kids planted seeds in soil while asking God to plant new growth in them.
The month after I left England, the theme for the Fluid service was set to be "Image," an exploration of outer versus inner beauty. The leaders were planning a full-scale runway fashion show to help kids explore the fallacies behind surface judgments.
Dan says, "You?ve got a fairly illiterate generation here. They get everything spoon-fed to them in visual forms. So as a church, we have to teach in that same style. There?s no point in telling them to read books. I mean, I didn?t read a whole book until I was 18."
Instead of responding to kids? questions by lecturing about the truth, Dan challenges them to find the answers themselves. "We had a couple of lads who were all of a sudden saying, ?Why don?t we believe in getting drunk?? They were having a bit of a crisis in their walk with God. They were hating the church...so I said, ?Why don?t you go away and look it up, learn it for yourself?? If God says to them, ?The reason you don?t do this is because of this,? they?ll never forget it. But if I say it to them, they?d forget it in 10 minutes."
#3?Outreach-oriented cell groups are the catalysts for deeper growth.
More than 150 young people belong to a youth-led cell group through the Warehouse. Dan says, "Our objective is to provide an environment where people can feel secure to go a bit deeper. It?s a place where people can speak freely without having to worry about what others think. Our cell groups meet once a week wherever and whenever they want, but we tend to hang out together more than that."
The groups can use biblical discussion-starter materials from Fusion5, a cell-group curriculum created by the Revelation Centre. Or they can call up a special answering-machine number and get weekly recorded ideas that tie in to the theme of the Fluid service. Or they can come up with their own focus that addresses the issues cell members are facing, such as financial worries or questions about dating.
#4?Alternative worship sets the stage for everything.
One of the many counter-intuitive traits of today?s unchurched kids is their hunger for soul-shaking spiritual experiences. That?s why the Warehouse emphasizes "vertical" worship?live worship music that?s focused on God, not horizontal relationships with others. The music introduces non-Christian kids to God and deepens Christian kids? relationship with him. Bands play original worship music, popular worship songs, and hijacked secular tunes that they refocus for worship.
Just 90 minutes up the road from the Warehouse, the Soul Survivor church in Watford has put alternative worship on the map. It was born out of a wildly successful summer Christian music festival, and roughly 90 percent of Soul Survivor members are young people. Teenagers would come to the festivals, commit themselves to Christ, then flounder when they tried to integrate into a church back home. So Soul Survivor?s leaders decided to plant a church for these festival converts. Watford, just outside of London, was the first location, and they?re now planting churches in several other places.
Matt Redman is Soul Survivor?s worship leader?he?s one of the driving forces in the worldwide resurgence of worship music in the church. His passionate, gut-honest worship songs are widely played in American churches. Soul Survivor?s pastor is Mike Pilavachi, a highly respected pioneer in reaching post-Christian young people.
The church meets every Sunday evening for a two-hour service that kicks off with more than an hour of worship music. Members meet in a warehouse and either stand or sit on the floor. And like the Warehouse, Soul Survivor emphasizes a cell-group structure, social outreach, and evangelism.
#5?Creativity is a key filter.
Kids respect creativity?no matter its form or content. The more creative it is, the more cool it is. "Every week we will do something creative," says Dan. Kathryn, Dan?s wife and a Warehouse cell-group leader, quickly adds, "It?s kind of like getting people to practice using their gifts. We help them to grow confident in that. It?s all about learning by doing."
One of the first questions the leaders ask after they decide on a biblical focus for a gathering is, "How can we make this creative?something that will really capture them?"
When I arrived at the Warehouse on a Sunday afternoon, Dan and Kathryn took me on a tour of the church building. We poked our heads into the 24-7 prayer room, where members of the all-youth dance team were working on their synchronized routine for that night. The room is papered with kids? spontaneous artwork, free verse, and prayers.
One church member, Simon Mander, designs and edits the ministry?s hip-simple newsletter, titled Gas. And the Warehouse has spawned a five-member rock band called Sabio that was just signed to a British record label.
Public School Outreach
Three traditional Anglican churches in Ealing, close to London, pooled their resources to do something entirely nontraditional?they hired 28-year-old Bevan Davis as their "outreach youth minister." That means Bevan has no responsibility for churched youth?she?s free to concentrate on reaching young people in sixth-form public schools (senior highers).
I tagged along with Bevan to one of her regular "gigs"?a midday required class on religion held in a second-floor schoolroom that had a long-unused fireplace gaping from one wall and peeling paint everywhere else. That day Bevan was working with Stewart Capewell, a local YMCA staffer.
Since the Anglican church is government-sponsored, public schools require kids to attend religion classes. Most are dry and boring. So youth leaders such as Bevan make school officials an offer that?s hard to refuse: In exchange for access to kids at school, they?ll plan and lead religion classes for free.
Bevan?s strategy is to get kids thinking about what they believe, then make subtle connections to Christian truth. The previous week she?d asked kids to talk about their favorite music, then defend why they like it. This week she and Stewart planned a session that forced kids to think about their moral beliefs and how they developed those beliefs.
They gave kids each a red and green card, then read aloud a series of statements and asked them to decide if it was a "serious moral issue" (red card) or "not a serious moral issue" (green card). For example, the first question was, "You go to see a film that you?re underage for." Seven kids raised a red card; two raised a green card.
After the group plowed through eight questions, they went back through them again and had to vote on whether each one was right or wrong. Finally, Bevan asked the kids to brainstorm things they believe are "absolutely wrong, all the time." After a good deal of debate, the kids decided only two things qualified: murder and adultery. Stewart asked them to get in small groups and answer two questions: "Why are these things wrong?" and "Where did our sense of their ?wrongness? come from?"
After a few minutes of discussion, Stewart asked kids to summarize their discussions?they decided that selfishness fueled all amoral acts. With five minutes left in the session, Bevan and Stewart still had made no reference to God or Christianity.
Then Bevan told kids that the two "absolutes" they?d picked are the same two that Christian writer C.S. Lewis targeted as common to every culture in history. Then Stewart pointed out that laws and punishments had so far not been able to eradicate the world of murder and adultery because they did nothing to change the heart.
"We believe the only way to really deal with selfishness is through a relationship with God," he said. "That?s where we?re coming from. But it?s up to you to make up your own mind about that. If you have any questions, talk to us after this class, or talk to one of your Christian teachers."
And that was that. In a 60-minute class, Bevan and Stewart spent 55 minutes capturing kids? attention, getting them to think, and building authentic relationships. Then they hinted at something deeper behind the whole exercise and invited kids to explore that depth with them.
In a fundamentally churchless culture, the only viable strategy to reconnect kids to God is to shine a spotlight on their beliefs, ask questions they can?t stop thinking about, then offer yourself as a safe and trustworthy place to explore the truth behind those questions.
In addition to leading religion classes, Bevan runs a school-based club for girls struggling with anorexia, takes kids on school-sponsored service trips, and speaks about social issues in school assemblies. The first priority is always building long-term relationships, and UK youth leaders seem ready to spend the time it takes to do that. They recognize that kids are so disconnected from God that reconnection to God?s people has to be the first step back.
Planting Youth Ministry In The Community
I spent parts of several days with Jonny Baker, head of Youth for Christ in London, and Pete Ward, professor of youth ministry at King?s College in London, instructor at the Oxford Youth Works training center, and an influential speaker and author. They and others are driving an approach to UK youth ministry that is outreach-focused, relationally powered, wildly creative, and contextualized to kids? real world.
Jonny oversees six YFC teams, acting as a creative resource for staffers who are planting community-based youth ministries. "In Youth for Christ," he said, "there?s been a definite theological shift from youth ministry as a presentation to an incarnational approach. It?s a missiological approach to youth ministry." Just as Jesus left heaven and "took on the form of man," UK youth ministers are innovating ways to go to where kids live, connect with them there, then gather them into a culturally authentic church body.
Many see Pete as the grandfather of this incarnational approach. As a traditional, church-based youth minister, he was frustrated by the church?s general lack of impact on millions of British teenagers. So he started pondering new ways to establish a ministry presence in the community?unchurched strategies for unchurched kids.
"When I started doing this in 1983, I felt completely, totally alone," he said. "Under modernity, we created huge systems to reach young people. But these total solutions have collapsed. So youth workers now combine many disparate [cultural] elements to reach kids." Essentially these strategies borrow from underground youth culture, popular youth culture, and the liturgical traditions of the church. Combined together, kids are drawn into God experiences that are framed by familiar cultural surroundings.
For example, Jonny helped create a high/low-tech labyrinth experience that ran for one week at one of the world?s largest Christian cathedrals?St. Paul?s in the heart of London.
The labyrinth is an ancient practice that had all but disappeared from the church. It?s a guided prayer walk designed to slow down the mind while igniting the spirit. It looks like a huge maze, but is actually a circular path that winds its way to a center, and then winds its way back out.
At St. Paul?s there were 10 interactive "stations" that challenged participants to get in touch with what was going on in their souls, then drew them into intimate encounters with God. Some of the stations were simple?gazing into a mirror as you wrestled with questions of self-image. And some were more elaborate?sitting in front of a laptop using your mouse to "light" cybercandles on the screen as you pray for loved ones.
I saw teenagers, children, elderly people, moms, nuns, tourists, and businessmen off the street all slip on headphones and a portable CD player for the guided, 60-minute labyrinth journey. It was the perfect incarnational outreach event?subtle and intriguing enough to entice non-Christians into an encounter with God, meaty enough to serve as a spiritual retreat for Christians. It?s the best example I?ve ever seen of a deepening spiritual experience offered in the bustle of the marketplace.
Jonny has since repeated the labyrinth experience in an all-teenager setting with great success. "Basically," he says, "we?re trying to rework liturgy to engage the culture."
Other UK youth ministers have taken a whack at reaching kids where they live by establishing community-based clubs that serve as after-school and evening gathering spots. Clubs such as the OK Club in central London, run by youth leader Rosie Solly, offer kids a forum to explore activities and issues that "scratch their itch"?body image, gender issues, drama, counseling support, discipleship studies, games, music?and a safe space to build relationships.
Meanwhile street youth workers such as Oxford?s Nick Allen are planting "basement" congregations that attract fringe kids who?d never attend a traditional church. Pete Ward, who helped establish the JOY Church in Oxford, says, "A group of adults, some youth workers, students, and young people got together and just created a whole new thing. Every week people roll in at about 6 p.m., eat together, hang out, drink tea, then join in a techno-music-driven worship service."
The church?s environment is relaxed, friendly, artistic, experimental, and healing. Small-group discussions and Q & A sessions replace sermons. Fellowship is the real focus.
While I was in Oxford, Pete Ward invited me to speak to his class of undergraduate youth ministry students at the Oxford Youth Works. Most of the students were lay youth leaders in local churches. After I gave them an overview of what?s happening in American youth ministry, one student raised his hand and asked, "It doesn?t sound like youth leaders in the U.S. do a lot of intentional outreach?why is that?"
My response: "Because they don?t have to. Here in the UK, if you don?t do outreach to unchurched kids, you likely don?t have much of a youth ministry. In the States, most youth leaders can find success shepherding their churched-kid groups. In fact, that?s really what most churches and parents want them to do. They don?t want a lot of ?foul-mouthed sinners? mixing with their kids."
The student glared back at me with wide eyes and a taut jaw?"But that?s just wrong!"
"Maybe so," I responded, "but you might not focus on outreach, either, if you didn?t have to. That?s human nature."
I think we?re at a crossroads in American youth ministry?so far, we?ve enjoyed the luxury of churches that still attract teenagers. That situation may or may not change in the first decade of the new millennium. But I know one thing?American youth leaders who learn from and practice the strategies of post-Christian UK youth leaders will draw millions of disenfranchised kids into real-world relationships with God.
The grace is we don?t have to.
And the grace is we can.
Rick Lawrence has been editor of group for 13 years. He?s traveled extensively in Europe and lived in Rome for four months.
Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright September/October, 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.
About Group Magazine
According to David Skidmore, "Each issue is a feast for hungry youth workers." This quality magazine comes out six times per year, giving us input from others on the front lines of youth ministry. Includes lesson ideas, well-written articles, relevant news and new resources. Find them online at www.youthministry.com, where they offer lots of free online resources.