You may be able to recall a time when you were 17 years old, and all it took for you to feel that tingly Holy Spirit “move” in you was a smoke machine, an electric guitar, an LED light background, and maybe a few lasers, just for kicks. It was difficult to imagine ministry being done any other way, right? Jesus was more of a rock star with a “long hair don’t care” attitude, flippin’ over tables like it was nobody’s business. This smell of sweaty teen spirit and high octane, “Jesus Freak” spirituality, unfortunately, tends to fade away soon after you walk out of the packed youth room of your church, and breathe the fresh air of the ‘real world’- a broken and needy place where we are called to be “the hands and feet” of Jesus.
I have been serving in my church youth ministry as an adult leader since the beginning of the school year. This is the same youth group that I attended for 3 years while I was in high school. After spending 5 years away in University and in the working world, I moved back home and decided to get involved in church again. Throughout those 5 years immediately following the high I felt in high school ministry, my faith took a nosedive, ultimately taking the backseat in my life, becoming stale and stagnant. Every now and then my faith would sprout up again whenever I needed divine intervention on a physics exam, or if I liked a guy and wanted him to notice me, but other than that, that tingly feeling I felt at 17 had subsided, and, to be honest, it hasn’t returned. Too often I relied on that proverbial butterfly in my stomach called the Holy Spirit to flutter around and make me feel close to God, or at least believe that I was. Although I highly credit my youth pastor at the time, for revealing and bringing so much of God’s truth to my life, I still feel as though I didn’t receive the fullness of it. I went into deep places of individual worship and prayer, but lacked a sense of responsibility for the world around me – I was a sorry excuse of a servant of God.
A few weeks ago, after discussing with another adult leader, I asked some of the youth if they would be interested in spending a day serving at a homeless shelter, and then maybe going out for dinner afterwards. They hesitated to respond, but when they did, it was, “OH! You know where we should go?! ROLLER PALACE!”, or something along those lines. I guess the homeless shelter idea wasn’t all that appealing. I can’t blame them, they’re teenagers. For the most part, “fun” is the only thing on their radar other than the guy or girl they like. Therein lays my concern.
1 Timothy 4:12 says “let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity”. It goes on to say in verse 16, “persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers”. This Scripture is often presented in youth groups, but rarely taught in depth, or really explained in a way that is relevant to the world we live in. Ultimately, our conduct, the things we do, is what “will save both yourself and your hearers”, or those who see you, talk to you, etc. Coming to youth every Friday night, listening to ill-produced Christian rap, and lifting my hands in worship did nothing to help me be a servant to the hurting around me. Sure, I didn’t swear, drink, or party, but I wasn’t affecting anyone with things that actually matter. Eventually, this shallow version of faith dwindled, and I had absolutely nothing to show for it at the end of the day.
We need to engage youth to pursue a more sustainable faith and relationship with God – something that will stand the test of time and is intimately in tune with His heart for the world. Faith without deeds is dead. This world needs to see our faith from our deeds through service. Youth ministry has veered towards a self-centered mindset, where the music sounds great, and people come just to see their friends and hangout. And although all these things are great, we need to encourage young people to become more involved in serving their community in tangible and practical ways. Rather than have yet another youth encounter service, or attend yet another Acquire the Fire, get your teens geared up to serve the homeless, visit retirement homes, volunteer at youth service centres and after-school programs. Only in seeing the brokenness of the world first-hand will their faith be challenged, exercised, grow, and hopefully remain balanced and strong throughout young adulthood and the rest of life, rather than dipping down to nothing.
In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman states that 57% of young adults between the ages of 18-29 with a Christian background say they are less active in church today compared to when they were fifteen. Although he goes on to state many reasons why this occurs, the overall message is that their faith was not sustainable. They began to have doubts in University, or they found church to be boring, or felt like the church was detached from their experiences or concerns.
I strongly believe that we can help curb these statistics by actively engaging our youth in ‘the real world’ right from the get-go. Skipping the world of smoke machines, hipster worship leaders, and tingly Holy Spirit butterflies. By relinquishing the power of Gospel to the world that desperately needs it, from the hands of passionate, vibrant young people, we can effect great change in our communities, our nation, and ultimately, the world.
Octavia Ahsan is a writer/blogger from Brampton, a suburb outside of Toronto, ON. In 2010 she received a Bachelors degree in Science from McMaster University, and founded a charitable organization called CompassionActs. In March 2012 she founded The PODIUM, where she also serves as the Editor-in-Chief. She frequently writes for MilkandHoneyMedia.co.uk, a popular Christian girls blog based out of London, England, as well as her personal blog site OctaviaFaith.com. In her spare time, she likes to hunt for the best burrito in Toronto (Chipotle Mexican Grill holds the spot so far).