There’s a Hole In Our Mission
When I was 16 years old, a knuckleheaded college student named Joe asked me to help him lead a middle school Young Life team in my town. We played guitar to Goo Goo Dolls songs, we had epic events, we spent lunch time in middle school cafeterias and taught kids how much Jesus loved them. I couldn’t have known at the time, but those wild days of over-nighters and deep talks over pizza were opening a door in my life that would help form my entire theology of missional discipleship.
My sophomore year of college was a time of spiritual renewal in my life, and God let me see 7 friends come to Christ over a 2 month period. I was trying to figure out how to teach these new believers the way of Jesus, while at the same time (to be honest), I was trying to learn the way of Jesus myself. I was a part of the Cru group on my campus so I went to our storage closet and found a tattered copy of a book that intrigued me. I look back on that moment and I wonder how purposely God left that 15 year old book there, but it was a pivotal moment that would transform the trajectory of my life. It was The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman.
I loved that little book because it was the first book I read that looked at the whole Jesus. Not just his words and the stories, interpreting them with an interpersonal lens…but Coleman did a masterful job of getting into the nitty gritty of the way of the kingdom. He demonstrated the how of Jesus, the ways that he chose, challenged, equipped, sent and multiplied followers by imparting to them the way of God’s kingdom. I wanted to make disciples who made disciples….moreover I wanted to be a really good disciple of my rabbi Jesus.
There is a hole in our mission…and it’s because we have not paid attention to our rabbi Jesus.
The Hole In Our Mission
When you look through the library of missional authors, those who have shaped the life of the church in such a way that was unimaginable a generation ago, they have written primarily about reaching adults. They have imagined Jesus with a group of 30-something married couples sitting in coffee shops learning and teaching the way of Jesus to other adults.
While this follows a much larger trend sociologically of the extension of adolescence among Millenials and Gen Z to late 20’s and beyond, let’s take a look at Jesus and the rabbinic model of the 1st century.
The average student of Hebrew school in the first century would finish their education at 13 with the bar mitzvah. Those who were exceptional students would be invited to learn the yoke of the rabbis as they lived with them and followed them for 3-7 years until they were ready to teach others their yoke (set of teachings, way of living). Jesus’ disciples were almost all called as 14-20 year olds.
Peter was the only married disciple. Only he and Christ paid the temple tax that was required of all those over 20 years old. And the average life expectancy in the first century was 35 years old. Because Jesus started his ministry at 29, we imagine his disciples were his peers. They were not.
The method of Jesus was teaching teenagers the way of the kingdom and releasing them to make disciples of the nations. This is not a plea to do more evangelism among kids and youth. The church loves evangelism because it doesn’t require much of them. Events, popcorn, a low-paid college student and a movie screen? It’s a low bar of introduction to the gospel. Jesus didn’t just evangelize the next generation, he made a movement out of the next generation.
The Next Generation
This hole in our mission is a fatal flaw to the church. Look behind us at the next generation. James White and Barna say that 10% of Gen Z is connected to any faith community. 10%.
I think that number is high for my city.
Look at the investment in youth ministry over the last 15 years. National parachurch organizations that started in the 20th century are declining in reach and engagement like many institutions. In our city of 800,000 we can find around 30 full-time youth workers. For 80,000 teenagers.
We must recapture the Jesus way and see our primary mission as the evangelization and discipleship of the next generation. We must turn the attention of the entire church not just outward, not just to their workplaces and book clubs….but to where the next generation resides. In their schools, on the pitch, in digital spaces, in our neighborhoods and in our families.
The way of Jesus is to prioritize reaching the next generation.
So what do we do?
It feels overwhelming. The need is enormous, the task is out of our reach, and it will require skills we don’t possess as the church, but it is our only option to see the gospel move in our generation.
Here are a few ideas to start the conversation:
- Missionaries start with the work of anthropology. Start by learning the life and rhythms of the teenagers in your life. Let them teach you about their friends. Ask where they hang out online. What are their favorite YouTube channels? Which TikTok dance are they learning? Where do their friends hang out? Be students of their culture.
- Commit to making disciples of the next generation as senior leaders. If your church sees you mentoring teenagers, and you challenge them to do the same, then you have the moral authority to challenge them to do the same.
- Invest your best people in the work. Instead of grooming your best leaders for preaching, prepare them in discipleship by bringing them along with you as you reach teenagers.
- Learn from the experts. Get together with your local Young Life, FCA, YWAM, or Cru High School Leaders and volunteer with their organizations to learn how to be missionaries to teenagers.
- Discover creative ways to engage with kids and teenagers in your community where their deepest needs are. Our church has developed a sports and arts camp concept madeforthiscamp.com to help churches reach the next generation. We need to be just as creative in reaching the next generation that helps kids discover how much God loves them. (Use the code STADIA for 50% off the digital pass.)
Preaching, finances, communications, elder meetings- they are all going to call for your attention because they are noisy, but they are not mission critical. The kingdom can go forward without any of those things. The way of Jesus will be lost to the next generation if you don’t make space to walk with teenagers, shoulder to shoulder in gospel work.
A Golden Opportunity
I am now 38 years old with 4 kids of my own. I still lead a Wyldlife (YL Middle School) team in my neighborhood. As a senior pastor with a busy schedule, I hang out with 13 year olds and hear their stories. I plan less over-nighters in my 30’s, but the mission hasn’t changed. Young men and women I trained as missionaries in their college years are now leading ministries in our church plant.
This open space is a golden opportunity for the church. Teenagers in America by and large have not been introduced to Jesus. When we share our faith with them, we are their first experience with faith, there’s less knowledge and less baggage. Watching them discover the beauty of Jesus and the power of His kingdom to bring life and transformation is a refreshing reminder that Jesus actually knew what He was doing, and we can do it too.
Robert Frazier is married to Malia, father to 4 beautiful kids, a church planter at Redemption Hill in Boise, Idaho. He is the co-founder of The City Network, a church planting and revitalization network. Co-founder of The Syndicate, a micro-church movement. And in his spare time runs a small marketing firm www.solidcreative.media