Is it still possible to evangelize high school teenagers by simply inviting them to attend church and youth group?
Perhaps now better than ever before! But you may need to think critically about how you do so.
As with all effective missionaries across the centuries, one of the most difficult tasks for any faithful, evangelically-minded Christian includes contextualizing the surrounding culture and learning the language of the indigenous people groups.
For the sake of my vocation, along with many of who read this blog, that means... adolescents.
And let's be honest, the language of our "indigenous" :) is quite unfamiliar to anyone 25 years and older, or essentially, anyone who is older than the Digital generation. Such words that I hear on a regular basis include, "wet" (meaning: cool), "wash" (meaning: whatever), "finna" (meaning: going to), among others. How these words became part of the regular lexicon of teenagers still baffles my mind. Seriously, who made up 'finna?' I recently added the word to my computer dictionary in order to make the red squiggly line disappear.
Yet, even amidst words that do not make sense and a culture fading away from the pillars of morality and the tenets of Christianity, it seems from my observations that right now still may be a better time than ever before to invite teenagers to church.
Whereas previous generations leaned heavily upon widely held societal truths as the weight for sharing the Gospel, it seems that adolescents and emerging adults more than any other prior generation embrace personal felt needs as the entry points for relationship and faith.
I base my observations upon modern versus postmodern ideals. Modernism holds onto an overarching, meta-narrative as its core ideal for story, while post-modernism roots the narrative of culture within each person's unique worldview of life and experience.
One of the hallmark traits of teenagers and 20-somethings is the role of emotions. According to teenagers and 20-somethings, the way a person feels dictates that person's reality, not necessarily fact or the collective belief of a group. If you feel a certain way, then that is your reality. If you do not like something, then so be it, regardless of how others may feel about it. If you want to do something, regardless of whether or not it's permissible, then do it, if you feel like it.
The worldview of a teenager all boils down to the dichotomy of truth between feelings versus the concrete. And the majority of the time, feelings determine reality.
This makes teaching the Sermon on the Mount tricky to teenagers, but what better starting point for sharing the timeless stories of the Gospels.
Case in point: this past summer, I taught on the story of the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried him with her hair. Afterward, I invited my teenage students to wash one another's feet. As they did, I witnessed a couple of Freshman girls dry each other's feet with their hair. To this day, that scene remains one of the most powerful scenes of my career, as well as one of the most emotive.
Teenagers identify emotion with profundity.
Truly, what better entry point for talking about faith than through the lens of felt needs and experience?
This may mean wading through the narcissism of adolescents in order to find that entry point, but I would much rather engage a teenager on matters of faith rooted in a relationship than arguing an ideal or truth. There is a place for that, but typically, not with postmodern, post-Christian teenagers.
So, given the current make-up of this current generation, what does evangelism look like, and how ought one invite someone to church?
I keep my ears open for the 3 "Sucks." I have trained myself to hear the word "suck" and respond with an invitation to church! Seems silly, but hear me out...
Most teenagers live within 3 spheres of life: family, friends, and school. These three spheres bear the most weight of an adolescent's life, so when I recognize a felt need expressed within these spheres - often through the words of "This Sucks" - then I respond by inviting them into a different kind of reality, a place where a teenager can experience a different kind of emotion.
Like you, I believe that church can be that place. It was for me, just read my Biography. I am sure it was for you. Jesus describes a different kind of reality when the community of the redeemed gathers together - the kind where one experiences peace, salvation, and reconciliation to the creator! Tell me, how can these experiences not compel a teenager toward belief?
I love hearing the words, "This Sucks," from a teenager or 20-something. It means that I am one step closer toward hearing a true felt need being expressed. In fact, I long to hear a teenager say that something sucks, for little do they know, they just opened a door to hearing the Good News of Christ!
QUESTION: What sucks in the lives of your teenagers, and how can you respond in such a way that leads to a conversation about Christ?