'I am convinced that everyday all around us, potential heroes are waiting to be released. They are the teenagers in our youth groups and in our homes who profess a faith in Christ and are just waiting to be challenged to risk something for Him. Youth ministry expert, Paul Brothwick, suggests, "Today's Christian young people are just waiting for the church to give them something big, something dangerous, something risky to do."
'Jesus gives them just that. The mission. To rush into the flames of this hellish world and rescue their friends with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to free their friends who are Satan's prisoner's of war, locked in chains behind enemy lines.
That's what Dare 2 Share Ministries is all about… raising up heroes. It is time.'
So wrote Greg Stier, youth evangelist and trainer.
When I first heard about Greg's work among young people, I wanted to meet him. Not such an easy thing since he lives in the USA and I live near Watford. But what I'd heard about his work with Dare 2 Share Ministries from friends in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organisation was so exciting, so exhilarating, so in tune with my own hopes for my own kids, so radical in its belief in the power of the Gospel and so confident in the capacity of teenagers to actually live it and share it themselves, that, well, I was prepared to travel all the way to Luton to talk to him. Which, if you are familiar with Watford's relationship with Luton, may not be far in distance but is, in the psyche, a galaxy far, far away.
But first let me set a context.
Dangers amid the progress
In the last 20 years there have been fantastic strides forward in youth work in local churches. There's been a steady stream of increasingly impressive resources, a steady stream of people reflecting carefully about youthwork and an increasing demand from local churches for youthworkers themselves. But with the gains, there have also been losses and with the new models there have been dangers.
One of the major losses has been the steady disempowerment of the people who used to work with the young in the church – the 30-something, 40-something, 50 something people who weren't professionally trained but knew a thing or two about teaching and a thing or two about bringing up kids and who would tend to be around in the church not just for three to five years but for 15 to 20. Teens used to be discipled by people with ordinary jobs in the ordinary world, now they are increasingly being discipled by church-paid workers in jobs that very few of them will do.
This doesn't matter if the church community has a healthy theology of vocation. However, there is a danger that teens end up believing that the highest calling is to be a youthworker and the greatest good is to be done in the neighbourhood as opposed to the classroom. Easy to do, when so many adults feel that the highest calling is to be a pastor or missionary and the greatest good is to be done, not where they spend most of their time and have most of their relationships, but within a three mile radius of the church building.
This highlights another danger, that youthwork in the 21st century will be as marked by the sacred secular divide as much of the rest of the church was in the 20th. In other words, it will focus on kids in their leisure time, on helping them engage with films, movies and mobile phones but not with the ideologies that are presented to them everyday at school. So they will know how Shrek 2 might help them think about how to look deeper than the surface in choosing a life partner, but they will have no idea how to approach English Lit, Sociology, History, Geography or indeed Science from a biblical point of view.
With the advent of the professional youthworker, there also came the danger that the church as a whole and parents of teens in particular would feel that they couldn't do the discipling job, that we needed people who watched the same films, wore the same clothes, could bear to listen to the same music, and could actually get as far as Level 2 on a computer game. Adults, busy with longer work hours and longer commutes, ran the danger of delegating too much to the youthworker, whose job is surely not to take over the spiritual development of the young but simply to contribute to it.
With youthworkers there came another danger: the compartmentalisation of youthwork from the overall work of the church. "We have a youthworker now – let her/him get on with it." The problem here is that the most important people to address in successful youthwork are not the youth but their parents. Parents spend most time with their children, parents create the culture at home, parents are the primary model of godliness, and parents are meant to teach their children. But youthworkers on the whole have very little access to parents. Successful youthwork must be integrated into the overall pastoral/teaching programmes of the church.
Who's the Hero?
Finally, one of the dangers of church-based youthwork is that the youthworker's focus can easily be on getting teens into a programme and keeping them there, and getting themselves into schools to do assemblies. Both excellent things. But what about the teen as the hero? Which brings me to Greg Stier's work among teens. Because in Greg's work the teen is the hero.
Here's Greg's big idea.
Teenagers can share the Gospel with their friends.
Not such a big idea, you may say. But how many teenagers made commitments to Christ in your local church in the last year? When was the last time you even heard of a teenager sharing the Gospel with a school friend? In the USA the average church sees two commitments a year. The average teenage team trained by Greg sees eight to 10. Greg's been teaching thousands of teenagers how to do it and the result is that thousands of other teenagers have not only made commitments to Christ, but they've been incorporated into local churches. Greg's model doesn't bypass the local church. On the contrary, he sees the local church as vital. His is an inside out model – you begin with the people you have, and you disciple them. But you disciple them to be gospel-sharers, you disciple them to be people who invite their friends to the youth meeting. And you make the youth meeting fun, yes, interactive, yes, but you also include a Gospel presentation every time. How you do it, is up to you. But it's done. Every time. That's the youthleader's pledge.
The teenager's role is three-fold.
- To pray for their unsaved friends at least once a week in the context of one of the group meetings – Sunday school in the US, or the youth group;
- To dare to invite their friends to the youthgroup;
- To initiate a Gospel-conversation after the presentation with a question like: "Did what my youthleader said make sense to you?"
There are two key distinctives here. First, the local church youth group is not just there to encourage teens already in the church, it is intentionally designed to serve a missional agenda. Secondly, the hero is not the youthworker but the teenager. Dare to Share, as Greg calls the model, is not primarily an invitational model, where you invite your friends to the service and let the professional do the job. On the contrary, this is primarily an interactive model where the teen knows how to share the Gospel themselves, knows how to develop purposeful friendships with school friends, and knows how to work with a team of other friends who bring different skills to the evangelism team to maximise its effectiveness. Furthermore, the teen expects to be part of the follow-up. Is this different from what the teenagers in your church expect?
What Greg has seen is this: if there is one teenager in your church group who goes to a particular school then there is the potential to reach the whole school. His is a viral view of evangelism – the key is not the number of carriers but the potency of the virus. And for him the Gospel, the raw Gospel with its promise of abundant life now and in eternity through relationship with Christ, and its threat of hell, retains its power.
What Greg has also seen is this: if there is one teenager in your church group who goes to a particular school it is actually quite likely that there might be two. And that's the beginning of a team, of the possibility of a concerted, prayerful effort to develop relationships which are a platform for communicating the Gospel clearly. Greg's evangelism teams (e-teams) are structured round a diversity of gifts. The team is accountable to the youth leader who leads and feeds, and who acts as a resource for questions and support. The actual e-team, however, is led by a teenager, and requires three other key roles.
The 'leader' is the teenager is someone who models the evangelistic life and teaches others to do it too. Again, there is an enormous difference between watching a trained professional share the Gospel and watching a peer share the Gospel. When you see a trained professional do it, you say, "Well, that's their job, that's what they're trained to do but I haven't been to Bible College, I can't do that." But when you see a peer sharing the Gospel, whether that peer is a housewife, an electrician, a company director, then our response may be very different. We are much more likely to think, "Well, if she can do it, so can I."
The second role is the 'greeter' whose role is to reach out and follow-up. They are the person in the group who is really good at, yes, greeting people, who remembers people's names, who knows how to connect people to other people and to make people feel at ease. But it's also the person who follows up with other members on how guests responded to the evening and what might be a good next step.
The third role is the 'webcaster'. Their job is to provide evangelistic resources for the whole team, to research questions, to connect people together. The fourth role is the warrior, as in prayer warrior. And their job is to pray and to foster prayer for others.
Greg doesn't underestimate teenagers. He knows that they are smart, that they like a challenge, that they'd rather live a radical life than a comfortable one, he knows about their capacity to take initiative and the velocity at which they can acquire skills.
So why am I so excited about this? Because teenagers are finding Christ. Reason enough in itself. Yes. Because there may be lessons that UK youthworkers can glean from him? Yes. But also because Greg is the first person I've met who is doing with teenagers' ordinary day-to-day school life much of what I long for churches to do with adults:
- to give them a ministry where they spend their time
- to set up church structures to support the people's ministry where they are
- to train people for ministry where they are
- to create regular, intentional contexts for prayer for those who don't yet know Jesus
- to create contexts of support for the disappointments and joys of ministry where people are
Now, none of Greg's ideas may work in the UK – I leave that to the youth specialists to discern – but the real issue is how can we take his theological insights and work them out in the lives of our own teenagers? If not his way, then another.
Why am I excited about this? Because if we really did disciple a generation of teenagers who had learned a process-oriented, friendship-based, training rich, church-supported, prayerful, Gospel-confident model of ministry and evangelism and then took that into workplaces across our nation, the UK might be a very different place in 30 years time.