Youth Ministries: Confessions of a Youth Evangelist

It was the right idea, but the focus was wrong.

I worked for more than a decade with an organization that focused on sharing the good news about Jesus with teenagers. It was a privilege to work with people who face up to the challenge of engaging teens in the ever-changing youth culture. I think we did some good work. But later I wondered if I need to look at my approach toward sharing Jesus with young people—or any age group, for that matter.

Organizations and para-church ministries that specialize in youth evangelism use a combination of relational connections, events and programs to interact with teens. I was trained, and I have trained others, to extend grace to non-believing young people by spending time, listening to and developing a trusting relationship with them. The goal then is to match the young person’s story to God’s story and introduce them to Jesus. My experience showed me that this is a grace-filled, effective way to share the gospel.

Okay, so where is the problem? Actually, I think there are two. One is a wrong component, and the other is a missing component. The wrong component is using the relationship as a means to an end. The missing component is that there is no acknowledgement of the presence and power of Jesus already at work in the encounter.

People are not projects

Since all humans are children of God, relationships have inherent value and must be handled with care and respect. Relationships are to be honored and cherished for the sake of the relationship. They are not to be developed and used as a means to an end, as if the relationship had no value unless it led to the goal I had in mind for it.

Leadership guru John Maxwell taught me several years ago that leadership is summed up in one word — “influence.” I embraced the idea that if I made the effort to love sacrificially over a period of time, and if I demonstrated a life of love, joy, peace and so on, eventually I would win the right to share my well-rehearsed gospel presentation with others. This approach was all about influence, leverage and presentation. It sounds like a sales scheme, and it felt like one as well.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21,

From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As one evangelist to another, Paul tells me that I represent Jesus and I have the pleasure of proclaiming the good news that God through Christ destroyed the scorecard of human sin and urges everyone to accept and receive what he has already done for them.

This way of looking at relationships is very different from my old approach. I can now look at my fellow human beings not with the traditional “saved group/lost group” paradigm, but rather as people God already loves and for whom Christ has already died, risen and ascended. God is for humanity; he is pulling for us, and his presence and power is all around us! Evangelism is not a matter of us earning the right to be heard, but rather, of Jesus making his appeal through us.

Jesus on display

Paul wants us to know that Jesus is personally present in every human interaction. In my experience, I have found three basic types of human interaction:

  • Meaningful discussions with substance,
  • Exchanges of simple business or pleasantries.
  • Conflicted dialogues often plagued with miscommunication and hurt feelings.

It is much easier to see Jesus at work in the first kind, but I am becoming more aware of his presence in all three. How is Jesus alive in me empowering me to respond in all three kinds of encounter with love, care and wisdom?

I find myself prayerfully asking the Lord, “What was that all about? Where were you in that? What were you working out?” This practice is making the presence and power of Jesus so much clearer, and I find myself joining him in his ministry in more specific ways.

My old approach toward evangelism is not necessarily evil or wrong, and I believe that God worked with it and through it. But I do believe that it was incomplete, and that the sense of truly seeing who Jesus is and where he is at work is essential to a fuller understanding and practice of healthy youth evangelism.

Jesus has helped me value all relationships, and he has set me free to trust him to work and move in people’s lives. I no longer need to spend energy leveraging my influence so that I can offer the gospel as some kind of sales pitch. I can now rejoice and participate in the reality that Jesus is alive, present and on the move!

Author: Greg Williams

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