When asked to define what evangelism with young people looks like, many of us would describe stage based alter calls at summer festivals, confrontational conversations around faith or slightly cringe-worthy “God slots” at the Friday youth group.
We seem to have got caught on the idea that evangelism is the moment when we ask someone if they “want to say the prayer” and lost the idea that evangelism is about sharing our faith in an authentic way that helps people explore a relationship with Jesus for themselves. It’s a journey not a moment.
Coupled with this we have accepted a culture in church where in most people’s minds, success is measured in numerical growth and never has this been more true than the youth group! Why do we think that a group with 30 young people is 3 times as successful (or effective) as one with 10? Because of that, often we opt for groups with safe activities like dodgeball and hot chocolate, where we talk about holistic relationships and making good decisions. Inwardly we worry that if we talk about faith, we’ll frighten them off.
However, if we genuinely believe that we worship the living creator of the world and saviour of our souls, then surely our passion is to share this with the young people with whom we are working. Penn Jillette, one half of the Penn and Teller magic act, is an avowed atheist, but he said:
“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytise. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever… How much do you have to hate [them] to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
But for many of us taking that first step of overtly professing faith in our youth groups is scary. Often we lack imagination and come back to a 10 minute God slot, with an offer to “pray the prayer” at the end. Or we hand responsibility to Soul Survivor or Spring Harvest in the hope that our young people will go along, respond to the Gospel and we can start a discipleship group afterwards.
However, the more I listen to stories, the more I am convinced that what young people are looking for is to see if faith has any real impact on our lives; to see if it makes any difference day to day. I am also becoming more and more convinced that our two greatest tools for doing this are prayer and story.
Recently, I heard of a youth group who had axed their God slot. Instead they agreed that whenever any young person mentioned something that could be prayed for, they would pray for it. The idea was short, one sentence prayers, initiated from a throw away comment. Jonny tells you he’s been revising? Pray for his exams: “Dear God, I pray for Jonny’s exams. Help him not to get too stressed. Amen.” The result was that young people were being prayed for 10 or 20 times in a session. And guess what, they asked questions: “Do you actually think this works?” “Do you believe you’re actually talking to someone?” And when answers were seen to the prayers, the same young people came back, excited to pray more.
The other underused tool is story. By this I don’t mean the extraordinary testimony of the guy who used to be a heroin addict but God spoke to him in a burning light (although that’s an amazing story). I’m talking about the everyday story of what God has done in the last month. When we share the ways that we have seen God’s love in action, we introduce people to who God is.
Getting people in church to come and share their story is another great way of doing this. Ultimately people are relational. We want to enter into each other’s lives, get to know each other and find out what makes other people tick. Sharing stories of what God is doing in our lives opens the door to people wanting to know more and ultimately explore faith.
Both prayer and story are simple, relational and conversational. As models of sharing faith, they can be done by anyone and if young people don’t want to be prayed for or hear a story, they can say no. However, what we are looking to do is open the door to a conversation about how incredible it is to have a relationship with Jesus.