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Tuesday, October 15, 2002
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UNDERSTANDING AND REACHING THE UNCHURCHED TEEN: Helpful hints from the training seminar Jonathan taught at the West Coast Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention
By Jonathan McKee
October 15, 2002
following is a piece of a training that Jonathan gives to churches and
youth leaders around the U.S.
Burger King by my house just went out of business. Every time I went
in there, the people behind the counter were always rude and pre-occupied
with their own business. Many times as I was trying to order my combo
#3 with no pickles, the cashier would go and start arguing with the "fry
guy." Often customers would be waiting for service while the manager
was back there trying to resolve the most recent scheduling problems, or
employee strife. Well, it wasn't long before they were out of
forgot what they were there for.
They forgot that the whole reason that a fast food chain exists, isn't to be
concerned about what's going on BEHIND the counter. The whole reason
they exist is to provide food for the people out there, on the other side of
that can be true of the church today. We get so caught up with what's
going on inside the church walls, shepherding our own . . . that we forget
the people out there. We forget that one of the main reasons we still
exist on this planet is to "go and make disciples of ALL nations."
how do we reach those who aren't coming into the walls of the church?
How do we reach the "Unchurched?" Or more specifically, as youth
leaders, how do we reach the "Unchurched Teen?"
reach them, we first need to understand them.
The unchurched teen believes that all religious faiths have value.
Our society has raised a generation that is "tolerant" to all beliefs, and
consequently a generation that can't understand why all paths don't lead to
God. "Why can't both Scott and Reza be right? They're both
really nice guys!"
teens today have become universalist in belief. For example, 30% of
teens believe that all religions are really praying to the same God, they
are just using different names for God. (1999) *
role models express similar opinions. Spiderman's Kirsten Dunst said, "I
think a lot of people are losing their religion. Definitely.
Even me, I know that when I grew up, I used to go to church every Sunday,
and now it's become holidays. But I think as long as you have your own
thing, whether it's meditation?anything that centers you in life is good.
Do I pray? Yeah, I do."
- Actress Kirsten Dunst, Rolling Stone, May 23, 2002, p. 69.
The unchurched teen is highly spiritual but doesn't want something running
Christians of the day incorrectly assume that because the "unchurched" aren't
at church, that they must be athiests. In actuality, the majority of
the unchurched are very spiritual, yet don't want to give up control of
their life. They think "I believe in God - I just don't think a god
would mind me sleeping with my girlfriend!"
Barna, in his August 26, 2002 Barna Update, notes that we are "a nation
where most people call themselves "deeply spiritual" and where
four out of five adults say their religious faith is very important in their
in total, 83% of teens maintain that moral truth depends on the
circumstances, and only 6% believe that moral truth is absolute. (2001)
Only 13% of Americans still believe in the 10 Commandments. And just
7% of teenagers said their moral choices were based on biblical
role models are very clear on this issue as well:
"My grandma's very religious, and I went to Catholic school. But
I'm kind of an ex-Catholic now. I'm a spiritual person but I have
- Actor Josh
Hartnett responding to a question about religion from YM magazine, June
2002, p. 111.
still see hip-hop as a religion, but as a Buddhist sort of thing, not an
extremist, fundamentalist thing. It's a lens that I view everything
through: culturally, politically, ideologically . . ."
- Hip-hop monk Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, SPIN, July 2002, p. 97.
worship God. Religion and worship are two different things to me.
Religion is by the book. I think too many people rely on the textbook:
OK, it says to do this and it says to do that, so if I do this, this, and
that, then I still can go out and do wrong because I did this, this, and
that. God is my best friend. I talk to God every day. And
no one can tell me how to talk to God, not no imam, not no priest, not no
rabbi, no pastor."
- Hip-hop artist Eve quoted from the September/October 2002 issue of Complex
The unchurched teen doesn't know what Christianity is.
Two out of three
(67%) unchurched adults call themselves Christian (2000). Yet 46% of
the "unchurched" don't even know why we celebrate Easter. *
When we hear someone call themself a Christian, we've assumed they've
examined the Christian faith. We assume that they have given their
life to Jesus, the only way to God.
of the "unchurched" today view Christianity as a heritage, not a
relationship with God. I was with an "unchurched" student at his house
when the word "Christian" came up in our conversation. He quickly
responded, "Oh, I'm a Christian." I said, "Cool, when did you become a
Christian?" He looked confused and then hollered to his grandma in the
other room, "Grandma, am I a Christian?" She hollered back, "No, you're
unchurched students don't know what they are. As far as they know,
they are whatever Mom says!
of unchurched adults state that a good person can earn his or her way
into Heaven. (2000) *
out of five teens (61%) agree that "if a person is generally good,
or does enough good things for others during their life, they will earn
a place in Heaven (2000). *
1999, 82% of teens said they were Christian. *
The unchurched teen doesn't know what they believe.
Britney Spears tells the German magazine Cinema that she has a pretty clear
conception of God. In the great beyond, "everyone
is at peace and happy, and they all hop around from cloud to cloud. In
heaven you can see your grandparents and everyone you loved once again.
And an old man with a long white beard wanders around, that's God."
never forget a conversation I had with a senior in high school named "James."
James always argued against Jesus being the only way. He was drilling
me, questioning my beliefs, when I asked him, "James, what do you believe?"
He stopped for a moment and thought. Then he started to fumble out his
beliefs. "I think that there is a something out there- like a vapor or
something- that is in charge of everything. This vapor is powerful,
but lets us do our own thing. It doesn't care if we party or anything
like that- but it can help us if we want. But it also . . . I guess it
also sees who is good . . . but. . . you know . . ." then he stopped,
totally confused and said, "Does this sound stupid?"
of Americans have no philosophy in life. The "unchurched" we work with
might seem sure that they don't want Jesus, but they don't really know what
they want. They just want something to fill the emptiness. *
The unchurched teen is looking for something to fill the emptiness.
Years ago Madonna said the following in an interview: "I
have an iron will and all of my will has always been devoted to conquering
some horrible feelings of inadequacy. I'm always struggling with that
fear. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special
human being of worth and then I get to another stage and I think I'm
mediocre and uninteresting and worthless and I have to find a way to get
myself out of that again and again. My drive in life is from this
horrible feeling of being inadequate and mediocre and it is always pushing
me, and pushing me and pushing me. Because even though I have become
somebody, I still have to prove that I am SOMEBODY.
My struggle has never ended and it probably never will."
"unchurched" are looking for something. They are looking for answers,
but they don't think the church has it.
Boy George said, "On Sunday I attended
the christening of my year-old godson Michael,
and he was as restless as everyone else. The priest was a lovely man
with impeccable dress sense, but I was confused from the moment he took the
pulpit. Most of us only ever go to church for weddings and funerals,
so sticking to the Book is pointless...and what's the point of rattling on
about sin when most of us are doomed to eternal damnation? It doesn't
warm people to Christianity, it only makes them feel like hypocrites.
Worse still are the utterly depressing hymns. I'd like to see live
music, acoustic guitars, and percussion. Church should be a joyous and
liberating experience--[it] badly needs a facelift because it is God's
theatre on earth, and he should be packing them in. Amen."
-Boy George, London's Daily Mail, Feb. 23, 2000
"unchurched" unanimously agree that the church ISN'T sensitive to their
needs. We've got what they want, the only thing that will fill the
emptiness- a relationship with Jesus Christ. But how are they going to
ESSENTIALS TO REACH THE UNCHURCHED TEEN
If we are going to reach the "Unchurched," we need to know what students are
going through. Does that mean you have to own the new Eminem CD?
No, but it's good to be aware of what students are watching, listening to,
wanting, struggling with, and being surrounded with.
Apostle Paul was a great model of someone who reached the "unchurched."
He was very aware of what his audience was into. In Acts 17:23-25 (NLT)
he says, "for
as I was walking along I saw your many altars. And one of them had
this inscription on it?'To an Unknown God.' You have been worshiping
him without knowing who he is, and now I wish to tell you about him.
 "He is the God who made the world and
everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn't
live in man-made temples,  and human hands can't serve his needs?for
he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and
he satisfies every need there is."
was aware of his audience's beliefs and was familiar with their idols.
We should be aware of the idols that teens worship today.
can we stay current, without being corrupted by it? Good question.
Fortunately, there are some incredible brothers in Christ who's ministry is
keeping us current. Check out the following ministries that can help
you stay informed about teens, without having to submerge yourself in it:
Be sure to sign up for his free EUPDATE, a great youth culture newsletter.
the best way to stay current is to . . .
The best way to stay current is to get connected with "unchurched" students.
Get connected by simply going where the "Unchurched" are.
found that going on campus was one of the best places to do this. Now,
I admit, this can be a little intimidating at first. It's hard to walk
onto a campus wondering if any students will even talk to you. My
friend Rob runs a campus ministry reaching high school students and goes on
campus twice a week. He says that he often finds a student he knows,
walks up to this student's friends and introduces himself, "Hi, I'm John's
parole officer, I need all your names!" He says that always breaks the
ice real well.
ways to connect with the "unchurched" are:
the unchurched means getting to know unchurched people.
Saddleback's Kurt Johnston said something I really liked in my interviews
with ministries that are actually reaching the "unchurched." He said, "The
deal we make with students is basically this: You go out on a limb and
share Christ and invite a friend to church and we'll make sure the limb
doesn't break out from under you...we'll make you proud you took the chance."
is important. Most unchurched students aren't going to want to go to a
place where they feel like they don't belong, or where they are just plain
bored! Creative programming, events, discussions, and teaching can
make or break an outreach ministry. How are they going to hear the
Gospel if we can't even get their attention?
why youth leaders want to always be on the lookout for new resources they
can use. That's what we've dedicated our web site to, helping youth
workers reach youth and giving them the resources to do it. That's why
my new book, THE TOP 12 RESOURCES YOUTH WORKERS WANT is selling so well-
youth workers want the resources and know-how to program effectively for 21st
century youth: http://www.thesource4ym.comhttp://www.jonathansresources.com/Books/default.aspx
Do you remember the old Far Side Tales that use to be in the Sunday comics?
I love the Far Side Tale that has the caption "How birds see humans."
The picture is a birds-eye (literally) view looking down on humans.
Each human has a big target on their heads!
think that's how Satan sees youth workers. There are big targets drawn
on us- because he knows that if he can cause us to mess up- then he can
bring down a ton of students with us.
with and seeking to understand the "unchurched teen" doesn't mean SELLING
OUT! It doesn't mean starting to watch MTV, singing the songs as you're
driving in your car, letting a little bad language slip out now and then,
and letting our humor digress to that of the students we're reaching.
Loving students doesn't mean digressing to their level. It means
loving them for who they are, but loving them too much to let them stay
be afraid to talk about Jesus. Don't be afraid to let them see Christ
in you, in your words, and in the way you treat others. Remember 1
Peter 3:15-16 (NIV), "But
in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an
answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the HOPE that you
have. But do this with gentleness and respect,  keeping a clear
conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior
in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."
can we give an answer to students who ask about the HOPE they see in our
lives . . . if they don't see it in our lives?
have the incredible privilege and the incredible responsibility of
representing Christ and making a difference in the life of the "unchurched
teen." And you might be the only image of Christ a student ever sees.
Jonathan McKee is president of The Source for Youth Ministry and
author of the new book "Do They Run When They See You Coming? Reaching Out to Unchurched
Teenagers." (CLICK HERE FOR
THE BOOK) Jonathan speaks
and trains across the country and provides
free online resources, training, & ideas for youth workers at
to the following sources for the many of the statistics and youth
culture facts in the above article:
Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary: How to Reach Friends and
Family Who Avoid God and the Church, Strobel, Lee http://parable.com/parable/item.asp?sku=0310375614&rid=792
MODELS THAT WORK
Ministries Reaching the Unchurched
this really work? Last week we told you about ministries who are
actually reaching the unchurched. The following are the results of
our interviews: http://www.thesource4ym.com/howdoi/howothersreach.asp
KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!
If you have any other youth ministry ideas you want to share, please
email meat firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan R. McKee
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