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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

The following is a piece of a training that Jonathan gives to churches and youth leaders around the U.S. 

A 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 business. 

I know why. 

They 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 the counter.

Sadly, 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."

So 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?"

To reach them, we first need to understand them.


1.  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!" 

Many 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) *

Teens 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.

2.  The unchurched teen is highly spiritual but doesn't want something running their life!
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!"

George 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 life."

Yet, 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 principles." *

Teen 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 minimal religion."
- Actor Josh Hartnett responding to a question about religion from YM magazine, June 2002, p. 111.

"I 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.

 "I 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 magazine, p.94.

 3.  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.

Most 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 a Presbyterian!"

Many unchurched students don't know what they are.  As far as they know, they are whatever Mom says!

  • 64% of unchurched adults state that a good person can earn his or her way into Heaven. (2000) *

  • Three 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). *

  • In 1999, 82% of teens said they were Christian. *

 4.  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."

I'll 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?"

51% 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. *

5.  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."

The "unchurched" are looking for something.  They are looking for answers, but they don't think the church has it.

Singer 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

The "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 get it?


1.  Stay Current:
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.

The 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.
    [24] "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, [25] 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."

Paul was aware of his audience's beliefs and was familiar with their idols.  We should be aware of the idols that teens worship today.

How 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.

But the best way to stay current is to . . .

2.  Stay Connected:
The best way to stay current is to get connected with "unchurched" students.  Get connected by simply going where the "Unchurched" are.

I 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.

Other ways to connect with the "unchurched" are:

  •  go to football games, basketball games, etc.

  •  coaching

  •  be a campus yard duty

  •  visit teens in prison

  •  home visits

Reaching the unchurched means getting to know unchurched people.

3.  Stay Creative:
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."

Programming 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?

That's 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.com

4.  Stay Clean:
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! 

I 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.

Identifying 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 there.

Don't 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, [16] keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."

How 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?

You 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

Thanks 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

Ministries Reaching the Unchurched

Does this really work?  Last week we told you about ministries who are actually reaching the unchurched.  The following are the results of our interviews:

If you have any other youth ministry ideas you want to share, please email me

God Bless!
Jonathan R. McKee

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