This article is not about semantics, it’s about language. The language we use as believers, be you reformed, evangelical or pentecostal, can be confusing, especially to a young person. The discussion around the kind of religious language we use with young people is nothing new and I don’t think I’m breaking new ground. What I am trying to do is bring awareness, to youth workers specifically and believers generally, that our theological terms could be a barrier not only to authentic salvation but to long term discipleship.
I am also not trying to strip terms like church, testimony, or evangelism of their significance. I am trying to paint a picture with words making the imagery stick with a young person thereby making it more accessible and attainable.
Let me offer three phrases that are common to youth workers and a suggestion to reframe each ask.
Stop asking (begging) teens to invite their friends
We all want students to bring friends, but why? Is about having a larger youth group to boost our ego? I find that building a community is far more desirable to a young person than building a crowd. Building a community is also a better phrase for rural or small church youth minister If I say, “invite your friends” there are a good portion of your students who do not believe they have any friends so they are confused as to who to invite.
Instead: Do you know anyone who needs a community like this one?
I ask this question because it allows students imagine who they want whether they are friends not, whether they know each other or not. Yes, I want them to invite their friends, but I’d rather them invite whoever God puts on their heart.
Stop asking teens if they want to accept Jesus
I know, blasphemy, right? Heretic? If you say so, but we’ve been asking the same question for too long. Accepting Jesus is overused and lacks nuance. To many of the students who hear this, this means pray a prayer, feel good, move on. I believe many youth pastors hold on to this phrase because it’s low hanging fruit and easy to achieve.
I also believe it’s because youth pastors do not have a long term discipleship plan. It’s easy to count hands in the air, chairs in seats and bodies at the altar. What’s much hard is to count kids making hard choices daily. It’s easy to report in a staff meeting how many kids accepted Christ as Savior. It eases worries and it makes everyone feel like you’re doing a good job. Take a look at the altar pictures you took last summer. How many of those kids are following Jesus, and how many went to the altar for a good cry?
Instead: Do you want to follow Jesus?
Asking students to follow Jesus, is an unmistakable, quantifiable ask. It’s easy to pray a pray, it’s hard to follow Jesus. I believe if I ask the hard thing first, I’ll get more honest answers. Jesus was told no over and over again, but when someone said yes, they knew what they were getting into. I believe the disciples followed Jesus before they accepted him Check the bible. These young men who followed Jesus were scared, doubtful and clueless, yet, most of them kept following. Even up to the point when Jesus ascended, some still doubted (Matthew 28:17)
Just like believing in God is not the same as following, saying a prayer is not following Jesus. Do you want to follow Jesus cannot be confused with, “Would you like to be religious” or Would you like to be comfortable”. What is being asked is clear, concise and many will say no, but I believe it is better to get a no upfront and a yes later on when they’re ready rather than seeing a kid pray a prayer, have no understanding of the commitment they’ve been asked to make and ditch the faith a week after camp.
Stop asking teens to share their faith.
Now I’ve done it. Now I’m saying kids shouldn’t evangelize, right? Far from it. Which is easier for you to memorize, a list of items or a story. My guess is, a story. All it takes is someone saying something familiar that you can connect with and you say, “That reminds me of a story”.
Instead: Ask them to share their story about Jesus, their encounter with him.
When I say that I am asking kids to quit sharing their faith, I’m not talking about abandoning apologetics or to quit offering scripture to help a person now Christ better, I am saying that from the blind man, to the woman at the well to Nathaniel, stories are better than memorizing the six to steps to this or a some new evangelistic technique. You don’t have to memorize a story, you just tell it.
I’ve said these phrases over and over for many years and maybe it served a purpose, in it’s time but with kids bailing on the faith in record numbers, I would rather see fewer fake hands raised in short term and more real faith confessions in the long term.