This past June, over 750 youth, youth workers, and youth pastors gathered at the 24th Global NYI Convention held in 9 regional sites around the world. During that time, they were divided into caucuses by delegate type (youth, lay, and ministerial), and asked to share in small groups about their experiences with evangelism, discipleship, and leadership development. This allowed NYI delegates to connect with and learn from one another, but it also gave NYI a unique opportunity to hear directly from youth and youth leaders from across the Church of the Nazarene. Their conversations–particularly around the topic of evangelism–were inspirational, educational, thought-provoking, and challenging. Here are a few of the many insights on re-thinking evangelism that we gathered from their responses:
Making Events Count
Occasionally, NYI leaders will talk about the need to move away from an “event-driven culture.” This rationale could come from a concern that large amounts of resources and energy are often poured into events that have a short-term effect on students’ lives. However, the responses from our youth, lay, and ministerial delegates showed a largely favorable attitude toward events at the local, district, field, and regional levels, particularly when it comes to evangelism. In fact, some of the most frequent responses from the evangelism delegate caucus were stories and insights related to events.
So perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to do away with events altogether, but rather to make them count and have a lasting influence.
Events that are done well can have a positive impact both on students currently in your ministry and new students that you are attempting to evangelize. Or, as one youth delegate put it, “youth events are used for personal spiritual growth and outreach.”
It could be that young people are more likely to invite their friends to a concert, retreat, game night, or camp than they are to initiate a conversation about their faith. Through events, teens can introduce others to Christ in a low-pressure and fun-filled environment. As one participant reflected, many of the field events hosted on our university campuses are a “great outreach to people who would never come to church.” Others shared stories of district teen camps that were able to “reach out to those who do not have a church background.”
It is important to note that not every event has to be a huge, grand experience. Small events were mentioned by delegates just as often as large-scale initiatives. BBQs, open gym nights, flag football tournaments, community service projects, and local concerts are all smaller events that have just as much evangelistic opportunities as bigger trips and experiences. Some districts have even taken steps to scale down their events to make the cost more accessible for a greater number of students.
Of course, to have a successful event, follow-up is a key component that should not be overlooked. Be sure to gather names and phone numbers for everyone that attended your event. Over the next week, take time to write notes or send text messages to new students that came for the very first time. After a retreat, camp, or conference, prepare a devotional guide that students can take home and use on their own over the next several weeks. Consider creating a similar resource for parents to use alongside their students in order to help commitments for Christ made at events last for the long-term.
There is a reason why events have such a huge response in youth ministry: it’s because they work. Begin to think about how to best capitalize on the events already coordinated by your district or local community. Make sure to spend time not only on the initial planning of the event but also on important follow-up pieces to continue to reach out to those who attended. Encourage your students to bring their friends and begin making connections with those you might not reach through traditional church programming.
Evangelism Through Service
One of the common traits of Generation Z (those born after the mid-1990s) is their love of social justice and their heart for service. Even teens that are not involved in a church have an innate desire to do right in the world. Delegates at this summer’s convention echoed these findings; particularly, the youth delegates made a strong connection between evangelism and service and reflected on the positive ways their group came together for service projects.
Because of this, one of the best ways to reimagine evangelism is to incorporate it into community outreach and service. For example, some students may be turned off by a traditional church setting, but would happily accompany your youth group to serve meals to the homeless. In fact, as one of the ministerial delegates at convention put it, “Many of this generation don’t see the church making enough of a difference in issues of social justice.” A unique way to draw in those of younger generations is to break that stigma and begin making an impact in your local community and the greater world.
Once you have connected with their passion for service, you can begin to reveal the reason why we as followers of Jesus serve others: out of our love and gratitude to God and our desire to build God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.
One delegate caucus participant noted the need to have “the whole congregation be involved to model [service] as a church.” Evangelism through service cannot be relegated to simply a youth group activity; it requires the efforts of your whole church body. When students (and adults) in your community see your congregation making a difference in their world, they will be drawn to your church, and ultimately toward Christ.
Some of the examples of evangelism through community service that we received from the delegate caucus responses include creative ideas such as:
- Partnering with local elementary schools to get involved in tutoring, meeting student needs, or volunteering in classrooms
- Visiting the elderly in the hospital or nursing homes around holidays
- Connecting with refugee resettlement programs in your city
- Hosting a “diaper drive” to collect diapers and wipes for a local diaper bank
- Passing out water bottles at local races and cheering on the runners
- Sponsoring a food pantry at your church to pass out groceries to people in need
Youth love to serve. They are eager to meet the needs of the world. Give them the opportunity to reach out to others, and discover the many ways you can, in turn, reach out to them.
Returning to Prayer
The final way to reimagine evangelism did not come from our delegate caucuses; at least, not directly. We were surprised to find a lack of emphasis on prayer surrounding evangelism strategies and methods. Perhaps this is because we always assume that prayer is a part of everything we do in youth ministry. But rethinking evangelism may mean that we can no longer make that assumption, and we must set aside intentional times of prayer and seeking out the Lord’s presence. As one youth minister pointed out, “We aren’t always good at waiting for the Lord’s timing and plan. Pray, wait, listen, obey!”
Our events and service opportunities merely provide space for the Holy Spirit to work in someone’s life by pulling them out of their normal, everyday routines. But we need to bathe those events in prayer and trust in God’s prevenient grace that is already at work in teenagers’ lives. In the words of one delegate, we must “really believe and communicate the power of prayer, and not just the ritual side of it.”
Even with the best planning and the most creative evangelism strategies, there is so much we cannot do ourselves and have to leave in God’s hands. Because of that, prayer should never be an afterthought to evangelism, but rather the starting place for any of our evangelistic efforts.
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