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Youth Ministry in the New Testament

We are rightfully concerned about the shortage or absence of youth and young couples in our church. It is disturbing to note that most of the people in our services are over 60 and very few members are under 30. We always have two nursery workers on hand, but there is often no child to care for. I cannot comment on attendance in Junior Church, AWANA, Youth Meetings and Sunday School classes, but it is apparent that attendance is down compared to past years. This should be of great concern to all of us.

Out of curiosity, I typed in the word “youth” into my Bible search program. It only appeared five times in the New Testament and three of those references were gospel reports of the same incident, the rich young ruler who declared, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.” Another was a statement of Paul who said, "My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews." The third and last instance is in Paul’s letter to Timothy in which he says, "Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity."

I typed the word “young” into the box and got 31 references. The first seven were about the child Jesus. The 8th and 9th verses are in reference to the rich young ruler. Other references are of a girl out of whom Jesus cast devils and the son of Jairus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Three references are to Paul’s nephew and two verses mentioned a youth who fell asleep and fell from a window while Paul preached, who was brought back to life. Two verses refer to the pallbearers who carried Ananias and Saphira to their graves. Two verses each in Titus 2 and I John are admonishments to young women and young men. Other references are to Peter, Paul, Mark, an angel, pigeons, a donkey and the forced abortion of Jews in Egypt.

Only one reference could possibly be considered a reference to youth ministry, and that verse is for many difficult to understand. Acts 2:17 reads, "And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams."

“Modern Youth”
When you hear people mention the words, "modern youth" or "kids today," you can bank on the speaker being over 60 and that the words don't have a very flattering ring to them. Members of each generation almost always feel that theirs is the best or at least superior to former generations.

Ephesians 4:11-16 paints a beautiful picture of godly fellowship in the church. "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love."

Only an English teacher could find fault with that statement. It is what they call “a run-on sentence.” In this passage we find a list of spiritually mature Christians who all have a singular God-given objective in the church. They seek to build up the church as the unified body of Christ. They are teaching, counseling, leading, perfecting and edifying "for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." There is not a hint of division in this church. This is New Testament discipleship as it should be! Today, many churches have three services, a traditional service, a contemporary service and Junior Church.

So far, I have underscored the positive aspects of discipleship, but Paul also lists the negative, "...that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive." The church is like a military base, preparing and equipping believers for battle in this evil world. Satan's primary aim is to weaken, corrupt, mislead and distract believers. Satan doesn't attack the unsaved; they are already in his camp. He attacks believers, and the most vulnerable are young Christians.

A church that is not actively and continually making disciples of those who receive Christ, is not fulfilling its purpose. Discipleship is most successful in a fellowship, but unfortunately, fellowship in many so-called New Testament churches is largely limited to extracurricular activities.

When watching TV, interaction with the persons on the screen is impossible, but you can at least have fellowship with members of your family, ask questions or discuss the program with them. You can’t even do that in most church functions, which involve sitting in rows, looking at a speaker or listening to musicians.

Most churches now have no ministry whatsoever that involves all or most believers. In fact, it is only in recent years that church ministries have become specialized. In past centuries, churches were more like those described by Paul in the above text. There were ordained ministers for different situations and gifts of the Holy Spirit which helped and enabled those who served, but there were no specific age groups or classes of Christians. Today many churches not only have groups according to age and sex, but also for singles, students, divorcees, widowed, new believers, the deaf and so on.

All that diversification need not be wrong and can even meet real needs, but in my opinion, there must be a time and place in the local church that brings all believers together for fellowship. Of all organizations, the church especially, should be able to bridge gaps and encourage interaction between Christians.

We raise puppies for The Seeing Eye, the world's largest provider of guide dogs for the blind. Puppy raisers in a given area meet monthly in clubs and do things together on a regular basis. We try to expose the dogs to every kind of situation that they may encounter after being matched with a blind person. We also do demonstrations in schools and at fairs in order to educate the general public about guide dogs and how to act around them. We walk through shopping malls, attend ball games, ride on trains, ferries and even do practice boarding at a cooperating airport. In club meetings, we rehearse commands, give each other advice and swap dogs so they get used to different handlers. If someone goes on vacation, another club member volunteers to puppy-sit. Because we all use the same commands and have the same rules, there are no problems with this. There are usually around a dozen puppy raisers in a club between 12 and 80 years of age, yet we all learn from each other, help each other, and enjoy each other’s company. Where else can you find that? Certainly not in many churches!

Why Compartmentalize?
In most evangelical and fundamental churches, people are divided into groups according to age, marital status, sex and personal interests. I understand the thinking behind this, but have found that true fellowship often crosses such boundaries and may even be enhanced in mixed groups. I personally suspicion that one of the major reasons for separating adults and young people is to avoid conflicts rather than overcome and manage them.

Muslims live in terror of doing or saying something that could anger their clerics, and questioning any teaching of Islam can be deadly. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are forbidden to read anything that is critical of their religion. Adherents are encouraged to be completely devoted, yielded and committed to their religion, meaning of course, the religious system and its leaders as God’s or Allah's earthly representatives. Catholics encourage people to confess to the priest and pray to saints or to Mary, because God is too busy to have time for the common people.

These religions demand conformity and offer rituals rather than encourage personal faith, but are our "gospel preaching churches" much different? Most church activity takes place in pews which are not conducive to fellowship, let alone teaching. There is little opportunity to ask questions or discuss matters that are unclear. Leaders get nervous when a follower asks too many questions. They want followers to accept their message without question and discourage discussion and questioning. Personal belief and faith are thus discouraged.

Two hot button issues in fundamental churches are music styles and Bible versions. In both cases, the main criteria is preference and dialog is seldom permitted and usually not welcome. The attitude of many is "our way or the highway." I have heard pastors actually tell those who asked "Why?" that they should look for another church.

Man’s creativity remained after sin entered the world, but it has been consistently misused to do only evil continually (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 140; Proverbs 6:12-18). Men and beasts began to seek fellowship in different ways. Wolves travel in packs in search of prey while sheep seek refuge from wolves in flocks. Men join together to make war or to gain power and wealth. Men and women seek to satisfy their own fleshly lusts in ways that are contrary to the Creator’s plan.

I have been in homes of poor people where there was much laughter and there were fresh flowers on the table. Parents and children helped each other, worked, worshipped and did fun things together.

I have also been in homes of wealthy families in which there was every conceivable luxury, but little cooperation and togetherness. The silk flowers were nice to look at, but imitations. Family members went their separate ways and did their own thing. They seldom ate meals together and communication was minimal, with more criticism and complaining than uplifting conversation and laughter. This is also a portrait of many churches.

Where people keep fellowship with God, they can enjoy healthy personal relationships with each other. Not a few pastors seem to feel threatened by the fellowship of believers. In order to maintain respect in the community and avoid being accused of partiality in the congregation, they remain aloof and avoid personal relationships. And they don’t like it much when members seek or enjoy fellowship that is not under their control. As a result, the church becomes micro-managed. Individual initiative, creativity and even serious questions are stifled.

Missions is where friendship comes into play. Many seek to establish relationships through friendships (social media!). Christians see friendships as potential for fellowship. Friendship is the human attempt to accomplish what fellowship does in God’s strength. Friendships fail when human resources are exhausted but fellowship can bridge seemingly impossible chasms. When a Christian seeks to befriend someone, they also hope they can introduce that person to Jesus. When both are believers, they seek to honor Christ rather than self. The result is fellowship and not just friendship.

“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).

In 1970, we started a youth ministry in the industrial city of Linz, with a population of about a quarter million. We formed the few young believers in the church into a team and began praying, studying God’s Word together and discussing possible ways to reach big city kids for Christ. Before long there were about 12 to 15 of us and the general consensus was that we should create a place where we could invite kids and where they would feel welcome. We not only studied God’s Word, we also studied church history. When the youth learned about the catacombs in Italy (actually an underground graveyard), in which early persecuted Christians met secretly, one of them said, “Let’s build a youth center and name it “The Catacomb.”

The enthusiasm was spontaneous and ideas came pouring forth. The Baptist church offered a large cellar room next to the kitchen. One young man had just inherited an older building from his grandmother. He said that it was full of junk, but we might find things we could use. We offered to clean out the place free so it could be sold. We discovered a lot of things that we could use including an antique divan and some oriental rugs. There was a pile of wide boards in the cellar that were full of worms. We hauled them out, treated them to kill the worms, and planed the boards with a block plane. It was a tedious task, but after sanding and staining, they made lovely rustic tops for a dozen tables. A saw mill cut a large tree trunk into sections just the right height for tables. We bought other boards and made 24 rustic 2-person benches for the tables that were held together with wooden pegs. The girls bought cloth and foam rubber to make seat cushions. We fastened weathered boards together to make rustic beams on the ceiling.

The church choir director was a Russian immigrant and a gifted artist. When he saw the enthusiasm of our youth, he suggested painting murals on the walls such as those seen in Egyptian pyramids. He found and copied drawings of workers carrying tools, stones and other materials to build the pyramids that some experts believe depict Jewish slaves. Other church members also volunteered their services. A house painter offered to paint the walls in preparation for the murals and when he saw an unused room adjoining the youth center, he suggested making it into a prayer room. A welder in the church made cylinder shaped light fixtures of sheet metal. He burned holes in the cylinders with a cutting torch and glued different colored pieces of glass over the holes. He even made rustic chains to hang them, bending and welding each link separately. When the lights were turned on, everyone gasped. While there was enough light to illuminate the tables, the shades also projected colorful spots onto the walls! Long before we had finished the “Catacomb Tea Room,” word got out and many young people in the city were anxiously awaiting the grand opening. It was an instant hit and, best of all, everyone felt like it was theirs. The youth and church members used their creative powers under the leading of the Lord and everyone had to give God the glory and praise. The common effort was a bonding experience, and when the church decided to remodel the sanctuary, many of the youth became enthusiastically involved.

Other church groups used the Catacomb when the center was closed. After a few cups had been broken, the adults bought a replacement set. Soon after the opening, a few problems arose. One elderly member complained that there were cigarette butts on the ground around the entrance to the church on Sundays (smoking was forbidden inside). She had hardly finished when a man spoke up, “I can come early Sunday morning and sweep them up.” When kids off the street started attending church services, older members greeted them and asked their names. They began praying for these youth by name.

In 1972, the Catacomb Tearoom was open nearly every night during the summer. We counted 40 youth who committed their lives to Christ! It proved to be too strenuous for us and our young helpers, so we reduced the opening times to three nights from six until midnight. On two nights we offered special programs such as concerts, films or guest speakers. There was ample time before and after meetings to play table tennis, fussball or board games. We offered soft drinks or tea with warm Austrian “wurst” on all evenings. On Friday nights, however, we had Bible Studies, and although sometimes quite long, these meetings were best attended - even by unsaved kids from off the street! Attendance at the Bible Evenings, as we called them, averaged around 40 youth. Another Christian youth organization called “The Torchbearers” (founded by Ian Thomas) also met once a week in Linz and they too had about 40 youth attending Bible studies.

Leaders of the Catholic Churches of Linz were concerned about “their” youth leaving and tried “bait & switch” tactics with loud music and dances, just as some churches in America are doing today, but it didn’t work. God’s Word is truth. It is dependable, reliable and trustworthy, and above all, it is powerful! It is not just methods that convert sinners and change hearts, but God’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit! But I am convinced that the hearty fellowship of believers was a major factor in the success of the Catacomb youth center.

Ralph & Verna Harvey
September 30, 2016