“I never really did much with religion,” said Austin Owen. “I went to church and never understood anything about it.” But things changed for Owen at IBSA’s Youth Encounter conference on October 11. The 17-year-old was one of many students who made decisions to follow Christ or deepen their commitment to him.
He had never read the Bible before, Owen admitted. “But today I guess is a good day to start.”
Student ministry leaders say Millennials are looking for the kind of faith that transcends family history or tradition and leads to real life change.
Usually held right after Christmas in Springfield, organizers changed the format to one day in three locations. “We were hoping to make it more accessible to more of our churches,” said Barb Troeger, ministry coordinator on IBSA’s Church Resources team, and that more unchurched kids would attend as a result.
The north site in suburban Chicago, the central site in Decatur, and the southern site in Mt. Vernon saw a combined attendance of 1,519, up from 961 people in 2014. The southern site sold out a week before the event—in part due to well-known evangelist David Nasser being the scheduled speaker.
The northern site featured Christian hip-hop artists FLAME and V.Rose. And the central location hosted bands Seventh Time Down, The Neverclaim, and Manic Drive, as well as Passion Painter Ministries artist Andy Raines. Sierra Jones said, “I just really like how the art dude is making all the paintings as people talk. It’s really cool!”
Leaders at each venue tailored the events to their audiences, but the focus was the same in each place: helping students develop an intimate belief in Christ, so that they might know they’ve been chosen and that the creator of the universe loves them.
“That type of belief changes your heart and life,” said evangelist Clayton King, lead speaker in Decatur at Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Many salvation decisions were made across the state—107 alone in Decatur. In Mt. Vernon, Owen responded with a firm, “Yes, I did,” when asked if he made a commitment to Jesus that night.
No more ‘playing church’
Changing the structure of Youth Encounter was admittedly a risk. But “ultimately, we hope people are led to the Lord,” said Daymont VanPelt, coordinator of the northern location at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills. That’s the main goal—students accepting Christ and taking a different direction in life.
Which is perhaps one of the toughest issues to address, said John Howard, student pastor at First Baptist Church in O’Fallon and IBSA’s student ministry consultant. How do we reach youth? How do we effectively present the gospel to teenagers?
“The most significant spiritual hunger I’m seeing among students is for an authentic faith experience,” Howard said. “That is, many have quit riding the coattails of their parents’ religious experience and are seeking an authentic faith of their own.”
In Decatur, Clayton King summed up the main message leaders at all three locations were trying to communicate. He didn’t pose the question, “Do you believe in God?” but rather, “How do you believe in God?”
In youth ministry, leaders know it is crucial that students not have an inherited belief—putting their faith in something simply because their family does. Their relationship with God also cannot be intellectual, having biblical knowledge in their head that never touches their heart.
One student who attended the south location said it stood out to him when Nasser talked about “just playing church.” Admitting to struggling with that himself at times, John Wittenborn, prior to the final session, said that if he made a decision for Christ he wanted to make sure it was a real one.
In the trenches
The post-Christian culture we live in often fuels teens’ spiritual crises. Even students who have grown up in the church are susceptible to society-prompted doubt.
“Leaders should walk through the trenches of these uncertain times with students, both counseling toward and modeling an authentic faith walk,” Howard said.
An especially timely example is the debate on homosexuality. Howard said one student in his youth group, a leader for others, has begun to question whether Christians have it right regarding their stance on the issue. His question then snowballed and soon he was perplexed about everything he once believed in, “to the point of questioning the existence of Jesus,” Howard said.
This spiritual crisis is not yet over for this student, he added, and although there are still many questions to wade through, “there have been strides made in the right direction.”
“Events like IBSA’s Youth Encounter seek to gather students from across our state in the name of Jesus Christ,” Howard said. “Despite our many differences, one thing many different people from [all] different places can converge on is our great God…Students engage in a relaxed atmosphere where they will hear great music, be led in genuine worship, and hear the true and relevant gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed, explained, and applied.
“Much time, effort, resources, and prayer are poured into creating an avenue through which God can save souls, rebuild hearts, mature disciples, and call servants to serve him with their lives.”
And what about the temporary “spiritual high” that often results from big events? Howard said all the time, but especially after an event like Youth Encounter, be intentional about setting aside time to invest in “doing life” alongside students. Large scale, evangelistic endeavors can be the tool through which the Holy Spirit works, but remember that ultimately, “Only God can save a life and transform a heart.”
Morgan Jackson is an intern for the Illinois Baptist newspaper.