Reaching the next generation involves those of all ages, panel says    

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Left to right: Steve Parr, Jenni Carter, Jason Britt, Jarrod Thompson, and Ricky Smith discuss strategies churches can establish in reaching the younger generation. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

WARNER ROBINS — Taking steps to reach young people is no longer something churches can consider an option, panelists discussing the topic emphasized Nov. 13.

Steve Parr, Georgia Baptist lead missionary in Staff Coordination and Development, led the panel. Joining him on stage were Jenni Carter of Georgia Baptist Groups and Faith Development, Pastor Jason Britt of Bethlehem Church, Next Generation Pastor Jarrod Thompson of First Baptist Church in Buford, and Lead Missionary Ricky Smith of Georgia Baptist Student Groups and Faith Development.

Parr began with Britt, as Bethlehem Church has made connecting young people to the gospel a priority.

“For us, it was foundational that there is no evangelism that doesn’t begin and end with the next generation,” said the pastor. “That was a top priority championed by me from the platform.”

A ministry that matters to everything

Kids matter a whole lot to God, an obvious point, he admitted. Something just as obvious but maybe not expressed explicitly from the pulpit is kids also matter to parents.

Ministering to the younger generation also often means reaching their parents.

“The unspoken idol of our day – even in cultural Christianity – is our kids,” Britt said. “Parents make decisions now through [what’s best for] their kids.”

A child’s worldview is often formed by age 11, he added. That bolsters every church’s urgency to invest heavily in young people.

“Kids have everything to do with whether a family is going to land in a church. That means their kids are connected, they love it, and want to be there; they’re engaged. … We’re not going to reach other families – de-churched families – until kids ministry trumps everything.”

At Bethlehem Church, said Britt, their most capable volunteers are steered toward ministry with young people. And if you don’t feel called to that ministry?

“We’re prompting that call,” the pastor stated.

The biggest challenge in student ministry

When asked by Parr about the biggest challenge facing teenagers today, Thompson cited a 2016 Barna study.

“The busyness of students is one of the most difficult things to overcome in student ministry,” he said. “Wednesdays are packed out with travel ball practice and school practice. Sunday nights are the same way.”

Churches need to re-think their dependence on programming, a tried-and-true-method in the past, he noted. Reaching young people today requires more venturing outside of the church walls.

“We need to encourage our students and leaders … one-on-one discipleship is really important, Saturday morning breakfast with students, Thursday night after football [practice] … different things like that I really think are important.”

During those meetings, Thompson cautioned to be prepared for what he considers another big threat to students – relativism.

“It’s a prevailing ideology in our culture that we have to overcome. … We have to work hard to create opportunities for interaction. [It’s about] how many opportunities I’ve created for interaction this week, not how many kids have come to my program.”

Prayer is also paramount, he noted.

“You can’t win somebody to Christ you don’t love. And you can’t truly love somebody unless you’re willing to pray for them.”

Gaining through retreating

Smith’s department oversees the Georgia Baptist student camps SuperWow and Impact as well as the MOVE conference, or the student evangelism conference. In addition, Student Groups and Faith Development host Conclave in late January, a ministry conference for student ministry leaders and volunteers.

It’s hard to overstate the benefits for students and leaders in attending such conferences or planning retreats, Smith testified.

“Whenever you are able to get out of your normal environment … all of a sudden your ears are a little more in tune and your eyes more open. … It’s a tremendous opportunity for your students to listen better, love each other more deeply, and maybe hear a little more clearly.”

The research backs that up, he added, citing Parr’s and Tom Crites’ book Why They Stay.

No matter where you are, be prepared

Parr then turned to Carter, who’s been leading a Vacation Bible School Conference for over 20 years and currently serves Georgia Baptists as VBS Strategies coordinator. How can a church with a small, or even nonexistent, children’s ministry be a part of reaching the next generation?

“Be prepared,” came her quick answer. “You need to have a kids area and it needs to be your best. It doesn’t need to be down in the basement where it’s all musty. It needs to be the best space you have. Have a teacher there ready to teach even if you don’t have any kids coming. So when they come, they’ll feel welcome.”

Carter and others pointed to an overlooked and underused resource in children’s ministry – senior adults.

“Are their grandchildren going to church? Do their grandchildren come to visit? Send them home with those Sunday School papers. And when they’re with their grandkid at the ball park show them those papers and say, ‘Hey we’re going to have a Bible study.’ Then invite them to church.”

A church for all people, but with an emphasis

Britt said Bethlehem Church wanted it understood that the effort to reach young people was going to be alongside the efforts by senior adults. A high school senior going off to college could be connected with a senior adult who would keep in contact with them and send letters – perhaps something seen as antiquated, but has now come round to being retro and more personal than an email or Instagram message.

“When our senior adults caught the vision for our next generation ministry they felt ownership of it. They became a champion for it. We shifted space around and [senior adults] were glad to do it, because the work they’d put their life into now had a legacy because the place was filled with kids.”

It sent the message, Britt pointed out, that they were a church for all people, but with a priority on the next generation.

Parents’ priority

No matter what a church does to reach younger people with the gospel, the lion’s share of success comes down to the parents, all agreed. Whether it’s personal discipleship, prayer time, or even online habits, mom and dad do a big part in steering the ship.

“We have meetings with parents, training with student leaders – that discipleship opportunity starts with pastors but we need to train other people… to do evangelism and take advantage of our small groups,” Thompson pointed out.

“The honest truth is, a lot of the biggest problems we have in student ministry is that our own church parents won’t send their kids to our discipleship stuff. That’s where we train our students to be missionaries on their campus.”

The entire panel discussion is available for viewing on the Georgia Baptist Mission Board Facebook page, beginning around the 3:07:00 mark. For more information, go to Another student evangelism initiative, This is My Story, was also presented at the annual meeting.

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