by Paul Borthwick
Worldwide media, crises, family chaos, and urbanization make youth ministry extremely difficult.
We live In an ever-shrinking world, a world that has become increasingly interdependent. Gordon Aeschiman writes:
In a village a thousand miles up the Amazon, people are reading the French-owned magazine Elle and the U.S.-produced Better Homes and Gardens. Guatemalans are ordering chicken chow mein, American youth are wearing Russian designer jeans, the Japanese are displaying their latest cuts at top Paris fashion shows, the French are eating Big Macs, the world is doing the lambada, and Japanese Ninja Turtles have given Batman the boot.1
In this kind of world, youth ministry must be a focus of anyone concerned with world evangelization. Consider the eternal significance of youth ministry. Youth work ministers to those in the "hinge" years of life. The rest of a young person’s life will swing on the decisions made during the adolescent years.2
We also need to realize the global significance of youth ministry. Reaching adolescents for Christ is not just an American phenomenon, nor is it a white, middle-class phenomenon. It is a global reality, a challenge bigger than anyone could have imagined back in the 1950s when contemporary youth ministry laid its foundations.
The global significance of youth ministry can be illustrated both subjectively and objectively. Subjectively, we can name the worldwide Christian leaders whose focus is youth: Ajith Fernando and his work with Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka; Simeon Havyiramana and his work with Scripture Union with youth in Burundi; Tim Fairman, who coordinates Young life’s cross-cultural NEXUS program in Africa. Campus Crusade, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Youth With a Mission, Child Evangelism Fellowship, and many others dedicate their ministries to evangelism and discipleship with the world’s youth and children.
Objectively, the sheer volume of young people in our world calls us to stand up and take notice of youth ministry as a global missiological challenge: By the year 2000, over half of our world will be under 25.3 Many of these will be in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where some countries already have over 50 percent of their populations age 15.4
While the United States and the Western countries are "graying" (and youth ministry as a priority may be called into question), the non-Western world is getting younger and younger, presenting us with awesome challenges. John Allan of England writes, "The proportion of teenagers in the total population increases annually, and most of them are being born in places where the church is weakest."5
In short, youth represent the greatest challenge and the greatest resource facing the church worldwide toward the year 2000:
(1) the greatest challenge, because young people in our own country and all over the world are living in cultures, or social settings, or countries where the gospel has not penetrated.
(2) the greatest resource, because young people who respond to the love of Christ can be subsequently discipled and equipped to be part of the mobilized force who will complete the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.
In the history of modern missionary movements, young people have frequently been the catalysts. This fact was illustrated at Urbana ’90, where more than 12,000 students, most of whom represented the United States and Canada, gathered to be challenged regarding world evangelism. At the same time, several thousand gathered for Mexico ’90 in Mexico City to be challenged toward that same vision. Some 2,500 gathered in Nairobi in 1991, and 800 students met in 1988 in Sri Lanka to be similarly challenged, with more than 200 committing themselves to cross-cultural evangelism on the Indian subcontinent.6
To help us get a grasp of the worldwide challenge of youth ministry, consider two questions. The first provides a sense of the common struggles being faced by the church in reaching youth worldwide. The second aims to stir us to develop our global vision so that we can see where we fit into God’s global plan as it applies to youth ministry.
In 1988, Daniel Offer and his associates produced a book based on their study of adolescents in 10 countries, as diverse as the United States, Japan, Hungary, and Bangladesh. The book, The Teenage World,7 introduced a concept they called the "universal adolescent," a world of teenagers who were growing up having a similar "culture" that has been created by a variety of forces.
This "universal adolescent" concept had already been introduced in a brochure from Youth for Christ International, which outlined 12 common challenges facing "One Young Billion" teenagers worldwide.8
Both The Teenage World and the work of Youth for Christ International point to an ever-increasing commonality between youth and youth ministry challenges around the world. While the impact of and response to these challenges will vary widely according to cultures, the issues being addressed have common threads.
1. Youth ministry deals with young people who are media-influenced. Offer, et al., in The Teenage World write,
Todays’ teenagers share both a collective personality and a collective consciousness. They watch airplanes in the sky above them, listen to the radio, and watch a rocket launched on TV. They think of these as everyday events. A 14-year-old in Bangladesh may watch the same television program as a 14-year-old in West Germany, Israel, Japan, Turkey, or Taiwan. Media knows no borders; ideas and events are transmitted to all corners of the globe, defining what is new or desirable, and are assimilated by young minds.9
"Television," they write, "may be functioning ‘as a type of significant other’ on the global level."10 This is echoed in an article in Time entitled "The Leisure Empire." The article reports that as many as 70 percent of the songs played on Brazilian radio are in English, that American films captured 70 percent of the European movie income in 1990, and that entertainment is America’s second-biggest export."11
This means that leaders in youth ministry around the world reach out to youth who are formulating their views of life, values, and spiritual realities based on Western TV, music, and movies.12
Michael Keating considers the export of American youth culture to the rest of the world to be one of Satan’s greatest attacks on youth outreach worldwide. He writes,
I spoke recently with a young man from the South Pacific island group of Fiji. He told me that life there is not the same as it was a few short years ago. Fijian youth are increasingly rebellious and disrespectful to elders, the crime rate is soaring, the drug traffic booming.
Why the change? After all, Fiji is quite remote. Television programming has only recently arrived on the islands.
His answer: American music. It arrives there as soon as it arrives here, and it has captured the youth.
What sort of life do the youth idols glorify? Animal sexuality, rebellion against all authority, violence of every kind, and party, party, party. Such a lifestyle works well for no one, least of all the rockers themselves, whose lives tend to be a mess of fear and frenzy. But the youth do not know that, and they think them glamorous and powerful instead of pitiable and despicable.13
In Kathmandu, Nepal, capital of a Hindu Kingdom that has, until recently, forbidden the proclamation of the gospel, American culture is already being proclaimed: In the bazaar, where shoppers come to buy brass pots to draw water from community wells, they can also purchase "Mr. T" T-shirts or Rambo dolls.
"America is saturating the world with its myths, its fantasies, its tunes and its dreams."14
2. Youth ministry worldwide involves crisis-intervention. Any participant in contemporary youth ministry knows that the crises come faster, younger, and more severely than they did 20 years ago. Divorce, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, gang violence, and psychological trauma affect every youth group; an effective youth ministry attempts to minister to young people in crises.
These crises exist on a global scale. Young people are growing up in abject poverty, urban violence, and in the face of war. A memo in March, 1991, from the World Relief Commission listed 31 countries that were at war (either internally or with another country). In these 31 countries, an average of 42 percent of their total population is under the age of 15.15
In South Africa, where almost 38 percent of the population is under 15, apartheid has created what Time calls "The Lost Generation." These youth, according to Frank Chicane of the South African Council of Churches, "have lived in a world of military operations and night raids, of roadblocks and body searches, where friends and parents get carried away in the middle of the night."16
Aubrey Adams of Youthspace ministers with such South African youth. In a recent newsletter, he wrote, "Our work is focused on three areas: homeless kids in the inner city, school drop-outs in the townships, and awareness and education enrichment in the schools,"17
Aubrey illustrates that crises require youth ministry to become more wholistic; we cannot have a true ministry with students in crisis without ministering to them in the context of their crises, whether it be school, home, or community. Crisis intervention will involve youth workers with economics, literacy, unemployment, and political systems, unfamiliar ground for much youth ministry.
Crises also require us to seek more creative ways of doing ministry. John Sagherian, Youth for Christ worker in Beirut, Lebanon, described an inability to hold regular meetings because of the frequent bombings in that city. He concluded, "You cannot have an effective ministry in a war-rav-aged city using methods found in textbooks written in Wheaton, Illinois."18
3. Youth ministry seeks to reach young people in a world where the family is deteriorating. In Latin America, families suffer because the men hold to a cultural image of machismo-males are superior and must dominate their women-and the women hold to the philosophy of Marianismo-women must accept the role of being subjugated in order to be pleasing to God. Combine these two philosophies with an estimated 70 percent infidelity rate, and the challenge of family ministry becomes overwhelming.
"The younger generation," writes Wally De Smet of the Gospel Missionary Union, "lacks good examples. The average man, when asked why he does what he does in marriage, replies, ‘I’m doing what I saw my father do.’"19
A youth worker in India identified "family dissolution" as the greatest cause of poverty. The number of female-headed, single-parent families is seen as one of the pivotal problems of poverty in his region of India.20
A survey of youth workers related to the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism revealed a host of requests in addressing issues related to the family. One youth leader from the Netherlands requested help in teaching others "how to build a sound family life." Another in Morocco identified "working with social concerns in broken homes" as a major ministry need. Youth leaders in the Philippines asked for help in dealing with family structures which "are creating juvenile delinquents."21
4. Youth work in various cultures faces (he challenge of an increasingly urbanized world, for which much of traditional youth ministry training is unprepared. Youth ministry in the future calls for a new generation who are committed to the pioneer work of urban youth outreach and discipleship.
This urbanized world calls for an entirely new brand of youth ministry so that we can "reclaim the urban war zones"22 for Christ. Luis Bush, formerly of Partners International, expands our vision to the urban challenge worldwide with this picture:
In the cities of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, more than 100 million children are currently growing up on the streets; they have no education, no affection, no adult guidance. Almost a million of them are forced into prostitution. In Bombay’s red light district, at least a third of the prostitutes are little girls.23 The image of child prostitutes, urban squalor, and abject poverty are unfortunately common in all cities, and especially in the non-Western world (there are over 30,000 girls under 15 who are prostitutes in Bangkok24). Leighton Ford observes that there is no city in these areas where the median age is greater than 20. In Mexico City, which will be the world’s largest city by the year 2000, the median age is 14.25
Paul Hiebert, a missionary strategist, observes, "If the church fails in the city, it will become increasingly marginal in the world,"26 yet because the church’s emphasis has focused on white, suburban youth ministry,’ urban youth ministry, both nationally and internationally, sits on the brink of failure. John Allan of Great Britain observes, "Our own failure to work in the right places, and to react flexibly in changing situations, is creating the unreached youth problem."27
5. Youth ministry demands that youth leaders understand how to minister cross-culturally. We all feel more comfortable ministering to people who are "just like us." The "homogeneity principle" applies to youth work as well. But this will not suffice if we look at the current and future challenges of youth ministry. The internationalization of the world brings us all in touch with the need to be able to work across cultures.
On a visit to Disney World, I sat on "Main Street USA" and heard five different languages being spoken. In the locker room at a local pool, four boys came in for their afternoon classes; one was Chinese, another Indian, a third African-American, and the fourth Caucasian. "Main Street USA" is multicultural and multiethnic, and youth ministry methods must be modified accordingly.
The cross-cultural challenge goes beyond the international influence in our communities. It also involves the incorporation of youth into our youth ministries. There is an increasing distance between unreached, secular youth and the Christian youth who make up the core of our church ministries. Many young people are growing up with no religious training at all, making them unfamiliar with our terms and unresponsive to a Jesus they have never heard of in language they could understand. As a result, when we strive to reach out to unchurched youth and incorporate them into the culture of our youth groups, we may find ourselves and our church people unprepared.
Our brothers and sisters in youth ministry in Europe may be our greatest resource here; they have been addressing the gospel to youth from a "post-Christian" culture longer than we have, and we can look to them for help.
Finally, the cross-cultural challenge in youth work addresses our ability to integrate youth group young people into the culture of the adult-dominated local church. In the WEF/LCWE survey cited earlier, a Maasai school teacher from Kenya wrote, "I need to know how to help the church become more relevant to our youth," a statement every youth worker could echo.
6. In all these things, youth workers and church leaders must adopt the attitude of being learners. Serving youth influenced by Western media does not mean we can simply translate all of our Western materials for use overseas. Youth workers around the world need each other’s help to be effective.
BUILDING EFFECTIVE PARTNERSHIPS
The first step in building for effective partnerships in youth ministry on a worldwide scale is to listen (a discipline that we in the United States have difficulty maintaining).
When we engage in ministry as fellow learners, there is room to grow. In 1988, I visited Soweto, one of the townships of Johannesburg, South Africa. We had developed a partnership with Caesar Molebatsi and Youth Alive. The chairman of its board had asked me to speak about organizing youth ministry to 80 Soweto youth workers.
After I arrived, I felt I had nothing to offer. I went to the chairman of the board, Mandla Anonisi, and said that I was not sure my material would be useful to his youth leaders. He replied, "We will make you useful."
Mandla led the first 30 minutes of the seminar, asking youth leaders to detail what they perceived their challenges to be with respect to administration. This allowed me to see what the real needs of the people were; then I could address biblical principles to the issues they were struggling with. Mandla made me a success; he enabled me to learn from these young leaders so that I could offer something.
With these common challenges in mind, what do we have to offer?
We can see ourselves as partners, as cowork-ers with men and women around the world who are seeking to have effective ministry in reaching, discipling, and mobilizing youth. This partnership could include youth groups adopting each other across geographical or cultural lines. For our youth group, this has meant a partnership with Ashoke Bachew and his youth ministry in Trinidad to Hindu young people. We have gone to him, and he has come to us, so that we can be mutually encouraged.
I hope the day will come when every youth group will have both a "Samaria" and an "ends of the earth" partner. The "Samaria" partnership is with another youth group that is geographically close but culturally distant, like our church’s partnership with Bruce Wall Ministries in inner-city Boston.28 The "ends of the earth" partnership involves U.S. youth groups with youth ministries in other countries through correspondence and exchanges.
Prayer is a second practical response to the call for partnerships. Each youth group can adopt one person, or one city, or one country for regular prayer, especially regarding youth work in that country, perhaps in conjunction with the overall international involvement of the church. In our church’s youth ministry, it has meant hosting foreign students, joining an urban church basketball league to build friendships, and serving alongside urban partners on a cooperative work team to Haiti.
Churches involved in youth ministry can also share their resources. This is what youth workers are asking for:
"We need materials on camps and youth discipleship" (the Philippines).
"We need materials to help our young people grow spiritually" (Fiji), "We need Christian teaching on the New Age; what’s the Christian alternative?" (Denmark).
"We need resources for training lay and full-time youth workers" (Honduras).
"We need materials on youth and children’s work in Sunday School" (Latvia).
"We would like to exchange materials and visits and prayer" (Malawi). "We are looking for discipleship models to empower displaced, disposessed, dehumanized young people" (South Africa).
"We need resource materials and books both for the youth worker and for the young people" (Lebanon).
In the United States, youth workers’ offices often overflow with unused or underused resources. These cries for help reassure us that we have something to offer. The idolization of youth in America has made us specialists in youth culture; certainly we have something to offer for those ministering in countries where youth, work (and adolescent culture) is fairly new.
However, we must revise our resources and know-how to be culturally sensitive. Many youth workers in other cultures are hungry for resources, but we should not exploit their hunger by offering them Americanized resources. We should look for ways to work alongside them, to translate whatever we have learned about youth ministry into a form that might be useful in their culture. In the words of Galen Hiestand of the World Evangelical Fellowship, "We need to see ourselves as involved in the internationalization of ministries, rather than the Americanization of ministries internationally."29
One final resource we should not forget: money. Most of our brothers and sisters in youth ministry in Africa, Asia, and Latin America suffer economically. Perhaps youth ministries in the United States can help by giving, either through the local church, our denominations, or through agencies such as Young Life, Youth for Christ, or others.
In our church, students have followed op service teams to Costa Rica by sending money for scholarships for Costa Rican youth going to camp. Another church’s youth ministry has raised money to support the formal education of a church youth worker from Africa. In these ways, money can be shared to facilitate youth work on an international level.
PREPARING GLOBAL CITIZENS
Finally, we can participate in the global challenge of youth ministry by preparing our young people to be global citizens, by producing "world Christians." This means, first, that youth leaders set the pace. The youth worker’s example of being a world-minded Christian is the best way to create young people who are open to global challenges.
In summarizing the Youth Track at the Lausanne II conference in Manila (1989), Ajith Fernando of Sri Lanka wrote,
Many participants in Lausanne II came to realize that young people need human leaders like Jesus who can be role models for them. They need someone to teach them how to show unselfish, loving, and creative concern for those less fortunate than themselves…. A bewildered and fractured generation is searching for meaning in life.30
Churches can also prepare their young people for the global challenge of youth ministry by involving them directly in cross-cultural ministry, teaching them to be culturally sensitive, and working with them to help develop a bigger world view.
If church leaders create a "world Christian" context in our youth groups, God will raise up some of our youth to serve cross-culturally. Perhaps we should revise our measure of youth ministry effectiveness and ask: How many of our youth groups are headed into cross-cultural youth ministry?
Youth ministry represents our greatest challenge and our greatest resource facing the church.
1. Gordon Aeschliman, "Dancing on the Shrinking Globe," World Christian (May, 1990), p. 9.
2. The statement "80 perecent of all decisions for Christ occur before age 18" illustrates this. The Mission Possible Foundation (Denton, Texas) stated in its March, 1991, newsletter that 75 percent of first-time decisions for Christ occure between the ages of 5 and 16. But what is the source?
3. Stephen Hoke, "Introducing World Vision International," Evangelism (Winter, 1988), p. 73.
4. Britannica World Data, 1987, lists Botswana, Jordan, Kenya, the Marshall Islands, Mayotte, and Zimbabwe as having populations of over 50 percent under age 15.
5. John Allan, "New Strategies for Reaching Unreached Youth," Evangelical Missions Quarterly (April, 1989), p. 131.
6. Another illustration of youth and the resource they represent: The leaders of the AD2000 Movement (dedicated to completing the Great Commission by the year 2000) have a conference on world evangelization planned for 1994 in Korea. IN each of their 10 study areas, two representatives for each 200 countries will be invited, but in the study area entitled "Mobilization of Young People," four representatives per country will be invited (800 total). Why? Because the leaders of AD2000’s believe that mobilized young people represent the greatest resource for world evangelization.
7. Daniel Offer, et. al. The Teenage World (New York: Plenum Press, 1988).
8. Youth for Christ International, P.O. Box 214, Singapore 0617, Singapore.
9. Offer, op. cit., p. 115.
10. Offer, op. cit., p. 116.
11. "The Leisure Empire," Time (December 24, 1990), pp. 56-59.
12. A recent newsletter from Youth for Christ Sri Lanka cited an upcoming training seminar where one of the workshops being offered was "Reaching Westernized Youth."
13. Mitchel Keating, "The Stolen Generation," Pastoral Renewal (May, 1987), p. 15.
14. "The Leisure Empire," op. cit. p. 56.
15. This statistic is based on countries listed in a fax of March 19, 1991, entitled "Wars in the World" and the populations of these countries in Britannica World Data, 1987.
16. "The Lost Generation," Time (February 18, 1991), p. 48.
17. Youthspace newsletter, February 1991.
18. From a personal conversation with John Sagherian at Lausanne II in Manila (1989).
19. Wally de Smet, The Gospel Message (Volume I, 1989), p. 7.
20. Quoted in the October, 1988, newsletter of Youth for Christ in Bangalore, India.
21. Since 1987, I have been surveying key contacts in youth ministry referred to me by the World Evangelical Felloship as well as accumulating data based on feedback from participants in the Youth Track at Lausanne II in Manila. In both cases, the question has been asked, "What needs would you like to see a worldwide youth network address?" from which these answers were drawn.
22. This is the title of an article about urban youth ministry in Christianity Today, January, 1990.
23. Luis Bush, Funding Third World Missions (Wheaton: World Evangelical Fellowship Mission Commission, 1991), pp. 12, 13.
24. Brian Bird, "Children of Toil," World Vision Magazine (December/January, 1988), p. 15.
25. Leighton Ford, quoted in Ted Engstrom’s Seizing the Torch (Glendale, Gospel Light/Regal, 1989), p. 206.
26. Paul Hiebert, "World Trends and Their Implications for Missions," Trinity World Forum (Fall, 1990), p. 2.
27. John Allan, op. cit., p. 130.
28. Getting involved in local outreach (nursing homes, soup kitchens, state hospitals, etc.) was shown in Peter Benson’s report, "The Troubled Journey: A Profile of American Youth" (Search Institute) to decrease "risky behaviors" in students. "Prosocial behavior," as he calls it, or acts of compassion, "help develop social competencies, positive values, and a sense of purpose in life" (p. 6).
29. From a personal conversation with GAlen Hiestand, April 18, 1991.
30. Ajith Fernando, "Youth: More Than Half of the World," World Evangelization (Summer, 1989), p. 31.
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