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Connecting With Youth Today

with Ron Luce | September 9, 2008

Today on the broadcast, teen expert Ron Luce, co-founder and president of Teen Mania, gives parents and youth workers some timely tips for connecting with teens.

Today on the broadcast, teen expert Ron Luce, co-founder and president of Teen Mania, gives parents and youth workers some timely tips for connecting with teens.

Connecting With Youth Today

With Ron Luce
|
September 09, 2008
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob: How do the teenagers at your church feel about your church?  Do they feel like they're on the inside or on the outside?  Here's Ron Luce.

Ron: When they walk into a church, they can tell in a second if there's a sense of acceptance there and, interestingly, what they're wanting is the same thing every generation has ever wanted – love, relationship, somebody to value them and care about them.  Listen, if they find more acceptance with a drug dealer or the gang member, that's where they're going.

And so we've got to be the church that wraps our arm – I live for the day where I see old people fighting over teenagers to come to church – "No, he's mine, I'm taking him with us."  "No, you got him last week, I'm taking him this week."  Finding these kids that you know they desperately need somebody to care about them.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, September 9th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  What could you do or what could your church do to make sure that the teenagers who are coming really feel like they're a part of what's going on?  We'll talk about that today, stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  You know, when we talk, as we're doing this week, about the polluted culture in which we're trying to raise children today, you can get discouraged, as a parent, but most of us will think, "Well, you know, if we've got our kids in the right place, in the right school setting, and the right church, it's bound to work out okay."  And yet the statistics are saying even that can't be counted on.

Dennis: No, they can't.  In fact, I'm afraid there are not just a few youth groups today that are, in many cases, a mirror of the world and importing a lot of the philosophy of the world to entertain young people and maybe put some dressings around the edges of a few Bible verses but not really equipping young men and women to become followers of Christ.

When I got involved directly out of college with high school students, and I went to work full time in introducing them to Christ, I was really passionate about young people and teenagers, and I have remained passionate about young people because they represent the next generation that is going to carry the Gospel to this nation and to the four corners of the earth.

We have a friend with us on FamilyLife Today, Ron Luce, who is passionate in the same way, and I want to welcome Ron back.  Ron, you're a good friend.  Thanks for coming back and being a part of our broadcast.

Ron: Thank you, Dennis, it's great to be here.

Dennis: Ron is founder of Teen Mania, which is a ministry to young people.  In fact, you're going to sponsor a little conference down in Texas near Tyler.

Bob: It doesn't look so little to me.  You've got a lot of folks coming to that conference.

Dennis: It's called "Soar."

Ron: That's right.

Dennis: And I'm speaking at this conference, and, I'll tell you, he didn't share with me, Bob, that on the campus where this conference is going to be held, they have a 40-acre paintball.

Bob: Oh, wait, I'm coming.

Dennis: A paintball game.

Bob: I'm ready for that, although …

Dennis: Is that fenced so you can't get out.

Ron: It is quite an extravaganza.  It's actually a 472-acre campus, and a ropes course, and it's where we have our headquarters and our honor academy students are there – 900 students, and we have this conference this fall for pastors, youth pastors, worship leaders, all the youth workers in your church to come together to really be trained to rescue the kids in your community and to build a team and a vision and rally your whole church around rescuing a generation.

Bob: Is there paintball?

Ron: Oh, yeah, there's late-night fun and paintball and …

Bob: Okay, I just wanted to make sure.

Ron: … lots of great speakers and workshops and so forth.

Dennis: I'm going to get one of those automatic – one of those machine gun paintball guns.

Bob: I'm just thinking, if it's November, it could be cold, and paintball in the cold can – it's not as much fun as in the summertime.

Dennis: Well, this conference is all about a serious challenge to young people.  That's why you have speakers such as Chuck Colson; Ed Young, Jr.; Dr. Jack Graham; Dr. Jack Hayford, a good friend.  You're really challenging these young leaders who are in youth groups, youth pastors, senior pastors, to really get a heart for the next generation and train them up to make a difference in their culture.

Bob: And we've got information, actually got a link on our website at FamilyLife.com to where you can find out more about Soar and come hear Dennis and others speak at the conference.  Again, our website is FamilyLife.com, and if you click on the right side of the screen where it says "Today's Broadcast," you'll the see the link to the Soar information.

Dennis: You've written a book, Ron, called "Re-Create," and it's a challenge to parents, teenagers, youth pastors, to really not be overcome by the culture by re-create your own culture and earlier we talked about how we do that in our homes.  You believe we need to re-create a culture within the church that is stronger than the culture that's in the world.

Ron: That's right.

Dennis: Where do we start?

Ron: Well, it really starts by – think about having a church where kids can't wait to come to church, not because there's pizza but because there's worship there, and they rush to the front, and they worship with all their heart, and maybe that music isn't quite what the 40 and 50 and 60-year-olds like, but we need to start looking – how can we build a church if we're going to rescue a generation and keep them in church after they don't have to be there because you're not forcing them to come, what are we going to do?

And I would just encourage pastors and church leaders to realize, you know, the people that run MTV, they're not cool.  You can look at pictures of them online.  They look like businessmen, businesswomen, but they're smart, and they're strategists.  That's the pastor's job.  Our counterpart role is to be the spiritual leaders, the strategists, making it really hard for the kids in our community to go to hell.  If they're going to go to hell, they're going to have to be really committed to it, because our church is going to think deeply about how are we going to infect them in the highways and byways by building a thriving youth ministry; by wooing all of our congregation to be involved in the youth ministry; and rallying around this cause as well.

And it starts, I think, the reason most people – they know there's problems, but they don't know what they can do.  They're just not informed.  If you don't know how bad it is, then your heart doesn't go there, and so a steady diet of, you know, tools online you can get on our website and other websites, you hear stories, you see data, you realize the kids of our culture today are being hammered by a battle that they never asked for.

And you just listen to a few of their stories, and you realize you know what?  They didn't ask for the porn that popped up like it does on 95 percent of kids' websites while they're doing homework.  They didn't ask for that, and now they're addicted to pornography, and they're 14 years old.  They didn't ask for that.  Some old person programmed that and is making money off making them a slave.

And so we've got to be the ones, the spirit-filled, spirit-led counterparts going, "Okay, we're going to infect them with truth."

Dennis: Ron, I don't think the average parent really has any idea, unless he's volunteered to work in a youth group, what really happens in youth groups.  And I don't want you to take us to the worst and give us just a terrible illustration, but can you generally kind of characterize what's taking place there today with young people and what we would call just the average youth group?

Ron: Well, about 96 percent of all youth workers are volunteer, they're not paid, and so they don't have very much time.  They're working bi-vocational – they're working a full-time job plus volunteering.  They don't have much time to put things together.  So we call every church in America every year, and we hear things like, "Well, this is what our youth meeting looks like – the first 10 minutes are devotional, the rest of the time we play games."

Dennis: Wait a second – 10 minutes in the Bible, and then 50 minutes or more …

Ron: Of socialized, having fun, hanging out, and so we wonder why we're losing our young generation.  It is – you know, we think we're taking them to church to give them the Gospel intravenously.  This is the rescue, this is the Band-Aid, and it's not much of a Band-Aid even.

Dennis: What should it look like?

Ron: Well, the best youth ministries that I've seen in America are ones where kids want to come, they bring their friends, it's relatable worship, it's great teaching, there's some kind of small group element involved so that kids can start leading their own peers in discipleship, and it's more than just once a week.  There are other group meetings throughout the week where they are connecting with kids either at school or whatever to help raise the young people up themselves as leaders.

Dennis: As a Christian community, Ron, I think we kind of look at the youth group, and we go, "Well, we pay the youth pastor to do that.  That's what he's paid to maintain relevance and to understand what's going on in the youth culture."  And I think, in the process, we go to sleep at the stick and don't really understand what the needs are of young people today.

What I'd like you to do, if you could, just real quickly give us a summary of what you see as you speak to literally tens of thousands, sometimes stadium events that have 50,000, 60,000 young people attending – what do you see young people today hungering and thirsting for?  How do we connect with them?

Ron: Well, I think you're right.  We have basically sub-contracted our love for teenagers out to our youth pastor.  We don't have to love them, that's what I pay you for, or don't pay you for, as the case might be.  And what they're – interestingly, what they're wanting is the same thing every generation has ever wanted – love, relationship, somebody to value them and care about them, feel like – prioritize them that they're important.  For crying out loud, even their parents aren't doing that – can the church do that?

Listen, if they find more acceptance with a drug dealer or the gang member, that's where they're going.  When they walk into a church, they can tell in a second if there's a sense of acceptance there.  And if – if the older generation is walking on the other side of the aisle and are kind of afraid because this guy's got little tattoos or the hair is a little bit longer, we're going to have the same thing that happened in the Jesus Movement days where longhaired kids were getting saved, and they were unwelcome at church and they left and started cults.

And so we've got to be the church that wraps our arm – I live for the day where I see old people fighting over teenagers that come to church – "No, he's mine, I'm taking him to lunch." "No, you got him last week, I'm taking him this week."  Like finding these kids that you know they desperately need somebody to care about them.

Dennis: You know, I want to comment on that because as Barbara and I have gotten older – we're not old, okay?  I want to make that real clear.  But as we've gotten older, we both turned to each other and said, "We do not want to become a pair of people at church who talks about, "Well, that music, that music is sure – it's just not our music anymore."  And "Can you believe what they're wearing and how they go to church?" 

And what you're talking about, as we approach young people today is a deliberate, intentional outreach of love to them to connect with them and to make a difference in their lives.  And, personally, I've run into some of these young people, and I remember being a young person.  I was obnoxious, and I was not easy to love.  Well, some of those young people coming up right now, they're in the same league, and they need older people who will reach out in maturity and love and graciousness and begin to connect with them around the issues they're facing and give them some attention.

If we don't give them the attention that they need, they are going to look elsewhere for it, just like you said.

Ron: Absolutely, and it is amazing how responsive they are.  You know, I talked to this elderly couple after a church that I spoke at, and they said, "You know, we've loved God for all these years, and we saw these kids starting to hang out across the street from us riding skateboards.  They're long haired, and they're wild, and we didn't know what to do, but we thought, 'Well, they probably need Jesus,' so we just started bringing them food, you know, and giving them brownies and this and that, and before long they were coming over to our house every time getting food, and then we found out some Christian skateboard video, and we put it on, and when they came over, we didn't even know what to say to these kids, but they started giving their hearts to the Lord."  And they said this – "We're old.  We don't even know what to do, but we just saw these kids that needed something, and we thought, 'Well, we could bake them some brownies,'" and I just say, you know, if nothing else, food is the international love language for kids, for teenagers.

Dennis: You don't have to bake brownies, you can buy pizza.

Ron: Yeah, just give them something to eat, and they'll feel like you care about them.

Dennis: Yeah, we used to have an outreach to junior high and high school kids at our kids' schools, and every young person paid a buck, and they got all the pizza they could eat, and it was a losing proposition, financially, for us, subsidizing all that pizza, but it was a way to get them to attend a meeting where you could begin to love on them and believe in them and hopefully share some of the reality of Jesus Christ with them.

Bob: Ron, you're not talking about the approach to youth ministry that has kind of ruled the day, I think, for the last 20 or 30 years.  You put on a big event, there's a lot of activity, you hope to attract a crowd, and then you hope you can hold their attention for 15 minutes while you share something about Jesus with them.

You're talking about starting from the ground up and starting over, right?

Ron: A culture in a church where kids want to come, but where they are being discipled and growing.  In fact, we put the challenge out for churches and to youth pastors but hold churches to double and disciple their youth group every year for the next five years.  And in order to that, you have to have the whole church involved giving and praying and mentoring and volunteering and helping and so, yes, we want a lot of kids, but we don't want a big Jesus rah-rah crowd.  We want some of them that are getting their roots down deep so they can begin to help the new converts get their roots down deep as well.

Bob: And moms and dads have got to start thinking differently about their role in youth group.  It's not just drop them off at 7 and pick them up at 9.  It's get invested, right?

Ron: Absolutely.  I would say, moms and dads, I would say college students, I would say seniors, I mean, whatever your role in life, wherever you happen to find yourself right now, we are at an all-time, all systems alert crisis with teenage America and the church, and it's going to require every single one of us to roll up our sleeves and figure out what is our role, what can I do?  And maybe the best thing you could do if you're listening to this right now is become the advocate, the chief advocate, for youth in your church.  Go and partner with your youth pastor and say, "What can I do to help?"

Go to your pastor, maybe you know the deacons and elders and begin to rally the power brokers and the leaders of the church – do you realize the crisis we're in and that we have to have a culture where kids are beating the door down, they can't wait to come to our church because there is life here and there are people that love them here.

Dennis: What's a church that's doing this?  Give us an illustration of somebody who is really connecting with the next generation and making a difference?

Ron: I could tell you several examples.  One that is screaming, really, for the whole world to see is Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, which is very interesting because it's a very ungodly culture at large.  They've never had revival there.  We think it's horrible in America – their culture is 100 times worse in terms of godlessness is permitted, yet at the Hillsong Church, it is a very – once you get on fire there, you're almost like in another culture.  You're still very much involved in outreach but the church is very focused on young people.  In fact, they say their reason to exist is to get the Gospel in the hands of the next generation.

And so the 40, and 50 and 60-year-olds gladly endure, as it were, maybe worship style, but they don't quite prefer, but they love the joy in their heart watching the younger generation at Sunday morning church worship with all their heart.

I got some wisdom from a 15-year-old girl a few years ago.  She joined a youth group that was – in our community, 30 or 40 kids, pretty on fire, passionate for the Lord, and have just left another youth group that kids were smoking and doing some drugs and mocking the preacher and same size church, same type of church, and I asked her, I said, "What do you think is the difference?  Same kind of people just nine miles down the road.  What's the difference between one youth group and another?  What made one youth group one way and one the other?"  And I thought she was say, well, a really cool youth pastor, or really cool programs.  She thought for a few minutes, she said, "I think it's the senior pastor."

I said, "Senior pastor?  What are you talking about?"  She says, "I don't know, I think it's the way he addresses us on Sunday mornings.  He takes us seriously, we are part of the church."  And I thought isn't that amazing that the senior pastor has so much more shaping power usually than what he or she believes that they have in creating the environment of the church that pulls kids in and really sets the stage on Sunday morning for them to want to come on Sunday morning.  You know, we wonder why they flee when they're 18 or 19 and don't go to church.  If they're not a viable part of the church, if they don't feel important, if they don't feel like they are somehow at least on the radar, you know, whether it's the décor or whether it's the program.

Sunday mornings, you know, I had one girl come to me, and she'd come to one of our stadium events, and she was a backslidden, horrible lifestyle, walked in with this group that invited her, and she said before anything started, any singing or preaching, she began to weep uncontrollably.   Later on in the weekend, she gave her life to the Lord, and she came to our honor academy in Texas, and I asked her, I said, why did you – what happened inside you?  Why did you weep?  She said, "You know, I looked at this whole setup, and I thought, "I cannot believe that there are adults that care about my generation and me so much that they would do all this to put this on."

See, it's communicating value.  It's a statement of value.  When we – in our church, whether it's the music or the lights or the – what we do there to realize so that we make sure they realize that they're important, and we're thinking about them, and we're drawing them in.  Again, that doesn't mean we all need to grow long hair and get piercings, but at least we need to realize and help them to realize that they are on our radar, and we are doing something to woo them to the things of God.

Bob: My daughter is a little beyond her youth group years, but when she was a student in college, she was attending a church in New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian Church where Tim Keller is the pastor, and I remember going with her to Redeemer the first time I was there, and I don't know if you've seen Tim Keller, but he is in his 60s, and he's bald, and he kind of looks like an old guy, a 60-year-old guy, right?

Dennis: Another generation.

Bob: That's right.  But, boy, did he connect, and I remember Katy one time sending me an e-mail and saying, "Dad, Tim Keller this morning quoted a song lyric from Sufjin Stevens," who is one of the artists that Katy would have on her iPod.  And she said, "Real cool, great street cred."  That was her comment about Tim Keller.

Now, I don't know if Tim Keller is spending time listening to Sufjan Stevens on his iPod, but he knows his audience is, and he cares about where they are, and he's trying to connect with them.  And so the quoting of a song lyric that says I know a little bit about the culture you're in, well, it was great street cred, as Katy said.

Dennis: You know, I grew up in a fairly conservative area of the United States, Southwest Missouri.  I used to say it was 15 miles south of Springfield, and nobody knew where that was, and now I say 30 miles north of Branson, and everybody knows where that is.

But when the spiritual lights came on in my life, I went back to the little church that had really introduced me to Christ and had faithfully taught me the Bible, and I decided I was going to really re-ignite the young people back in that church – the teenagers, the high schoolers and junior high, and so I went to the church leaders, and I said, "Can we have this house that used to be the parsonage, and could we redecorate this to really make this relevant to this generation?"

And to that little church's credit, now, I still can't believe they did this, but they let me and the other youth leaders, and we made all these Jesus people signs and murals on the walls, and it was hip.  I mean …

Bob: Do you think it pushed them out of their comfort zone a little bit?

Dennis: Oh, my goodness, I couldn't believe they did that, but it was because – the very thing Ron is talking about.  It was because they loved the young people.  And the message that Ron has for us today, I think, is good for any adult, whether or not you have children or not, whether you're married or not, it's just about the next generation – it's about paying attention to the young people who come to church.  You don't know who that young person is going to become.

Ron: That's right.

Dennis: They could be the leader of a corporation, they could be a professor that teaches a worldview from a godly perspective at a university someday, but they need an older generation to reach out and touch their lives and their hearts with, first of all, love.  Let them know that they're cared about but then, secondly, with truth to share Jesus Christ with them.

Bob: Yeah, and I appreciate the fact that you address the issue of what churches can do as a part of this book, and I know your desire is not to beat up on churches or take youth pastors to task, but it's to motivate parents to be a part of the solution here, and to get involved and to help out and to volunteer and to be active in reaching out to teenagers at church and helping the culture at church be more teen – not just teen friendly but teen involved, helping to challenge the hearts and minds of young people so that they're on fire for Christ.

And the middle section of the book, "Re-Create" is aimed in that direction.  We've got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and you can order from us either online at FamilyLife.com or by calling 1-800-FLTODAY.  If you're going online, when you get to the home page, FamilyLife.com, on the right side of the screen, you'll see where it says "Today's Broadcast," and you click where it says "Learn More."  That will take you to the area of the site where you can get more information about Ron's book and about other resources that we have available to help parents engage their teens around these kinds of spiritual issues.

Again, our website is FamilyLife.com.  You can also call 1-800-FLTODAY for more information about Ron's book or to order by phone.  That's 1-800-358-6329, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.

While we're on the subject of local churches, I just want to make sure our listeners know that as we talk about our financial needs here at FamilyLife, we don't want you to do anything that would take away from your giving at your local church in order to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  We believe the local church needs to be your first priority when it comes to giving, and if you are able to do something beyond that, then we do hope that you'll consider partnering with us financially.  We're listener-supported, and your financial gifts to this ministry are not only needed but appreciated.

In fact, this month, if you are able to help with a donation of any amount, we would love to send you a copy of the two-CD set that features a conversation we had not long ago with our friends Tim and Joy Downs about conflict in marriage.  They've written a helpful book called "The Seven Conflicts," where they examine some of the most common conflicts couples face in marriage. 

And if you make a donation of any amount this month, you can request a copy of that two-CD set.  If you are donating online at FamilyLife.com, and you'd like to receive the CDs, just add the word "conflict" in the key code box on the donation form.  Or call 1-800-FLTODAY, make a donation over the phone, and mention that you'd like the CDs on conflict or the CDs with the Downs's.  Again, we're happy to send them out to you, and we appreciate your financial partnership with us.  Thanks so much.

Well, tomorrow we want to talk about what moms and dads can do proactively to have the kind of culture in their home that helps their sons and daughters really get excited about loving and serving Christ.  We'll talk about that tomorrow with Ron Luce.  I hope you can be back for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow.  

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