Jimmy Dale, youth evangelism officer for the Church of England challenges youth and children’s workers to rethink evangelism ahead of the launch of Advance 2020.
When we look at a lot of the research that came out last year, the number one most effective influence on becoming a Christian is having Christian parents. But for those outside the church that’s not an option.
The second biggest influence is when a friend talks to you.
That’s true of influence over an opinion on anything. I have a friend who told me 80s singer-songwriter Rick Astley has released a new album. I’m not a Rick Astley fan. He could have died and I would be non-the-wiser. But because of my friend I listened to his new album. I didn’t like it but I listened again in case it’s a grower. I still didn’t like it. But I gave it a go because my friend recommended it. It’s the same with Christianity among young people.
If the most effective way for non-church goers to consider church is when a friend talks about it, one of our primary roles needs to be looking at how we equip our young people to share their faith in their peer groups. I’m sure many of you agree this is important but the anecdotal evidence suggests that most of us look elsewhere for the solution to youth evangelism. We’ve managed to recreate the high priest model where we as youth and children’s workers do the evangelism. Our evangelism strategy too often becomes ‘bring your friends to me and I will connect them to God’.
While this model has some limited success it can never compare to the potential impact of young people sharing their faith with their friends themselves. However we face the challenge that most people have a very fixed idea of what evangelism looks like – a big stage and American accents, or outside a station yelling about going to hell. For many, that’s evangelism and it isn’t attractive. So how do we change young people’s minds?
Have a strategy
You can’t be what you can’t see. If young people don’t see other young people doing evangelism they won’t think they can do it.
Last weekend we ran a youth residential called the Youth Evangelism Weekender. Young people hand picked for their evangelism skills at a weekend of investment, encouragement and commissioning. What staggered me was listening to stories of young people sharing their faith in incredible ways, but in the next breath stating that they are not evangelists and ‘don’t do evangelism’, despite the multiple stories they had just recounted.
There are no tangible evangelism models for young people so the preconceptions about what it means to be an evangelist come to the surface.
If you ask young people “who wants to be a worship leader?” it’s guaranteed that many hands will go up. Possibly because they fancy the 17-year-old on the worship team, possibly because we know how to get young people involved in the worship team. We set up mentoring with the worship leader, have a youth worship team and recommend worship gap-years. We have so many different avenues where we model on a weekly basis what it looks like to be a worship leader. But when it comes to young people sharing their faith with their friends, we are sorely lacking in respective models.
One of my recent reflections is that I’ve been going to youth festivals for years and I can’t remember a time when a young person has spoken from the main stage. It’s always been people who are, at the very youngest, in their mid-20s.
I’m not suggesting we should be turning young evangelists into ‘Christian celebrities’ but if you don’t see something publicly modelled, you don’t see it as a desirable thing to do or feel motivated to try.
We need to tangibly show what it looks like to be a young evangelist. We need to have a model, a strategy and a platform.
Call it out when you see it
I was talking to a youth worker who had got to session five of Mission Academy Live with their young people. In the fifth session they are asked to look at the gospel message and practice sharing it. The young people have to summarise what they believe in three minutes then go to six friends, say they’re doing a talk at youth group, and ask to practice it with them listening. One particular girl did it with all six of her friends and basically anyone else who would listen! At youth group, 70 teenagers showed up to listen to this girl do a gospel message. Afterwards the youth leader called her an incredible evangelist but she said she wasn’t. She simply couldn’t see that as evangelism.
We need children and young people who are doing evangelism to know it. So, call it out and encourage it.
Focus on the few not the many
When you look at Jesus’ ministry he had the 5,000. Of the 5,000 he had the 72; of the 72 he had the twelve; of the twelve, the three and of the three, the one. When you look at the time and investment Jesus made into each group, it is disproportionately weighted to the three and the one. When Jesus ascends, the other nine disciples all but disappear. It’s the three he invested in who subsequently rolled out the global Church.
Yet when you look at youth ministry it’s so disproportionately weighted to getting the 5,000 (and even aiming for the 10,000) often at the neglect of the three.
The fact that, for a lot of young people, evangelism is not even a word they know or want to associate with raises issues.
How do we find the small core group (the three, if you like) of young people on fire for Jesus, sharing their faith in the day to day? How do we take this small select group, and build their confidence, equip them and ultimately release them in how they share their faith. By investing deep in this small group, we help raise up models for the rest of our youth groups as to what it looks like to actively share your faith.
With this in mind, collectively with a whole host of mission partners, we are so excited to be launching Amplify, the youth stream of Advance 2020.
At its heart are the questions we’ve been discussing; How do we amplify the voices of the few so others see it and go: “That’s what it is, I want to do that!”?
Within Advance 2020's wider initiative, there is a real desire to see it modelled amongst young people. Advance 2020 will take on a whole variety of forms but the one we are keen to tell you about is Amplify.
I want you to imagine our work as youth workers is to raise up an army of young people who are actively and confidently sharing their faith with their peers. Amplify builds on this by taking a hand-picked, select group (no more than 2 young people from any one church) and actively investing in them. These are the young people who are already evangelising; confidently speaking with peers, inviting friends to church, setting up christian unions and generally taking any opportunity to share Jesus. Our aim is to help them to develop greater confidence in sharing faith, while amplifying their voices and offering accessible models of what it means to share your faith in this modern youth culture. In our army of young evangelists, these are our SAS unit- the Navy Seals of young evangelists.
Due to launch on 5th April 2019, Amplify will seek to journey with 60-100 young people aged 11-18, from churches and denominations right across the UK. Our hope is that through a programme of residentials, monthly small groups, evangelism development opportunities and an ongoing platform for story telling and testimony, we will see a group raised up who can model, both to other young people and the wider church, what it looks like to reach a generation for Jesus.
My hope is in 5 years time, I will be able to walk into a church youth group and ask ‘who wants to be an evangelist’ and see a whole group put their hands up, confident and affirmed as a result of what they have seen modelled.