by Joel Comiskey
This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book Youth in Cell Ministry
Chapter 2- A Missionary Calling
My wife and I were missionaries for eleven years in Quito, Ecuador. Like Jesus coming to this earth, our goal was to become good news in a culture which spoke a different language and had customs and mannerisms far different from our own. We studied hard, failed a lot, and learned to enjoy the process. Youth ministry is a lot like foreign missions. Those working with youth need to learn another culture and relate to a people with different hopes, aspirations, and needs.
Blake Foster leads the junior high and high school youth ministry at Antioch Community Church (ACC) in Waco, Texas. He became a follower of Jesus at twenty-six years old as a freshman at Baylor University and was discipled at ACC. When he graduated from Baylor, he prepared to pay off his loans and go to the mission field. In fact, he and his wife both felt a call to missions and were considering going to the Middle East to spread the gospel. Youth ministry was never on his mind until the college pastor asked if he’d be willing to consider it. He and his wife took time to pray and fast. During that time period he received a prophecy about walking through the open door and felt God was calling him to say yes.
Up to that point, Foster was accustomed to ministering to young adults, not youth. But God showed him that the younger youth were his new mission field. As I interviewed Foster, the phrase “cross-cultural missions” came up again and again. “I see my friends on Instagram, and at times I wish I was ministering to those of my own age group,” Foster said. “Yet, God has called me to my new mission field of young people.” Foster realized that he couldn’t effectively minister to the youth half-heartedly. It required total immersion. “You have to be involved heart and soul. You can’t do it half-heartedly. You have to be restless to allow God to enlarge your territory and your own heart. You have to be willing to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.”
Each culture will define youth a bit differently. Youth in San Salvador, El Salvador, face unique problems, like gang warfare. Youth growing up in the high-tech culture of Orange County, California, face challenges such as busyness, materialism, and indifference. Like missionaries, those working with youth need to study their target audience. No doubt, some youth pressures and characteristics are similar to all youth everywhere but even those similarities are constantly in flux. One important goal of this book is to help readers analyze, research, and prepare to reach youth in their particular culture—to become cross-cultural missionaries where they live and work.
The term adolescence comes from the Latin root word adolescere, “to grow up,” and is most often used to describe puberty to adulthood or maturity (note 1). The word teenager didn’t come into vogue until the early 1950s and comes from popular culture. Mark H. Senter III explains,
The word teenager was a product of the World War II era. Apparently first used in the magazine Popular Science in 1941, the moniker was quickly adopted by the world of advertising to label the demographic group between thirteen and nineteen years of age. The war prematurely transformed older youth into adults, claiming their efforts either in the armed services or as support in the war effort through employment for vital industries. This left high school students and their junior high school counterparts as a unique group. They became that distinct group called teenagers (note 2).
Youth normally starts at age thirteen until the person takes responsibility for his or her actions. Most cultures would agree that youth ends when the person turns into a responsible individual who is no longer dependent on parents. But there is also the question of age brackets. For example, those who are thirteen to sixteen years old have different needs than those in the seventeen to twenty-one age bracket. Those working with young adolescents should be sensitive to their level of maturity, not thinking they are developing faster than they are (note 3). The age of the youth will also determine how much adult supervision is needed. Junior high groups, for example, need a lot more adult attention than senior high school groups or those who have graduated from high school.
Becoming a missionary to youth involves discovering the core rules that motivate youth to behave the way they do. Steve Gerali, expert in the field of adolescence and youth ministry, writes,
Being like adolescents involves immersing oneself in their culture. When missionaries go to foreign fields, they learn the languages, customs, practices, traditions, and values of the people they are trying to reach. To fully understand the community, they must bring those practices into their home. They speak the language within the context of their family so that they adapt to the community. They practice the customs and traditions so that they can relate to the people. They become all things to all men so that they might save some (note 4).
Just like missionaries who learn a language and culture, those effective in reaching youth need to get involved in the social world of youth. It involves understanding and experiencing those things that affect youth today. The best youth missionaries know adolescents better than adolescents know themselves (note 5).
Becoming Good News
God himself became incarnate in the Roman world of the first century to become good news to that culture. Scripture tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Missionaries do the same thing. Those who want to become good news to youth must know their heartaches, what they are struggling with, and how God’s Word resolves those particular issues.
When my wife and I arrived in Costa Rica in April 1990 to become fulltime missionaries with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, we longed to speak Spanish correctly because we knew we’d soon be missionaries in Ecuador. As we studied the Spanish language, we learned that God gives grace in weakness. Instead of saying, Quisiera conocerte, “I would like to get to know you,” I would say, Quisiera cocinarte, “I would like to cook you.” Some of my more hilarious Spanish blunders are not repeatable in public.
I began to learn Spanish when I was thirty-three years old. Sorting out the foreign Spanish sounds was difficult for me. To compensate for my lack of natural talent, I had to study for hours. Like a child, I learned the importance of following grammar rules and the logic of the Spanish language. I knew, however, that taking time in the beginning would have a long-term impact on my ministry in Latin America.
Then we had to learn the customs and culture of Ecuador. I wrote long papers on Ecuadorian culture, trying to understand the people I was going to reach. But ultimately we had to live among that culture and get to know the Ecuadorians. All our research and study were insufficient. Only after actually living among the Ecuadorians year after year did we really learn their customs, culture, and heart-felt longings. We often learned through the trials of making mistakes, being corrected, and then repeating the process. Slowly we began to feel confident that we were making headway and reaching our people in their heart language.
Joel Sanders, youth pastor at All Peoples Church in San Diego, highlighted a volunteer in the church who became a football coach at the local high school to better relate to those he was trying to reach. This same volunteer began leading a youth life group and a Christian club on campus. “He cares for the youth and they know it,” Sanders said. “He’s gained their trust by getting to know them and being their friend, and the youth love him.”
And getting to know today’s youth requires time. Troy Jones, Assembly of God youth minister, believes that it takes six years to really get going in youth ministry (note 6). His point is that those ministering to youth need to spend enough time to learn what makes youth tick. It’s far too common for youth workers, whether volunteers or paid, to move on too quickly.
The book Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth is a fascinating story about cave exploration. Author James M. Tabor vividly illustrates how the best cave explorers push deeper into the caverns, tapping on walls, going under streams, and crawling through cracks to find entrances into caves. The best youth ministers are not satisfied with superficial communication, choosing rather to lovingly probe deeper to get to know the youth better and grow in a long-term commitment where relationships flourish. Cross-cultural missions among youth is similar. Duffy Robbins says,
Youth ministry is a cross-cultural ministry. It requires people of one culture (adults)—with one set of values and mores regarding fashion, leisure, volume of music, and so on—to cross over into the world of another culture (teenagers) with its distinct language, customs, arts, and preferences” (note 7).
Blake Foster’s ministry to youth at Antioch led him to conclude that one of the biggest problems facing his people group, the youth of Texas, is communicating with others. “The youth go through conflict but they are unable to articulate their battles to anyone else,” Foster said. “They also struggle with face to face communication. They might be able to send a text to someone, but they struggle to be real and vulnerable to people.” Foster realizes that youth in the U.S. spend about 7.5 hours per day multi-tasking on multiple media devices (note 8). A large part of the face to face communication problem stems from countless hours interacting with impersonal devices rather than real people.
And of course, online media and its impersonal way of communicating isn’t just a North American problem. Youth around the world are becoming more connected via the internet, whether living in China, Argentina, India, Europe, parts of Africa, or the U.S. Those ministering to youth need to keep this in mind and reach them on their turf—one that is deeply influenced by the internet.
Ultimately the best way to reach youth is through the love of Jesus and by encouraging youth to get involved in ministry themselves. Foster said, “Until the young person is actually practicing what he or she has learned, growth is sadly limited.” And involvement can be messy. Youth don’t grow up in isolated, private spaces. They do it publicly, and their actions can turn off adults who forget about their own problematic upbringings. Eugene Peterson writes,
Adolescents are, more than anything else, growing up. They do not do it quietly. They do not stay in their rooms and grow up in isolation; they do not restrict their growing to the times when they are safely among peers. Their growing spills out, unsystematically, all over the place. In this way adolescents energetically modeling and constantly stimulating growth, are God’s gift to parents who are in danger of being arrested in their own growth (note 9).
Those who are committed to loving and understanding youth will discover effective ways to win them and become good news in the process.
Window of Opportunity
God is actively working among youth today. In fact, research has shown that somewhere around eighty-five percent of people who make a commitment to Jesus Christ are making that commitment before the age of eighteen, and those who don’t make the commitment by this age probably never will (note 10). Ron Hutchcraft rightly says,
There is a bottom line that has driven me for more than thirty years in ministry. At least three-fourths of all those who ever accept Jesus Christ do so by the age of eighteen. When you go to the local high school graduation and watch the kids walking across that platform, realize that those who don’t know Christ then will probably live and die and spend eternity without Him. The church of Jesus Christ has nothing more urgent to do than reach people before their lives turn hard—while they are young (note 11).
Youth ministry is an important time to reach out and minister to those who are in their formative years and are ready for something to happen in their lives. They want to change the world for Jesus and are willing to get involved in that change. Reaching youth here and now should be a top priority for those in ministry, knowing their minds are still open for the gospel and willing to become disciples for the Master.
1. Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, Dave Rahn, editors, Starting Right: Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), p. 44.
2.Mark H. Senter III, When God Shows Up: A History of Protestant Youth Ministry in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2010), p. 32.
3.Chap Clark, "Chapter 2: The Changing Face of Adolescence: A Theological View of Human Development," Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, David Rahn, Starting Right: Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), p. 54.
4.Steve Gerali, "Chapter 18: Seeing Clearly: Community Context," in Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, Dave Rahn, editors, Starting Right: Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), p. 288.
5.Ibid., p. 288.
6.Troy Jones, From Survival to Significance: The How Tos of Youth Ministry for the Twenty-First Century (Mukilteo, WA: WinePress Publishing, 1998), pp. 23-29.
7.Robbins, Duffy (2009-08-30). This Way to Youth Ministry: Companion Guide (YS Academic) (Kindle Locations 5899-5908). Zondervan/Youth Specialties. Kindle edition.
8.According to the respected Kaiser Family Foundation (2010) report: "Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack in a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes’ worth of media content into those 7 and ½ hours." According to the Kaiser report, young people are spending 25% of their online time with multiple media devises and 31% say that they are using multiple media while doing their homework (Kaiser Family Foundation, "Generation M2," as quoted in Dean Borgman, Foundations for Youth Ministry: Theological Engagement with Teen Life and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 219.
9.As quoted in Duffy, Kindle Locations 3991-3994.
10.George Barna, "Teens and Adults Have Little Chance of Accepting Christ as Their Savior," The Barna Report (October-December 1999), n.p. as quoted in Jim Burns and Mike Devries, Partnering with Parents in Youth Ministry (Ventura, CA: Gospel Light, 2003), p. 13.
11.Hutchcraft, p. 35.