Confronting the Unchurched Youth in Europe
It is Saturday evening in Villach, Southern Austria. Thomas and I are engaged in a lively discussion about God with a group of young people in our “teabus.” The converted bus is parked in the old town centre close to all the bars and night clubs. Here, we provide free tea and coffee to young people out for the night. As usual, my young co-worker and I are dealing with an interesting group dynamic. The mixed group of 15 and 16-year-olds has been drinking. Several are beginning to engage with the conversation, several are trying to provoke us with their coarse jokes about religion or shock us with their sexual innuendos, one wants to move on to the next bar, and one is just not interested.
“God” is a very loose concept for this largely unchurched group. Some have been to Catholic Mass when their parents or grandparents have pressed them to go; however, they rarely hear about the creator, saviour, personal God there. Some regurgitate the philosophical ideas they have heard in debates in what is termed “religious education” at school: God is energy or God is a human construction. “I am God” says one of the more drunk guys. “Alcohol and sex are my gods” says another. They both collapse in helpless laughter. They decide to move on and persuade some of the others to go with them. Despite the massive group pressure, two choose to stay and talk. Thomas and I know we have perhaps another ten or twenty minutes with these people. What should we say?
Sharing a mini 5-point gospel presentation with such a group is pointless. The basic concepts of God and sin need to be defined first. In a broken world where patchwork families are the norm and alcohol is an escape, our personal testimony has great effect. Sharing our stories, in particular the hope and purpose we have found in Jesus, is far more effective than neat arguments at this stage.
One co-worker used an inspired sentence in the middle of a conversation to completely disarm a vehement attack on our faith from a genuinely interested but provocative young man. After fifteen minutes of debate in which our co-worker had repeatedly and gently countered the visitor’s rhetoric, our co-worker said, “The difference between your point of view and mine is that I am at peace with the world and happy with my faith and myself and you are not. You have inner turmoil.”
Bold but effective, the visitor had no answer. We need to help people see that we were created for a relationship with God. The simple fact that we are out in the world, demonstrating love and care by talking and listening to the young people (and not preaching at them), is a powerful message in itself.
Defining the concept of sin is inextricably linked with an understanding of the absolute authority of the Bible—a hot potato in multicultural, secular Europe. Discussions around the inspiration of scripture and moral relativism usually help. Initially, the Bible will be dismissed as a human work; however, a few key facts about its consistency despite a hugely varied authorship and fulfilled prophecy can quickly break this barrier down.
Then we can build on this platform and explain how God interacts with his world; how he wants a relationship with us but does not force it on us. Relationship is important to the post-modern generation and so we start to awaken more interest as we help them see that relationship is what God wants too.
We don’t often get this far in one conversation in the teabus. The average visitor stays for around fifteen to thirty minutes. Hopefully, by showing genuine interest in them and their ideas and by making ourselves vulnerable, we have left the way open for them to return.
And they do return. Each evening, most of visitors have been in the bus before. Many ask for the same co-worker—friendship is important.
On the second or third visit we might still be clarifying the basic concepts. And now is the time for the 5-point gospel. We cannot deny the serious consequences that follow a negative response to the gospel, but we still need to be careful not to condemn. The post-modern generation balks at authority and it is important to help people overcome this. I have often heard it quoted that the average Christian hears the gospel nearly twenty times before understanding and responding.
The following principles can be applied to evangelism among young people in many and varied contexts across much of Europe:
- Value relationship. We must be genuine in wanting to get to know the young people and listen to them. An initial goal should be to build a long-term relationship.
- Offer something to those we are reaching out to. If we do not, they will just think we are selling our ideology. Free tea and coffee could be replaced with sport programs, after school drop-in centres, or some other social action.
- Do not condemn (either directly or by offering to help with, say, alcoholism, too quickly). Listen to what God is saying.
- Be authentic and live out the gospel message.
- Establish and define basic concepts of God, the authority of scripture, and sin first.
- Do not give up, even if you do not see results. Sow the seed and leave it up to God to do the reaping. We recently heard of three people who, after visiting the teabus, began thinking about Jesus. They later became Christians and are in another church.
The discussion recounted earlier in the bus was five years ago. Like many young Christians, Thomas knew he should be reaching out to his generation but was not sure how to go about that. He also had a desire to help other young Christians grow in their faith. Coaching (traditionally called discipling) has helped Thomas realize his potential, and discover and use the gifts God has given him.
Although it has been an intense process, it has also been very rewarding. Thomas is now at Bible college and should return in 2009 to work alongside us and then take over the responsibility for the local youth work. Although he always had a nice style when interacting with peers, Thomas was not sure how to share the gospel in the light of the provocative arguments he encountered. In the teabus ministry we always work in teams of two. This allowed Thomas to develop his “natural” gift alongside a mature team member. Simple role plays as a preparation for each outreach provided some practice. Often, the experienced person could include Thomas in the conversation by inviting him to share his own story with the visitors.
Thomas came into the teabus leadership and into the team of church youth leaders. Initially he felt uncertain in both roles; however, discipling helped him feel more comfortable. His knowledge and skills were further developed through a combination of courses, coaching, and practical experience. Character development was achieved through a young leader’s training program with intensive Bible studies, seminars, and coaching discussions based on the lives and characters of biblical role models such as Peter and David.
It was important to see steady parallel development in the three areas of knowledge, skills, and character. Character defines great leaders; however, knowledge and skills are also vital. Again, authentic relationships are important. In an open and honest discipleship context the coach can share his or her own weaknesses and struggles in order to help the post-modern young person understand and acknowledge things about themselves. They need to be encouraged to look in the mirror and then personally recognise, accept, and deal with the true reflection they see.
In Austria, we often need to encourage young leaders to try new things. They need the opportunity and support to apply new knowledge and skills in the correct setting and at the correct time. The Austrian culture is a shame culture and fear of failure can be debilitating. Mistakes must be allowed, and to a certain extent even celebrated, so that people will lose that fear. Leaders are often required to work alongside their disciples to help them prepare their first Bible study (and the second and the third).
Thomas is not alone. Raimund is at Bible college as well, and others are preparing for significant local ministry. Trying to disciple more than three people at once is too much. Therefore, it is important to use a network of coaches.
There was little surprise when, after a number of years in local youth leadership, Thomas started to consider the idea of Bible college and full-time ministry. I could sense this was the right step. Perhaps I should have been bolder and suggested this was God’s calling on his life. In the New Testament the apostles and the church leadership set individuals apart to undertake a particular ministry. We need to rediscover this role in the West.
Distance is no object to a teacher-disciple relationship in the modern era. Although Thomas is five hundred kilometres away, the depth of our relationship means that phone calls and emails can still be enormously beneficial.
The last five years have been a long haul with Thomas. After he returns at the end of this year, there will be a more intensive period of helping him take over the ministry. By the time I step back, a total of seven years will have been invested in one future leader for Austria. But it is an investment that has had, and will continue to have, huge returns.
Below are nine principles for leadership development for young people in Europe:
- Make the teacher-disciple relationship central.
- Remember that character is not learned. It is developed through experience and honest reflection.
- Develop knowledge, skills, and character in parallel.
- Identify and develop natural gifts.
- Help the young leader to develop the skill of reflecting.
- Encourage the young leader to try new things and celebrate mistakes.
- Do not disciple too many people at once. Set up a network of teachers.
- If you feel God calling someone into ministry, be bold and share it.
- Be patient. Discipleship is usually a long-term project with eternal results.