My father is 90 in 2013. He has 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He recently asked a question that he has asked many times before,
How do we bring young people to faith in Jesus Christ? It seems that so often that is just not happening in the church these days.
That question has also gripped me.
Over the past fifteen years at PRMI, we have offered youth the context of camp retreats to verify the truth of Jesus, the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. I decided to start with PRMI’s ministry to young adults for some answers to Daddy’s question.
I can assert without hesitation and undue pride that the Lord Jesus has blessed us in our work with young women and men.
All glory to Him!
Over the last 15 years, PRMI has offered first, Youth Empowerment, and now, more recently, Upward Challenge, as contexts in which numbers of teenagers and young adults have met Savior Jesus and grown in faithful learning and practice of following Lord Jesus.
I present here my findings as I have analyzed this ministry— 5 keys to making disciples of young people.
Key #1: The Love of Jesus Christ
A safe place to experience the Love of Jesus Christ.
Laura Long, my wife, brought four young men from the small church she pastors to Upward Challenge.
Three were African American and one Caucasian.
She came back from the closing night of Upward Challenge overwhelmed by the love that was present there.
She related to me that as she drove her young congregants home, they had gone on and on about the wonderful and amazing experience it was for them to be loved, listened to, and prayed for, by the adults as well as by their fellow young people. They marveled at the worshiping, praying and ministering they shared together over the course of Upward Challenge, how it had all crossed lines of race, gender and economic class.
Thank you, Holy Spirit, for your unifying work through the love of Christ, to make us all sisters and brothers in Jesus. Thank you for showing that so clearly to those young people, created in the image of God. How can we make room for and invite Jesus’ love to shine in such a setting?
- Prayer. Intercessory prayer is offered before, during, and after the Upward Challenge events. Adults give a week of their time to come to pray and to minister to the young people.
- Loving Leaders. The adults and young leaders openly share the love of Jesus with the young people who attend. These mentors really do love the youth they meet. Otherwise, it is doubtful they would want to give up a week of their lives for rainy weather, vicious mosquitoes, and all the other discomforts that come with camping!
- Christ-centered Worship. The worship leaders are Holy Spirit-filled Christians, well-trained, and in love with their Lord and Savior Jesus upon whom they focus the worship they lead.
Youth today, as in all generations, need to hear more than the words “Jesus loves you.” They also need to experience Jesus loving them directly in prayer and worship.
At Upward Challenge adults and young leaders know that their love helps to mediate Jesus’ love in worship and prayer, a firm basis for inviting these young people into following Jesus Christ as His disciples.
In this generation of dysfunctional families plagued by absent fathers, with a superficial internet social network culture defined for many as relationship, experiencing this love of Jesus is essential even to win their attention.
Key #2: Solid Biblical Teaching and Preaching
Solid Biblical teaching and preaching provided by well-equipped and anointed young leaders.
A well-written teaching manual undergirds each Upward Challenge event, adapted for young people from Dunamis Project Equipping manuals.
Originally written by Elizabeth Schultz, my older daughter, and later adapted and refined by Rev. Paul Stokes, they are compellingly named:
- 4D Human
- Mountain Mover
- Combat Medic
- Border Breaker
All biblically based, of course, the theological framework of each unit is Reformed and Evangelical.
The Cross is still central. You will not find here liberalized, watered-down Christian doctrine supposedly made more attractive to the younger generation. It is biblical Trinitarian Christianity. The materials are crafted with American, Canadian and British young people in mind.
Who is best able to speak the word of God to young men and women? It is certainly not me, at my age!
Rather, this work is best suited to young men and women who are just slightly older and more mature than their audience.
It has taken about ten years to build a team of such trained and anointed young teachers and mentors, with a process in place to continue to train new ones.
Teenagers who have attended Upward Challenge before begin leading small groups.
They then move on to being young adult mentors for the small group leaders. As their gifting emerges, they may apprentice and then lead in other roles – intercession, administration, teaching, etc.
They are not left, however, without backup. Older, more mature and experienced adults support them on site with coaching, prayer covering and feedback. Their role, that is, that of the older ones among us, is to remain in the background, content like grandparents to help when help is needed and requested. These grandparents have made an enormous commitment of time, energy and resources.
The fundamental spiritual reality of how any of us comes to faith is affirmed by St. Paul, “Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17) The young leaders/mentors are thus trained to teach and preach the Word of Christ. They have sat under this special teaching, mastered it, lived it, and continue to grow in it, practicing the art of cooperating with the Holy Spirit.
The result is that this younger generation is proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the just slightly younger generation and leading others to become disciples of Jesus Christ through the hearing of the Word.
Key #3: Welcome, Holy Spirit!
Preaching and teaching good doctrine and showing the love of Jesus is not enough to grow people as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit, Third Person of the Trinity, must be welcomed!
“God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.“ Hebrews 2:4
And this is what happens at Upward Challenge.
That last night was amazing! The Holy Spirit fell on them. I think everyone was crying. Many, including the four young men that I brought, were so overcome by the Holy Spirit’s power and presence that they were rested in the Spirit on the floor.
Actually, at one point, most of the group was resting on the floor.
One of the young men I brought received the gift of tongues as a prayer language. Others experienced getting words of knowledge to be able to pray for others. Several young men and women manifested evil spirits as their deep inner wounding was uncovered and healed. The demons were cast out and the evidence was clear and unmistakable that they were set free from bondage.
And much, much more! In a word, these young people experienced Jesus and His Word as real!
What brings young men and women of this generation to faith in Jesus Christ?
The very same way St. Paul’s ministry was made effective in his day. The Holy Spirit!
- Romans 15:18 – 19 For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in order to bring about the obedience of the Gentiles, by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit of God.
- Hebrews 2:4 While God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
What happens at Upward Challenge, (at all PRMI events) is listed here as Paul’s secret of success: A single-minded focus on Jesus Christ, deeds consistent with faith and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power through gifts, and signs and wonders.
So, the wonderful Holy Spirit experienced in the context of the tangible love of Jesus, mediated in worship, biblical teaching and preaching and discernment—that is what we ask our Father to accomplish at every Upward Challenge event.
It is all about Jesus and experiencing Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is built into the whole program. In addition to worship, preaching/teaching, prayer ministry, there remains ample time to swim in the river and play sock wars in the woods. All for Jesus!
To accomplish this requires a true “inter-generational” community of mature Christians who can provide the safe context of love, worship, prayer, discernment and the teaching of the Word to welcome the Holy Spirit into our midst.
While past generations may have been brought to faith through rational arguments or by the witness of creditable preachers like Dr. Billy Graham, or by the foundations and traditions of a denomination, this generation needs first hand experiences of Jesus Christ Himself. Solid doctrine with a real Jesus.
And that is the Holy Spirit’s job. As Jesus says, “He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you.” (John 16:14)
This is why Upward Challenge works. When young men and women come to experience Jesus Christ as real, loving them, setting them free, guiding them, actually speaking to them, the effects are profound! The word of God is sealed as true in their hearts and they are set as disciples on the journey of following Jesus.
Key #4: Receive Savior Jesus and Commit and Recommit to Follow Lord Jesus
The clear invitation offered in multiple ways to make a commitment to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and to follow Him as Lord.
At each Upward Challenge, two invitations are given.
The first is to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Some of the participants come from Christian families; other do not. For many, this becomes a first time profession of faith. For others, it is a recommitment to believing in Jesus Christ.
The context for experiencing the love of Jesus Christ has been set. The youth have heard the Word of God preached and taught. They have also begun to experience Jesus at work through the Holy Spirit. The invitation is now given to receive Christ and make a confession of faith.
Great care is taken to make sure undue peer pressure is not exerted or any form of coercion by adults.
Rather, there is freedom given to respond from the heart and the will, with intellectual integrity. For only such a response can be genuine and life-changing.
Then, time and space are made available for these young disciples to express aloud their decisions to receive Christ and their commitment to follow Him.
The Holy Spirit directs this joyous time of sharing. Often, the celebration seems to draw all heaven into the gathering. Or, better said, the Holy Spirit seems to take the whole gathering into heaven itself, into the presence of the Father and the Son. What joy!
Key #5: Be Baptized in the Holy Spirit for Power according to Acts 1:8
To be given the opportunity to pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit as in Acts 1:8.
The second invitation given to participants at every Upward Challenge is to deepen their discipleship by praying for the empowering of the Holy Spirit a la Acts 1:8 so that they may be effective witnesses to Jesus Christ.
Coercion, manipulation, and emotionalism are avoided.
We always pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!”
Most often, the invitation takes place in the context of the laying on of hands. Sometimes, however, the Holy Spirit acts in the midst of worship or while people are off in solo time. We do indeed see what happened at Pentecost taking place at Upward Challenge.
And we see what the prophet spoke of being fulfilled. Act 2:17 “And in the last days it will be,” God says,”that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.“
Critical here is our goal not only to raise up disciples who believe in Jesus but also to train disciples who are empowered by the Holy Spirit and given the spiritual gifts needed to cooperate with Jesus Christ in advancing the Kingdom of God.
The world into which these young people are being sent as disciples of the Lord Jesus is very different than the one many of us knew when we were young. The decay of Christian culture in the West along with the social support for being named by Jesus’ name has eroded radically in recent decades. We are not able to follow Jesus and be His witnesses without His promised provision—the help, guidance, gifts, and power of the Holy Spirit
So, Daddy, that is how you can help future generations become followers of Jesus Christ!
Enable them to come to Upward Challenge!
By way of summarizing these five keys, I will expand the context from Upward Challenge to the Church at large, to encourage Christian congregations in general. Welcome the Holy Spirit into worship services, preaching and teaching, Bible studies and small groups, so that all may experience Jesus and His love. Regularly extend the invitation to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Invite Christians, older and younger, to ask the Holy Spirit in prayer to fill and empower them as Jesus’ witnesses to the world.
- Key #1: The love of Jesus Christ
- Key #2: Solid biblical teaching and preaching
- Key #3: Welcome, Holy Spirit!
- Key #4: Receive Savior Jesus and commit and recommit to follow Lord Jesus
- Key #5: Be baptized in the Holy Spirit for power according to Acts 1:8