Letting the Word Speak
Some honest realities of embedding God’s truth in today’s youth culture
Today, directors of youth ministry must navigate far more than the usual complexities of adolescence. Technology and our culture’s sexual conversation have changed the parameters and deepened the ramifications. EFCA Today spoke with two individuals who navigate those waters in EFCA churches—bringing the Word to bear on young lives.
Tess Cervenka is senior-high youth director in the church where she grew up: Calvary Community Church, just outside Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The youth group serves teens from eight different high schools and a wide socioeconomic spectrum.
Tess grew up memorizing Scripture through AWANA, so she is passionate about teens knowing the Word and allowing it to change their lives.
Seth Dunham leads the student ministry at Church at Charlotte, in North Carolina, having previously served EFCA churches in Colorado and Wisconsin. He expected that, in moving to the Bible belt, he’d be able to dive deeply into Scripture. After all, about half of his students attend a private Christian school.
But somehow, he says, “I feel like Paul speaking to the Corinthians about what type of food they should be eating: milk or meat? I feel they need meat [to live] in today’s culture, only to find that more often than not, they need milk. Somehow we need to make a smoothie… .”
Interviewing Tess and Seth for EFCA Today is Matt Proctor, pastor at Cornerstone Church (EFCA) in Marion, Iowa.
What makes it challenging today to convince students of the importance of the Word?
Tess: Social media makes my role super challenging. The world is pouring into them daily, without them realizing it. The Bible has answers for them—it is fresh water to their dry souls. What they learn through media to be “normal” or acceptable doesn’t always correspond with what the Word teaches.
The stronger the veneer created with social media, the less need there is for the cross.
Seth: Snapchat and Instagram are certainly not inherently bad or evil, but they do allow students to create a veneer. The stronger the use, the stronger the veneer. The stronger the veneer, the less need there is for the cross. The less need for the cross, the less need for God’s Word. The escapism social media provides isn’t new or revolutionary—but it’s effective.
Consider the basic words of the gospel: “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Where is the need for grace when our veneer is so thick we see little wrong with ourselves? By extension, where is the relevance of faith when students don’t need the grace?
Teenagers are much, much smarter and more intuitive than we realize. Deep down, they know it’s just a veneer.
What else is going on in kids’ lives and heads that battles against the Word gaining a foothold?
Tess: Busyness! Many of my students are crazy-busy with sports and homework. And then, it doesn’t help if their parents don’t see church as a priority.
Seth: I think about Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Students have so little time to be still. It’s not uncommon for a kid to get up at 5 a.m. for some before-school activity, practice till late, and then tell me they are doing homework till 2 or 3 a.m., only to start over the next morning. Then add to it both academic pressure and peer pressure, and the escapism of video games and social media, and God can become a small slice of a very large pie.
Tess: I also have a lot of kids from broken homes. They are trying to please mom; they are trying to please dad; they’re between two homes and carry the baggage of their parents’ emotional problems. So this adds to the stress.
If we take a good look, we may find that our ministries promote programming over relationships.
How do you keep from simply adding more to-dos to their busy lives?
Seth: That’s a great question. I think every student ministry worker would agree that it is all about relationships, which take time. But if we take a good look, we may find that our ministries promote programming over relationships much more than we think they do.
Did you know that out of the years Jesus spent with His disciples, almost half was spent just in the “follow me” phase? At the end of the day, we want to make following Jesus a lifestyle—where Jesus is the hub of the wheel instead of a slice of the pie.
Tess: I don’t want them to see youth group as one more thing to add to their plate but something that helps them with all that is on their plate—a safe place to come and be themselves, where they can let their guard down and get filled up by good friends, leaders, God’s Word and encouragement that they are not walking it alone. Isn’t that what Hebrews 10:24-25 is all about: spurring one another on to love and good deeds?
What methods have you tried to embed the Word in your students?
Tess: I have asked students to write devos in their own words for their peers. We made a peer-to-peer devotional, and some of the students are using it. Each week we also discuss in small groups how the Bible can be applied to their life. I’m encouraged to see more of them desiring the truth.
Seth: We’re letting students teach. That seems to bring a whole new sense to the authority of God’s Word, when it comes out of a peer’s mouth. It takes work on our end to prep them to teach, but it’s sometimes more effective. Ultimately, we would love to move to a model where our Sunday nights are more student-led than leader-led.
We’re also teaching our kids a new concept of Hebrew friendship called haver1—where groups of two to five students dialog over the meaning of a text and then live it out together. With some guidance from leaders, they discover the relevance of Scripture and learn to feed themselves. The peer-to-peer thing seems to be working.
Simon Sinek’s research—and subsequent TED Talk on “Millennials in the Workplace”—has revitalized in a positive way how we think about millennials and how to come alongside them. Our job to make the truth of God’s Word appealing may be more challenging, but it’s not so much a problem as an opportunity to be seized for God’s kingdom.