So, how does the gospel message change when talking with teenagers and college students? The message never changes–it is the same for all people in all places–but our approach in sharing the gospel with students can leave a great impact on how they receive the message. Keep the following in mind as you reach out to this generation:
Don’t assume they will accept your definition of truth. Students have been immersed in a postmodern culture that says, What is true for you may not be true for me. They can accept that there are multiple truths, even if those truths are diametrically opposed to each other. Simply quoting Scripture to them may not be the place to start because they may not initially accept that the truth of Scripture is a truth that applies to them.
Tell them your story. They might want you to argue with Scripture, but they can’t argue with your life story. Share your testimony. Tell them who you were before becoming a Christian and how Christ changed your life. What will speak most to them is the difference Christ is making in your life right now. Teenagers don’t think about the long-term future or eternity; they focus on today. Focus on the earthly benefits (avoid the churchy word “blessings”!) and what it cost you to follow Christ. Your beliefs can be interwoven in your life story; but they are more interested in your experience.
Listen to their story first. We first have to earn the right to tell our story. We do this by listening more than talking. Ask a lot of questions. This is not an interview, but a way to show genuine interest in them. As you hear their story, you will also discern what makes them tick–what their worldview is, what’s a part of their belief system.
Find common ground. As you get to know a student, you will likely find some aspects of his life==family, background, interests, questions they ponder–that you can relate to. You don’t have to force these or manufacture these. To do so can sound condescending to a teenager just getting to know you. Just run with what’s obvious. When you are able to tell your own story, you can include these points of intersection.
Build a relationship. Relationships are significant to this generation of students, and you will not earn the right to be heard simply because of one evangelistic encounter. It is likely to take several encounters with a student to hear his story fully, get to know him, and to earn the right to tell your story. Students are flooded with messages and sales pitches, and a quick evangelistic encounter may be viewed cynically as just another sales pitch.
Be prepared to invest some time in the relationship. The more a student knows you, the more she can see your character–that you live what you believe–and the more she will listen to the truth when you present it.
Be real. If you’re not an adolescent, don’t try to act like one. Be yourself. We can understand the youth subculture without looking like them and acting like them. Students need adult relationships and, while they may never admit this openly, they want adult relationships. Your openness and integrity–as an adult–will go a long way in moving a student from seeing your evangelistic efforts as just another sales pitch.
Present the gospel story. To a non-religious, unchurched youth, the facts of the gospel will seem foreign. Present those truths within the context of the whole story of redemption. Students are hit with a myriad of different world-views–both secular and religious. They might not express it explicitly, but inherent in all these world-views is a way to explain three things:
(1) Where did we come from?
(2) Why are we here?
(3) Where are we going?
Take time to answer these three questions through the biblical story. By helping students see the full picture, the propositional truths of the gospel become clearer.
Avoid confusing language. If they don’t know the biblical story, it’s not likely they’re going to understand. In the left column are some good words–rich in meaning–but often needing clarification. Consider using phrases such as those in the right column.
Instead of saying…
You could say something like…
Asked Christ into my heart/Received Jesus
Asked Christ to take control of my life
Believed what I heard and committed my life to following the truth
Knew it to be true
Christ removed the guilt of all the wrong I had done
God’s Chosen One to bring us to Him
Talk to God
Christ set me free from the way I had been living
Sacrifice for sins
Jesus paid the price for all the wrong I have done
Integrate them into a group. Postmodern teenagers are not the individualists of previous generations. A sense of community is important to them. They will become more receptive to the gospel message as they see it lived out in a community of believers. The gospel moves from being truths that you believe to being something they see experienced and lived out by a community of believers. Don’t hesitate to invite them to a small group Bible study or Sunday School class.
Trust God to work. Some students, in spite of the cultural stew in which they’ve grown up, readily see and acknowledge the truth of the gospel. Others will take their time. But the same God who transformed the fanitical Pharisaical Saul, the cultured Apollos, and thousands of questioning, confused, and searching teenagers for generations, can also work through you to reach this generation of teenagers.
*SOURCE: Adapted from the Holman CSB Minister’s Bible. Nashville: TN.: Holman Bible Publishers, 2005, pp. 1719-1721.
I am the Lead Pastor of Valley Baptist Church (Bay Area), born and raised in Huntington Beach, Ca., and currently living in Novato, California. I am married to my best friend of 29 years - Dana - and have five adult children; and seven grand children. I have been a Teaching Pastor for over thirty years. I was privileged to study at Multnomah University (B.S. - 1988); Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. - 1991); Westminster Theological Seminary & Northwest Graduate School (D. Min. - 2003). I founded Vertical Living Ministries in 2008 with the goal of encouraging Christian Disciples and Leaders to be more intentionally Christ-Centered in how they live by bringing glory to God in nine key areas of life: (1) Intimacy with God, (2) marriage, (3) family, (4) friendship, (5) vocationally/ministry , (6) emotional and physical health, (7) stewardship of resources, (8) discipleship, and (9) mentoring.
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