Unleash Your Youth Group

I’ll never forget the day I walked into that youth group. Although I was only 11 years old, I was determined to experience the suburban youth ministry that had reached my entire rough-and-tumble, inner-city family for Jesus.

The pastor of this church and the leader of this youth ministry was a hillbilly preacher whose nickname, for some strange reason, was Yankee. Yankee had an air about him that is hard to put into words, but it was through his outreach efforts that most of my fist-throwing, powerlifting, body-building family members not only came to Christ, but also began to grow in Christ.

When Yankee spoke to a crowd, he preached for 45 minutes, sprinkling his talk with corny jokes and compelling stories. It was just him and his open Bible, but he mesmerized the room.

At the end of his talk, Yankee explained the gospel in the clearest way I had ever heard. After that, he had everyone bow their heads, and he asked students to raise their hands if they wanted to put their trust in Christ. To my shock, hands went up everywhere. (Yes, I was peeking.)

I soon learned that Yankee shared the gospel and invited listeners to trust Christ at the end of every talk. He believed, and rightly so, that this could be the only chance a visiting teen had to put their faith in Jesus.

But there was something else about his passion that caught my attention: He expected every Christian teen to share the gospel at every single opportunity.

I soon found out he expected it from me, too. 

The Young and the Relentless

After he equipped me to share my faith, I began to make disciples in my neighborhood. As a 12-year-old, I led all my neighborhood friends to Christ and started a neighborhood Bible study for them.

But the person on my heart the most was my ma. She had lived a promiscuous life—and I was a result of it. I never knew my biological father. When he found out my ma was pregnant, he got himself transferred 2,000 miles away. Mom drove from Denver to Boston planning to have an illegal abortion, but she changed her mind at the last minute.

For years, she would often look at me and burst into tears, because she felt so guilty for almost aborting me. But after I learned how to share my faith, I began to evangelize her. Finally, after three years of sharing the gospel with her, she gave in and put her faith in Christ. Then I had the privilege of discipling her.

And, by the way, I wasn’t the exceptional teen in Yankee’s youth group. I was one of at least 100 student leaders who were equipped and expected to make disciples. We weren’t treated like the church of tomorrow, but rather were unleashed as the church of today.

Those years changed the trajectory of my life and my entire family. And it all started with Yankee, who believed in the power of the gospel and the potential of teenagers.

Hungry for the Gospel

In 1991, after planting a church in the Denver area, I started Dare 2 Share Ministries, with the goal of equipping teenagers to share the gospel with their peers. In 1999, after the Columbine High School shooting, I resigned from the church to lead Dare 2 Share full-time.

Since then, we have had the privilege of equipping millions of teenagers across the United States and, more recently, around the world to share the good news of Jesus with their peers.

Like Yankee, I believe in the power of the gospel and the potential of youth. I also believe in the necessity of the local church to lead the way when it comes to unleashing these teens with and for the gospel.

It’s easy to think of Gen Z (the current generation of teenagers) and Gen Alpha (the coming generation of teenagers) as somehow exempt from this gospel call. We may be tempted to think things like, Well, they are too post-Christian or Teenagers are far more concerned about social issues than spiritual ones, or whatever.

But the reality is that the gospel is as effective today as it ever was, and teenagers are open to its message. My friend Shane Pruitt, an evangelist to the next generation, told me he’s seen more people come to Christ in the last three years than he has in 16 years of evangelism.

Zane Black, one of my friends and co-trainers at Dare 2 Share, traveled with Winter Jam last year as the evangelist on tour (along with 10 Christian bands and artists) and saw 40,000-plus young people come to Christ during a 40-city tour.

We need to put aside our preconceived notions of reaching these teenagers with the gospel, and embrace the truth that evangelism is not only the key to reaching the next generation but also the key to discipling them.

With this as a backdrop, here are five reasons why teaching teens to evangelize is the key to reaching (and discipling) the next generation:

1. Teens Come to Christ Quicker.

The statistics vary a bit depending on the exact study, but somewhere around 80% of people who come to Christ do so by the age of 18. Put another way, young people come to Christ far more readily than adults do. So, why in the world aren’t we matching our churches’ outreach dollars to reach that demographic? 

Too many churches are more concerned with giving units than with sheer spiritual impact. But here’s what we need to remember: In God’s kingdom economy, our currency is souls, not cash. 

I’m convinced that when we set our sights on reaching and discipling as many people as possible, God will provide the finances. This doesn’t mean we forsake sharing the gospel with adults—we must reach them too—but we must make reaching young adults, youth and children a huge priority in the church if we expect to reach our communities for Jesus.

I’ll never forget attending an “e-team” meeting with pastors from around Portland, Oregon. I had just spoken at an evangelism-training event sponsored by the Luis Palau Association (LPA). A group of 20 or so pastors from around the Portland area were meeting afterward to brainstorm reaching their city for Christ.

When LPA President Kevin Palau asked the speakers if they had anything to share, I responded: “Where are all the youth leaders? If you’re serious about reaching this city, then you have to get serious about reaching the youth, because they come to Christ faster than adults.”

They must have all been former youth leaders, because they fully agreed. To their credit, they soon after helped launch youth leader networks all across Portland. If you want to get serious about reaching your city for Christ, then you also must get serious about reaching the young.

2. Teens Can Spread the Gospel Further.

Not only do teenagers come to Christ faster than adults, but they can also take the gospel further. According to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the average teen has at least 425 online and face-to-face friends. If teens are inspired, equipped and unleashed, they can reach them all with the message of the gospel.

Sometimes adults look at social media as a weapon of Satan, but we can redeem it as a tool for Christ. A 15-year-old teenager who posts a viral gospel video can reach more people with the gospel than the late Billy Graham could reach in 15 stadium events.

This generation is poised to become the greatest force for evangelism—both online and in person—in history. But to do this effectively, teenagers must be given gospel urgency, fluency and strategy.

Gospel urgency comes from them learning why sharing the gospel is part of both their duty and privilege as followers of Jesus. When teens realize what’s at stake (heaven and hell) and how the gospel can transform their friends by giving them a new identity, belonging and purpose (See 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager by Brad Griffin and Kara Powell for more on these topics), it can ignite a passion for evangelism and reframe The Great Commission as The Greatest Cause.

Gospel fluency takes place when we train teenagers in the whole story of the gospel—from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. At Dare 2 Share, we do that by having teenagers memorize a simple gospel acrostic that tells the whole story:

God created us to be with him (Gen. 1–2).

Our sins separate us from God (Gen. 3).

Sins cannot be removed by good deeds (Gen. 4–Malachi 4).

Paying the price for sin, Jesus died and rose again (Matt–Luke).

Everyone who trusts in him alone has eternal life (John).

Life with Jesus starts now and lasts forever (Acts–Rev.).

Once students memorize this, they have a six-point mental outline they can walk their friends through to explain the gospel message clearly and fully.

After teens acquire gospel urgency and fluency, it’s time to give them a gospel strategy. This revolves around a methodology for sharing the gospel. There are many to choose from (e.g., The Four by Cru, 3 Circles by the North American Mission Board, 3Story by Youth for Christ). At Dare 2 Share, our method is our Life in 6 Words (LI6W.com) app, available free wherever you get your apps.

Whatever strategy teens use is fine. Just make sure the gospel message in it is clear and complete. As I often tell youth leaders, I don’t go into a steak restaurant for the plate. I go for the steak. In the same way, the gospel is the steak, and the methodology is the plate upon which we serve it. Choose your plate, and serve the steak.

Teenagers who are given gospel urgency, fluency and strategy can become an unstoppable force for evangelism in the church.

3. Teens Can Trigger Spiritual Movements.

Every major spiritual movement in the history of the U.S. has had teenagers on the leading edge. During the First Great Awakening in the 1700s, John Wesley preached with holy fervency across spiritually darkened Great Britain, while George Whitefield did the same across the American colonies. Jonathan Edwards, chief historian of this Great Awakening, wrote: “The revival has been chiefly amongst the young.”

In the 1800s, the whole ministry of D.L. Moody centered around the reaching and mobilizing of youth to preach the gospel. Moody Bible Institute is a modern-day testament to his passion for reaching and mobilizing youth.

In the late 1960s and ’70s, teens and 20-somethings led the Jesus Movement, during which young people on fire for Christ made the cover of Time magazine. (Watch the Jesus Revolution movie to get a glimpse of the impact it made.)

I believe we are seeing rumblings of a new, youth-led spiritual awakening across the nation. It has started with young people praying and praising God together in mass meetings. If it is true revival, it will end in the streets with these young people reaching their peers (and everyone else) with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. Teens Grow as They Go.

Teenagers who share their faith grow in their faith. As Philemon 1:6 reminds us: “I pray you may be active in sharing your faith so that you may know every good thing you have in Christ Jesus.”

The problem is that we often view discipleship as pouring milk into a sponge. We think that if we pour the milk of God’s Word into the minds of the next generation, then that is discipleship.

But that’s only part of the answer.

If you pour milk into a sponge and don’t wring it out, the milk spoils. In the same way, we must pour the milk of God’s Word into young minds, and then we must equip them to wring that truth out to their friends. When they do, they’ll come back fresh and thirsty for more.

If you want to see your teenagers grow, then equip them to go. There’s nothing like evangelism to teach teens to depend on the Holy Spirit and learn from God’s Word.

Isn’t this what Jesus did with his mostly teenage disciples? He equipped them by mobilizing them for evangelism (Luke 9:1–2, 10:1–3). We must do the same.

5. Teens Die to Themselves When They Gospelize Others.

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Matt. 16:24).

In Jesus’s time, when you saw someone carrying their cross you knew they were walking to their death. In the same way, Jesus calls us and our teenagers to pick up our crosses and die to ourselves.

We do this by dying to our own desires and living for him. We do this by being willing to literally die for him if necessary. But one of the most overlooked ways we do this is through evangelism.

When you share the gospel, you risk dying a social death. You could be mocked or marginalized by friends, family and co-workers. But this risk of social equity can trigger spiritual growth like no curriculum or discipleship program ever could.

This is true of us. It’s especially true of teenagers.

When Abraham was willing to offer his son Isaac on the altar, “his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did” (James 2:22).

Some 25 years after Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6), he was willing to offer his son on the altar in the ultimate act of faith. That willingness made his faith complete and mature.

What means most to the average teen? How their friends perceive them. When they share the gospel, they risk it all to be labeled as a follower of Christ. This act of faith accelerates their spiritual growth like nothing else ever could.

Whatever role you have at your church, I strongly encourage you to make reaching and mobilizing teenagers for the gospel a big priority. In the words of Kathy Branzell, president of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, “Teenagers are not the next generation—they are the now generation.”

God wants to use the youth in your church to set the pace and make disciples now. They may break some of the conventional rules, but they can get the job done.

They just need adults like you to inspire, equip and unleash them. They need adults like you to believe in them.

Just as Yankee believed in me so many years ago.