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The Jaylen Fryberg tragedy: reaching teens for Jesus

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Students and family members reunite at Shoultes Gospel Hall after a student opened fire at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, in Marysville, Washington October 24, 2014 (Credit: Reuters/Jason Redmond)

{source}<iframe style=”float: left; border: 1px solid #000000; background-color: #C0C0C0; padding: 2px; margin: 10px; -moz-border-radius: 3px; -khtml-border-radius: 3px; -webkit-border-radius: 3px; border-radius: 3px;” width=”400″ height=”225″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/taH72m_O21I?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>{/source}Jaylen Fryberg was a football player with 2,000 Facebook friends.  He was recently named homecoming prince at his high school.  Then he texted five friends to join him for lunch, pulled out a gun, and shot them.  Two have died, the others were wounded, and he killed himself as well.  “It’s weird to think about, because you see him and he is such a happy person,” a student says.  No one understands why he would do this.

Bulletproof whiteboards are now being marketed to our schools.  Some public schools are teaching gun safety to first graders.  Some want teachers to bring guns to class.  Thirty percent of teenagers are involved in bullying.  Seventeen percent of high school students say they have carried a weapon.  Teenage violence costs us more than $158 billion a year.

I recently spoke at a youth ministry event, where I was asked to describe the need for more effective outreach to their generation.  I had to report that 62 percent of high school seniors have had sex; 70 percent of teenagers access porn regularly; America has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the Western world.  Would you say their moral trajectory is upward or downward?

How are we to reach teenagers?  My focus today is not on guns or legalities, but spirituality.  What is going on with their souls?  What can we do to help them?

“Moralistic therapeutic deists”

Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary has analyzed data from a study of over 3,300 teens.  She determined that three out of four who identified as Christians were actually “moralistic therapeutic deists.”  To them, God is a benevolent grandfather in the sky, mildly hopeful they will make good choices, but always sympathetic if they fall short.  He is more concerned with their happiness than their holiness.  A gospel of repentance and redemption has been replaced by a gospel of non-judgmental niceness.

Author Frank Turek states that 75 percent of Christian youth leave the church after high school.  Here’s one reason: “They don’t know why Christianity is true because they’ve never been told why it’s true.  We simply say in church, ‘Just believe’ or ‘Don’t ask questions.’  Well, when they go to college, the professor doesn’t say, ‘Just believe.’  The professor tries to give them answers for why he believes what he believes, and it’s normally not Christianity.”

It’s no surprise that 84 percent of teenagers say they are religious but a small percentage go to church on Sunday and one percent go in college.  They don’t consider the church relevant to their lives or problems.  They think of God as a benevolent grandfather, not a present Lord and King.  They don’t think they need any more of him than they have already.

And they are not coming to us.  What are we to do?

Fishing for teenagers

In Matthew 4, Jesus called his first disciples to “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  They had been fishermen—now they would fish for men. Why the analogy?

Fishermen know that they must go to the fish where they are rather than waiting for the fish to jump into their boat.  They use the bait that attracts the fish, not the bait that is convenient to them.  Not many of us would choose to dig worms out of the earth and impale them on a hook, but fishermen use the bait the fish will bite.  They fish when the fish are active, not when they happen to want to fish.  And they measure success not by the size of their boat but the size of their catch.

These factors all pertain to evangelism, especially with teenagers.  Since they are not coming to church, Christians must come to them.  We must understand their culture and engage the issues that matter to them.  And we must measure success by the souls we help to follow Jesus, whether they join our church or not.

In Matthew 16, Jesus gave us a different metaphor for our Kingdom assignment.  He led his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.  This was the most pagan place in the entire region.  There were 14 temples to Baal worship scattered around the area.  There was a massive cave in which the Greeks claimed their god Pan lived.  Half man and half goat, he was not the benign “pied piper” we picture today.  Rather, he was the ancient god of lust and was worshipped through bestiality.

His cave originally housed a stream that flowed from the earth through a channel so deep the ancients could not measure its bottom.  They called it the Gates of the Underworld, or the Gates of Hades.  We think of it as the Gates of Hell.  In front of it stood a gleaming white marble temple to the worship of Caesar.

Here Jesus and his followers were surrounded by every kind of paganism known to their day.  And here, pointing at that cave with its temple to emperor worship and the most horrific acts of immorality, he said, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  Translated literally from the Greek, he promised that “the gates of hell will not withstand its assault.”

We are to attack the gates of hell.  We are not to be in a defensive posture, an ark in the storm or fortress in war.  We are an army that marches on its knees.  We are to take Christ to the culture because the culture is not coming to us.  And when we do, we are the church.  In fact, only when we attack hell are we the church.  Otherwise we can be an institution, a denomination, a program, but we are not the church.  We are the church to the degree that we take Christ to our culture, today.

Taken together, these analogies reveal God’s strategy for reaching teenagers today.  We go to them, where they are, as they are.  We engage their culture as a means of building relational bridges by which we can share God’s love in ours.  We earn the right to be heard.  We show the relevance of God’s compassion by our grace.  And we share with them the good news that Jesus loves them and has a perfect plan for their lives.

What are you doing to take Christ to the teenagers you influence today?  For whom are you praying by name?  With whom are you building relational bridges?  To what ministries targeting youth are you giving?  How will the next generation be different because of you?

Changing the future, today

He was a teenage thief, stealing from the neighbors just for fun.  He moved in with his girlfriend and had a child with her outside of marriage.  He was famous for his intellect and even more for his sexual appetites.  But his godly mother never stopped praying for him, and one day he made her God his Lord.  We call him St. Augustine.

More recently, Ralph Winter was a youth minister before he got a job making videos for a department store’s employees.  Today, his movies, including the X-Men series, have grossed more than a billion dollars.  He teaches Sunday school and continues to make Christ public in all he does.

Howard Kazanjian produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi, among other blockbusters.  For many years he has mentored Christian young people who are considering a career in cinema and broadcasting.

Emmitt Perry, Jr.’s father beat him so much he attempted suicide.  But his godly mother took him to church every week, where he eventually found Christ.  He changed his name to Tyler, so as to distance himself from his abusive father.  He is now one of the most famous actors, writers, producers, and songwriters in the world.  And Tyler Perry continues to make public his faith in Jesus.

Great people plant trees they’ll never sit under.  Which trees will you plant today?