The ‘Big Event’ is a common characteristic of youth ministry. The programme usually follows a popular pattern: the first part of the event is similar to a concert, sometimes there will be some audience interaction, then someone will take the stage and deliver a talk which in turn leads to what churches have traditionally referred to as the ’altar call’. At this point in the meeting, young people will be encouraged to respond to the message by repeating a prayer which indicates they want to commit their life to Christ; or they will be asked to raise their hand; or walk to the front of the platform to receive prayer or speak to a counsellor. Sometimes the response involves a combination of all four.
I’ve attended these events as a young Christian, I’ve also been involved in the planning of them, and I have spoken at them. At every level of involvement, from participant to speaker, I have always felt uneasy about the whole process. As a young person I struggled with the sense that something was missing; as a youth worker I had doubts about the authenticity of the conversions; and as a Bible teacher and preacher I now question the biblical basis of the methodology. The passing of time has only confirmed my doubts; in my time as a youth worker, I witnessed quite a number of the young people I was working with respond to invitations at events; on the surface it all looked very good. But the tragic fact is that many of the young people fell away in less than twelve months.
In order for an entertainment event to be successful it needs to be exciting, hyped and buzzing with a positive vibe. The big event is a celebration: it is festive; therefore, introducing topics such as sin, judgement and repentance into the big event is guaranteed to spoil the party and dampen the atmosphere. As one 22-year old student perceptively said, ‘No one will listen to a preacher at a rave.’
One of the greatest challenges for the big event approach to evangelism is that the performance model incorporates competing factors into its programme. Sometimes the gospel does make an impact in these environments, but the emotional appeal, along with the music and the hyped up atmosphere, can actually conflict with the work of God’s Spirit. Regarding the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing people to Christ, Jesus said: ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement.’ (John 16:8) Big event outreaches often short-circuit the good they do through contradictory actions. On the one hand, leaders will bring a message which they hope will challenge and convert, but on the other hand, they are so afraid of saying anything negative or convicting that might reduce the euphoric atmosphere which they have worked so hard to create.
One of the worst examples of this I ever witnessed was at a Christian youth music festival. Each night included an impressive line-up of bands, and the message was to be delivered by a popular youth conference speaker and music artist. I was no longer in full-time youth work at this point, but given my background, I had been asked to be a counsellor in order to assist any young people who wanted to respond to the message.
The night was buzzing, the bands were a mixture; some very good and some not so good. The turnout was okay; there were perhaps about 100 people at the event. The time arrived, the music faded, the speaker delivered his animated talk and it was time to draw in the nets. It was time to call young people to respond to the message. This guy was quite innovative; rather than asking only the young people who were not Christians to pray a prayer of commitment, he just led the whole crowd in a prayer of commitment. He then asked if there was anyone who had prayed that prayer for the first time. The room went quiet as almost every hand in the room was raised (even some professing Christians had their hands raised). As the last hand was raised, the silence was broken as the speaker shouted, ‘C’mon! Give yourselves a round of applause!’ The room erupted, the band started up and it was back to party time. At some point in the course of events, it was mentioned that the ominous-looking adults wearing the high visibility jackets were there to speak to anyone who had made a commitment. No one approached the ministry team and there was no evidence that anyone had experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.
The music was good, the message had just enough gospel content, but the invitation was a mockery. This experience confirmed to me that youth ministry is becoming more and more of a parody. That night I pretty much resolved that I would no longer be involved in this type of evangelism. I am sure that the ministries involved in this type of approach are sincere. I am also convinced that they are not intending to undermine the work of the gospel, but that is exactly what these methods do. The theme of this chapter is regeneration and conversion. An understanding of the conflicting nature of a hyped up crowd and the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit is essential if we are serious about young people responding to the gospel. If youth ministries are serious about seeing young people saved, and they want to continue to use the big event model, they need to be brave enough to allow space for silence and seriousness. They need to be so surrendered to the Lord that they are willing for the Holy Spirit to gate crash the party.
A.W Tozer touches on the issues surrounding genuine regeneration, conversion and repentance in the following statement:
I consider it a good sign that some people are still asking questions like these in our churches: "What should happen in a genuine conversion to Christ?" and "What should a man or woman feel in the transaction of the new birth?" If I am asked, my answer is this: "There ought to be a real and genuine cry of pain!" That is why I am not impressed with the kind of evangelism that tries to invite people into the fellowship of God by signing a card. There should be a birth within, a birth from above. There should be the terror of seeing ourselves in violent contrast to the holy, holy God! Unless we come into this place of conviction and pain concerning our sin, I am not sure how deep and real our repentance will ever be. The man whom God will use must be undone, humble and pliable. He must be, like the astonished Isaiah, a man who has seen the King in His beauty!
The call to reach young people with the gospel is just as urgent as it ever was. The battle for their souls is very real. Many like David, have stepped up to join the battle hoping to win a generation for Christ, but they are weighed down with cultural baggage in the same way that David was weighed down with Saul’s armour. There is a great need to rediscover God’s weapons for reaching the world. Instead of seeing a generation of young people baptised in the Spirit of God we have seen ministries of the church baptised in the spirit of the world. As youth leaders we like to see ourselves as inheritors of a legacy of trail blazers and pioneers; yet too often Christian youth ministry simply reflects the culture of the day instead of challenging it. When youth ministry adopts the values and attitudes of secular society, it becomes the purveyor of the status quo rather than a prophetic voice for the kingdom of God.
This blog post is an extract from an un-published manuscript: 'Gospel-Centred Youth Work and Ministry'