1. Please describe the context in which you minister (geographically, ethnically, socio-economically, etc.)
I am a proud, life-long New Englander. I attended college and seminary a little over an hour away from home, and now I serve in a church only thirty minutes from where I grew up. I serve in a church of 250 that's about half an hour south-west of Boston. New Englanders are generally well-educated, brutally honest, and traditional people.
The suburban towns Emmanuel Baptist Church pulls from are largely upper-middle class, mostly white communities where many commute daily into Boston to work (most commuters work in the financial world or in one of Boston's many hospitals or universities). In New England, it is simply assumed that not only will you go to college after high school, much of your teenage life after freshman year revolves around getting high enough grades and excelling in enough extra-curricular activities to get into a good college with a scholarship.
There are two general assumptions most New Englanders make (especially in my area around Boston): You will go to college and you're Roman Catholic.
2. How do teenagers in your region feel about the Church and Christianity as a whole?
My wife teaches eighth grade in our town's public school and frequently gets questions about being married to a priest. A few weeks back, something about church came up in one of her classes and since she's not Catholic she was asked what religion she was, as if being a Baptist is like being a Buddhist. She had to explain what "Protestant" and "Baptist" meant, since "Christian" and "Church" simply means "Roman Catholic" to most unchurched teenagers. It's simply assumed that if you're religious, you're Catholic. Many parents have a difficult time agreeing to let their teen attend anything a Protestant church is doing - in some ways the changes of Vatican II are still being worked out.
Even though many will identify themselves as Catholic, they rarely attend Mass and dread attending CCD. The Roman Catholic Church is viewed with skepticism because of the clergy sex-abuse scandals, and all other Churches are untrustworthy because they aren't Catholic. Religion simply isn't something that should affect real life. In many ways, it wouldn't be unfair to make the observation that the universities (which were ironically founded by the Church to train up the next generations of pastors and missionaries) have taken on the authority the Church used to hold in public life.
3. What perceptions and reactions do teenagers in your area have to Christian morality?
When I was a teenager, I remember classmates getting drunk and partying hard on Friday and then going to confession on Saturday. Religion is thought of as something peripheral and pretty insignificant. Disappointingly, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" is a very accurate description of teen spirituality - God exists but doesn't impose himself on you, he's just there to help you when you need him to and help you do good things for others.
In a culture so dominated by both secularism and Roman Catholicism, the Gospel of Grace is not easily understood and is often under attack from both groups of people. The Gospel is either stupid and unnecessary because God, sin, and judgment aren't real anyway, or the Gospel is a New Law declaring what we ought to do without giving us the ability to do it.
Practically speaking, most teenagers around here don't seem to think too much about moral decisions. It's not that they're more thoughtless than other teens, but they're simply postmodern and think with their feelings and impulses. As the Ben and Jerry's Bumper Sticker says, "If it doesn't feel good, why do it?"
4. What approaches have you found helpful in dealing with the aforementioned stumbling blocks such that you effectively can share the Gospel with students in your area and bring them in to the life of the Church?
One of the most effective things you can do is to invest your time to gain the trust of parents. Evangelical churches (especially Baptist churches like mine!) are often viewed with suspicion and distrust. This makes earning the trust of parents both difficult and essential. I've had a number of students get plugged into the youth ministry who wanted to attend our Sunday morning worship services; but they have been told they aren't allowed to come "because we're Catholic" (even though they rarely attend Mass). I've had students drop off the map for a season because they had to attend CCD in order to receive their first communion. It's becoming a bit "trendy" to emphasize parents today, but I'm increasingly convinced that we need to minister to the whole student, and that means we need to reach out to the whole family... parents included.
I often hear youth pastors from around the country talk about the importance of plugging into the local schools, and I agree that's really important, but in New England it's extremely difficult to do. I'm not allowed to eat lunch with students, and even if I was, I'm not sure how many students would be willing to put such a huge target on their back by allowing me to sit with them and their friends. I've been a volunteer coach for one of the local high school's Track & Field teams and that's been a great blessing and a great challenge. A few years ago one of the students I had already coached for a whole season was surprised to find out I'm a pastor (I have no idea how she didn't know, since it comes up quite a bit) and proceeded to ignore me for the rest of the week because she was so weirded out that one of her coaches was a priest.
5. What encouragement would you give to other youth pastors in your area trying to reach teenagers?
Don't give up, and stay somewhere long enough to make a difference! We've all heard the statistics about how short most youth pastors stay at a church before moving on... I want to encourage you to try breaking the record as the longest-tenured pastor in your church's history. I've been serving at my church for seven and a half years, and it wasn't until year four that I felt that I really had gained significant trust from the parents at church (so how much more of a challenge will it be to gain the trust of parents from the unchurched community!).
You will see mini-revivals break out among families, churches, schools, and communities through your ministry the longer you stay, the more consistently you model the servant-love of Christ, and as you continually proclaim that amazing grace of the Good News. Don't set out trying to be Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield or whoever else... set out to be faithful in your calling to serve the students and families God has given you and trust Him to bear the fruit as you scatter the seed.
Besides, we all know New England is the American Church's best-kept-secret... God is doing a mighty work here! Friends, stay faithful.