1. Please describe the context in which you minister (socio-economics, geography, race, etc.
New York City is, of course, a diverse community both socially and economically with hundreds of cultural pockets throughout the five boroughs. Primarily, our ministry context in Manhattan is one where students come from households where both parents are in the home, are college graduates, with many of those having some post-graduate degree. Last I checked, Redeemer was 45% Asian-American, the most prominent being Korean-American. Caucasian, Black and Hispanic make up for 55% of the church with Caucasian being the majority. We have 20 something schools represented in our youth community ranging from private to public to home-school.
2. What are your students' biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to receiving the Gospel?
That’s a good question… Generally, I’ve found that though there are experiences acute to teen life (puberty, SAT’s, etc.) the real stumbling blocks in our context are ones that both adults and students struggle to overcome. I’m thinking specifically about the “intellectual questions” i.e., exclusivity, faith vs. science, reliability of the Bible, etc. Of course, the biggest obstacle for someone receiving the Gospel is not intellectual but spiritual. Questions need to be answered, but hearts need to be changed, before we can receive the Gospel. That, of course, is only something God can do. For that reason, maybe I’d be careful to not distinguish too sharply stumbling blocks of teens vs. stumbling blocks of everyone else.
3. How do teenagers in your region feel about the Church and Christianity as a whole?
From what I understand about 3% of New York City residents consider themselves professing, evangelical Christians so there is a lot of misunderstanding about the Church and Christianity, as a whole. I’d say that the non-believing NYC teens assume the spiritual position of their parents but with an extra bent towards universalism. Having opportunities to present the Gospel in public high schools, I’ve found students are naturally pretty skeptical about the Church as an institution and Christians as people. However, they are open to spiritual discussions and are intrigued when they meet someone who has thought through faith and culture bit and appears to be living in light of their beliefs. The common response I’ve encountered is one of genuine surprise over discovering something so beautiful. Once you unpack Christian doctrine and demonstrate how the grace of God extends to their own story, students find the Gospel desirable.
3.) What perceptions and reactions do teenagers in your area have to Christian morality? Though a typical NYC teen might respect the Ten Commandments as a religious or cultural institution (especially our Jewish friends and neighbors), they wouldn’t necessarily see its relevance to their daily lives. Though a student might not phrase it this way, they would (like their parents) believe the traditional, Biblical sex ethic was culturally conditioned and therefore, out of date.
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?
If we are doing a good job, we couldn’t point to any one thing, it really has been a combination of bible teaching, worship, and consistent time with one another. However, one discipline does set up the others. For us, everything is built upon our preaching and clearly articulating what transpires between God and mankind in Christ- and then applying the meaning of that for students whose lives are often filled with loneliness, boredom, rejection, narcissism, etc. By teaching sound doctrine in an engaging and relevant way, we are able to begin cultivating a grace-based community not just of students but of parents, pastors, lay-leaders and students.
5.) What encouragement would you give to other youth pastors in your area trying to reach teenagers? Practically speaking, let the Lord regularly encourage you with his private company through his Word. Then meet regularly with other youth workers who also spend time with Christ. Pray and vision cast together. Learn from each other, do case studies with one another, share ideas and resources, and be inspired by what God is doing in the field of labor we’re all in. Secondly, I'd remind them of what the apostle Peter reminds us in chapter one of his first epistle, where he basically says, the only permanent thing in an otherwise temporary world is the resurrection of Christ. There are few jobs in ministry as notoriously temporary as the youth pastor role. From what I gather, many are looking beyond to a future ministry post, or biding their time while in seminary, and some are bi-vocational and simply filling the gap because the church has asked. Whatever the case may be, be encouraged that the Lord has placed you there and is at work- even within a fleeting moment. Trust God, be bold and teach them something eternal. Lastly, come to the RootedConference next fall in Atlanta!
Rev. David Plant serves as the Director of Youth Ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.