Many of us have pleasant memories attending youth group in high school and quite often the leadership made all the difference. Today TJ is joining us to share about his time serving as a youth pastor and why discipling this age group is so important.

So TJ, tell us how you started out as a youth pastor. Did you always want to work in ministry?

I started teaching youth regularly at my church when I was 16 after my youth pastor left to plant a church outside of Chicago. I did a summer internship when I was 19 and I started full-time youth work one month after getting married, before I turned 21. I served at that church for 8 years until I moved to China.

I never set out to work specifically with youth. I only knew that ministry was something I wanted to be involved in. I had a passion for the Word and teaching it to others.

Amazing! Besides teaching the Word, what else do you like about your job? What do you find challenging?

I love discipleship. I love investing in people’s lives. I love having a voice into their lives about meaningful topics.

I hate administration! So, that’s what I find challenging.

TJ with his youth group. Russia, 2018.

Some might wonder why there is a specific ministry at church just for teenagers. What would you say the reason is?

I wouldn’t say that there’s a need for youth ministry the way that we currently do it. There are all different types of paradigms out there. So it doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a youth pastor, it could be a lay volunteer or parents. Parents should always speak into their children’s lives.

What you will typically find is that parents have the most influence on a teen’s life, but others who come along and speak those same messages can have impact in ways parents can’t. As a parent, I value those older than my sons who intentionally invest in their lives.

There is a need to train up students because that’s the model for discipleship. By discipleship, I mean the process of a more mature Christian intentionally investing in the life of a younger Christian by both modeling and teaching the Christian life. (Acts 1:1). I highly value Deuteronomy 6 and the insight it brings into how we are to raise our children. 2 Timothy 2:2 would be another go-to verse for me.

We are only ever one generation away from being agnostic. What the church looks like in ten or twenty years, and what influences this generation will have on missions and evangelism is directly linked to properly training up our youth.

Would you say that there are certain spiritual struggles that youth are typically up against?

Ecclesiastes 1:9 remind us that there’s nothing new under the sun. There are new ways to sin, but there are not new sins. Strongholds typically cycle in history.

I would say that right now there is an attack on Scripture. There are many influential people that youth listen to who minimize the power, need, and inerrancy of Scripture.

Currently, I notice the struggle of wanting to be a Christian but on our own terms. It’s what Bonhoeffer labelled “cheap grace”. Grace without discipleship, and that’s really the problem. At its most basic level it is a discipleship issue.

TJ and Jenni, 2018.

Many youth who grow up going to church end up walking from the faith during their college years. Why do you think this is? How can the church protect youth from this trend?

There are several reasons for this, I will only list the ones I feel most strongly about.

Firstly, they walk away from the faith because it was never their faith. John reminds us that, “they went out from us, but were not of us.” It was something they grew up with, were exposed to, and simply did what was expected of them. When they get to college they begin to hear about other religions, other worldviews, other ideas they had never had a chance of grasping before.

While it’s true that this took place when students went to college, I think that trend is changing. The world is becoming more global and with that comes interaction with other faiths and worldviews at an earlier age. I think you will continue to see that trend take place at an earlier age–high school and even middle school. This will be particularly true in larger cities.

Secondly, you will find that the ones leaving the church are the ones least involved in the church. It’s through involvement that our faith becomes our own and matures.

Extraction is perhaps the greatest problem in the church today. By extraction ministry, I mean the practice by some churches where students are taken out of relationship with adults and only ever meet and interact with one another. When youth are not exposed to the church, when we have made it about them, it should not surprise us when they grow out of that extraction ministry only to find that they don’t fit into the mould of the modern church. But when you have teens involved in the worship team, ushering or welcoming in the larger service, working alongside people of all ages, it will be less likely that you see those students walk away from the faith.

In that sense, the church needs to do a better job. It needs to encourage students to be involved in the church, not just one small section of the church. Discipleship happens when older more mature Christians live life in front of younger believers. This is impossible to do when the youth group never interacts with adults.

Thirdly, many teens walk away from the faith in their college years because they have not been adequately prepared to stand up against the schemes of the evil one. If the preaching, teaching, and discipleship is weak; if it only focuses on being a good person and doesn’t help them love Jesus, then it shouldn’t surprise us that they walk away.

The gospel is not something we grow out of. We need to constantly place it in front of our youth. We also need to be brave enough to have intelligent conversations with them.

We must be like Elijah as he went up against the prophets of Baal. He wasn’t afraid of the power encounter that would take place, he was fully confident of what God could do. We need to have that same confidence.

I’m not afraid to ask big questions, I’m not afraid to speak openly about sensitive topics, mainly because I serve a God who is real. There are answers to the questions people are asking. It would be unfortunate if the first time a student had their faith challenged was in college. We need to ask the hard questions now while we can help them process the right answers before they leave and are asked those questions without any mature Christian near them to help walk them through that process.

TJ and his youth group. Ukraine, 2004

When I return home on holidays, I often feel bombarded by how overly sexualized culture has become. It seems like every TV channel, every movie in theatres, and every street corner is flooded with graphic sexual images. This makes me wonder if the youth we minister to in Beijing that are homeschooled and attending private schools, are more sheltered from this temptation than their peers in the West are. Is this the case? Or do we see this temptation take a different form in China?

On some level, yes. They probably are not exposed to those things publicly, but let’s be honest they experience that same exposure privately. Pornography is so pervasive in our world today. When I was growing up pornography could only be accessed through parents, family members, or friends having tapes or magazines hidden in their closets. Today anyone with a smart phone has instant access to the world of porn.

As a parent I am grateful for the many things my children are not exposed to in China that they would be in America. But that doesn’t mean the American parent should despair or pack up and move to a village with no internet access. Every time a seductive commercial comes on, each time a movie scene cheapens the beauty of sex, it’s an opportunity for us to start a conversation.

If we are not careful it’s the “sheltered” ones who fall into the greater sin because the topic itself has been ignored. By the world throwing it in our faces, we are forced to have those awkward conversations we would just rather not have.

Whether or not we live somewhere where it is thrown in our face, as you say, we have to address it. So how do we approach these topics with youth?

There are several ways we approach the topic.

Firstly, we model purity. When our children see us fight against temptation it is teaching them something. Don’t fight in the dark, fight in the light. Let your children see you choosing holiness over sexual temptation. Quote Scripture out loud. Preach to yourself in the presence of your children.

Secondly, we teach about its beauty from a Biblical perspective. Sex isn’t something dirty and embarrassing, it’s a wonderful gift given to us by a wonderful God. We need to teach that to our youth.

Thirdly, we need to have systems in place that help our youth fight against it. Parents need to have rules and those rules need to be clear and enforced. Additionally, students need to know why those rules are in place.

Similarly, gender and sexual orientation are quite the hot topics at home and teens there are embracing the openness and acceptance in exploring these issues. I often wonder how teenagers here experiencing same-sex attraction and confusion with their gender identity cope as it is not something I see openly discussed or reflected in Chinese, and even expat, culture. Do we miss opportunities to discuss issues surrounding LGBTQ+ identities simply because they are not as visible and celebrated the way they are in the West?

I’m not sure what you mean by it not being discussed. I have noticed an intentional shift in all the expat magazines on this issue. There has certainly been a shift in the Chinese mindset since I moved here in 2007. At that time out of the 300+ students I taught perhaps one would have said it was okay to be LGBTQ+. By the time I quit teaching, three years ago, maybe one would have said it wasn’t okay to be LGBTQ+.

Media plays a huge role in how we perceive these issues. China knows this. This is why they ban certain movies from being shown in China. America has imported some good things into China, and it has imported some bad things as well. It’s present in your local Chinese schools and it’s present in your international schools.

Therefore, we must discuss it. Let’s remember that this isn’t a new issue. Paul addressed this to the church at Corinth 2,000 years ago.

Jesus was full of grace and truth. This is what is needed for the LGBTQ+ discussion. I would recommend parents and youth pastors do a lot of reading from credible sources. Perhaps my favorite writer on the topic is Sam Alberry.

 

So you discussed a bit about what teens are exposed to in China compared with home and how we approach those matters. But on the practical side of things, how does leading youth ministry in Beijing compare with leading in the United States?

There’s a night and day difference, at least in the church I serve at. We don’t own our own space which limits what we can do weekly. When I was a youth pastor in the States, we had a whole room just for youth and we met every Wednesday night. That’s not feasible in our context here. Additionally, it took people at most 15 minutes to get to church. In Beijing it might take over an hour. So, there’s a lot more coordination that needs to take place.

Perhaps the largest difference is that in my home country summer is the big season for youth ministry. There’s something going on every week. But in Beijing people leave during the summer, so it’s typically the quietest time of the year for youth.

Apart from that, it’s the same. Youth are youth wherever they are. The gospel is the gospel wherever it is preached. The human heart and the condition of the human mind are all the same. The task that is set before us has not changed, it’s merely the methods that we have to improvise on.

TJ and Jenni with their youth group, 1999.

Finally, what have been some of the most rewarding moments during your time serving as youth pastor?

Being able to baptize new believers. Watching students mature in their faith. Hearing from them years after graduation. The fact that they reach out to you for prayer or counsel is deeply moving.

I love camp because students seem to be more open during this time. It appears that God uses camp to a myriad of ways for the teens. It’s always a joy to sit back and watch the Holy Spirit do His work.

I agree! Well TJ, thanks so much for sharing with us today and thank you for all the work you do with youth.

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