What I Would Say To All Pastors & Youth Pastors
Richard Ross • Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary • Ft. Worth, Texas
What if a billionaire believer approached me and said, “Ross, something has to be done about unbelieving young people who are heading toward a life of spiritual ruin and eternity without Christ. I’m going to pay to fly every SBC senior pastor and student pastor to Cowboy Stadium. That should just about fill up the place. Then I’m going to give you a microphone and let you say whatever you want to say to those folk.”
If I were given such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I would give prayerful thought to every sentence—indeed, every word—I was going to say. After 50years of pouring over Scripture, serving as a student pastor, teaching student pastors, observing student ministries, and digesting research, I know what I would say. My brief presentation to a packed stadium would go like this: Pastors, welcome to this historic gathering. I know you did not come here just to get more discouraged about the future of the church. Instead, I’m praying we will leave here encouraged and optimistic about what the future may bring. But very briefly, we must take a look at our current situation.
In the May 24, 2019 issue, Christianity Today reported that the biggest factor in the Southern Baptist Convention’s decline is not gaining new converts—“it’s keeping their own. … Nearly half of Southern Baptist kids leave and never come back.” The latest Annual Church Profile found the SBC had the largest drop in more than a century, according to Baptist Press. I strongly believe in Ronnie Floyd’s Vision 2025 for the SBC. I especially embrace Strategic Action Four offered by Floyd, president, and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee. Between now and 2025, I fully believe we can “turn around the ongoing decline in the SBC in reaching, baptizing, and discipling 12- to 17-year-olds.”
In the power of the Spirit, we can see the declining graph of student baptisms begin to move upward. We can see far more students graduate from high school with a deep love for Jesus, the local church, and the Great Commission.
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All of that can happen. But it won’t happen unless we make some significant changes in how we do ministry. Teenagers can accelerate the decline of the SBC. Or, in the power of the Spirit, they can spark renewal in our churches and Kingdom impact in the culture. Here are the five factors most likely to make the difference.
Students are the church today, as well as the future. Pastors should lead students to function as full church members and to fill church leadership roles. Students should be part of men’s ministry and women’s ministry. Students should be on adult ministry teams and participate in community outreach.
When teenagers spend almost all their time in a student ministry silo, we create students who love the youth group but not the church. Once they outgrow the youth group, where will they focus their loyalty and energy?
I strongly believe in weekly ministries and special events just for teenagers and their leaders. I also believe in those times when students function with the full congregation. We choose between those two approaches by asking: With this specific ministry event, are we most likely to achieve our mission through an age-specific or an intergenerational approach?
Church parents are going to support teen sports on Sunday mornings until their hearts change. And they’re going to outsource to the church the spiritual leadership for their children until their hearts change. Church teenagers are full of moral therapeutic deism because church parents are full of moral therapeutic deism (i.e., me-centered faith). Pastors may try to prod parents to change, but that will not happen until their hearts change.
Corporate worship and open-group Bible study are central to the mission of the church. We need to give our best to both of those hours. But what’s missing is intensive, small-group discipleship modeled after Jesus’ investment in Peter, James, and John. We need disciplers who adore King Jesus to massage Scripture into the hearts of three or four others. As that tiny group also begins to grasp the enthroned glory of His Majesty, they will welcome His reign over their lives.
Parents awakened to the greatness of Jesus will talk about Him at home, with their eyes sparkling. They will honor the King on Sundays. They will prioritize the youth mission trip over sports camp. They will want to attend your parenting seminars. And most of their children will walk in faith all their lives.
In many ways, the future of our churches depends on our reaching, discipling, and mobilizing a young generation. I am not despondent. If pastors and churches make some Spirit-directed and Spirit-empowered changes, we are going to see the graphs move in new directions. In 2025, I believe we will hear Ronnie Floyd say, “By God’s grace and power, we did it! We turned around the ongoing decline in the SBC in reaching, baptizing, and discipling 12- to 17-year-olds.” All for the glory of the King!
This essay was published in Southwestern News (Summer 2020) and will also appear in SBC Life (Fall 2020). Used by permission of the author and Southwestern Seminary.