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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

The "Big Four"

By Jeanne Mayo
Apr. 21, 2013

I marched into the local Starbucks with a book in my hand and an order for some early morning coffee. The paragraph my eyes began to scan describing today’s teenagers read like a front-page article from USA Today. Because I’ve devoted my life to that amazing alliance called “youth culture,” my eyes paused to scan the sentences:

“Today’s teenagers are shamelessly into themselves. They dress and behave in a manner that is often unseemly at best. They have little serious interest in academics and other pursuits of self-discipline. Their relationships with those of the opposite sex are both immodest and often focused largely around sexual urges.”

I paused to mentally process the paragraph. I thought it was a little narrow and negative in its perspective. Yet it was painfully accurate at defining some of the teenagers I’m doing life with right now.

In the words of the late Paul Harvey, let me give you “the rest of the story.” I looked lower on the page at the source of that quote. Those words were not written about today’s youth culture. Instead, they came from a philosopher named Aristophanes who lived hundreds of years before Christ! Aristophanes was describing teenagers back then!

What’s my point? Countless trends and facts change almost daily in today’s youth culture, but a few “ground zeros” about connecting with teenagers never change. I believe God has “hard-wired” teenagers and college students to both need and respond to four things powerfully.

Whether you relate to a teenager in your home, at work, or in your church, make the journey with me. In my experience, more than 40 satisfying years in full-time youth ministry have reinforced these four timeless guidelines over and over.

1. Give them a sense of destiny.

This generation is growing up with the constant subliminal reminder that there may not be a long-term future for them or their peers. Whether it’s from nuclear war, cancer, drive-by shootings, or AIDS, there are too many potential ways teenagers’ lives can be shortened.

How does this subliminal awareness affect young people? I think fantasy is one of the primary addictions of today’s youth culture. Teenagers simply yearn for their lives to have purpose and meaning, if only on a video screen.

That’s why your influence becomes so significant when you remind teens that destiny is not something “way out there.” True destiny is something they can live out tomorrow at high school when they befriend an unpopular kid and earn a right to invite them to the church youth group. Destiny comes when we quietly serve a non-Christian family member or when we spend some extra time in prayer for our friends.

Not all teenagers love a hero. But most of them love someone who makes them feel like a hero. So help them know pragmatic ways their lives can have eternal purpose. Recently, I commented to a talented high school football star, “Ryan, your life is bigger than football.” I watched his eyes light up. The “Ryans” in your life will respond the same way.

2. Give them a sense of childhood.

What was childhood like for most of the teenagers you meet today? We dressed them in miniature adult costumes with designer labels and exposed them almost daily to gratuitous sex and violence on TV. By the time they were 13 or so, we expected them to cope with an increasingly tough social environment of divorce, single parenthood, peer pressure, and absentee parents. Many teenagers today grew up feeling betrayed by a society that told them to “grow up fast” without allowing them to enjoy true, unhindered childhood. 

So what’s the consequence? Fun appeals to them. Want proof? Ask almost any group of teenagers why they don’t go to church, and you will probably get the universal answer: “It’s boring!”

This isn’t a commercial for youth ministries to major on “fun and games” at the expense of real ministry, or for parents to try to act like “one of the kids” while ignoring parental responsibility. But we need to be people who intentionally major on being full of warmth and genuine joy when we’re around teenagers.

Not all of us can be funny. But by adjusting our attitudes, we can all be fun. Laugh easily and often. Don’t complain constantly about the music. Occasionally get out of your “church ivory tower” and into the world of the young people you know. I’ve done more connecting with teenagers at basketball games than at many youth services.

3. Give them a sense of militancy.

I’m not calling for random rebellion. But youth need to know they count for a higher purpose. Our early years aren’t created for pleasure. They are created for heroism. Teenagers are hardwired with the need to be militant about or for something. Sadly enough, if you as a parent or youth leader are militant about things like tattoos and religious trappings, teens easily become militant against you. Rules without relationship still breed rebellion.

Today’s teenagers are not going to be motivated by causes like “Go green” and “Save the whales!” Instead, capitalize on their need to be wholehearted and committed to something deeply worthwhile. Join them in a private prayer focus for a couple of friends to come to Christ. Help them raise the money for a life-changing missions trip. Become a willing taxi driver when the youth group hosts an evangelistic outreach.

All teenagers have gifts and special things they love doing. Help them connect the dots and use those aptitudes toward Christ-honoring causes. At almost every large youth event where I speak, aspects of the social justice movement now take enthusiastic center stage. It would be easy to wonder why this level of huge and well-deserved response is taking place.

But today’s youth culture gravitates enthusiastically toward worthwhile causes they can sacrifice to support. So look for small and large causes that appeal to their sense of militancy and get them “off the bench and onto the playing field.” The greatest deterrent to sin in today’s youth culture is vision.

4. Give them a sense of family.

This is the most strategic point. If you only prioritize one of these four focuses, let it be this one. Focus on creating a sense of true family.

I often coach youth pastors, “Go home and shut down your youth group. Then 5 minutes later, open up a youth family.”

Many teenagers around you have never had a consistent sense of family as they were growing up. Other teenagers have had model homes. Whatever the dynamic, no teenager wants to feel like a project or an obligation. They want to sense genuine love and consistent friendship, whether it comes from a volunteer youth leader or from their own parent.

Sadly enough, many parents treat their own teenagers in a careless way they would never treat other teenagers. Beware my friends: It is precisely the most precious relationships in your life that Satan will delight to make the most common.

So what is this magical thing I call “family”? It doesn’t fit into many “religious boxes.” It boils down to doing parts of life together — talking together, laughing together, praying together, crying together ... and giving the unconditional (and nonglamorous) love to each other that so mirrors the Father heart of God.

How do you cultivate a sense of family in a local youth ministry? Simple actions go a long way. Eat together sometimes. Listen more than you talk. Create some fun rituals. Get out of the church building and do life together.

So if you want to leave a hell-defying impact on teenagers, it’s not as complicated as you might think. It comes down to the Big Four. Intentionally cultivate a sense of destiny, of childhood, of militancy, and of family.

JEANNE MAYO is a youth pastor, author, and president of



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