Reaching today's teenagers is major challenge

By Tessa Landrum

Published: May 1, 2020

In his Vision 2025 address, Southern Baptist Convention President and CEO of the Executive Committee Ronnie Floyd proposed an initiative to "turn around the ongoing decline in the SBC in reaching, baptizing and discipling 12- to 17-year-olds in the prime of their teenage years." Floyd described this initiative as "imperative for the sake of the gospel" because Southern Baptist churches across the nation have seen a 38 percent decline in baptisms for this demographic since the year 2000 — a 35,000-person deficit. "It is inexcusable for us to settle for this dismal decline," Floyd said.

Tessa Landrum

According to Matt Flanagan, children and student ministry consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the 12- to 17-year-old demo graphic has a significant presence in Kentucky, boasting more than 300,000 middle and high school students. Current teenagers are members of Generation Z, composed of individuals born anywhere between 1995 and 2015. A 2018 study done by the Barna Group found that this demographic is considered the "first truly post-Christian generation," with only 4 percent of surveyed young adults and teenagers adhering to a biblical worldview.

As a result, Flanagan insists that reaching, baptizing and discipling Generation Z is a responsibility that churches should take seriously as they look toward 2025. "Our work in this generation must increasingly become the priority for the church," he said.

Flanagan outlined several key characteristics of Generation Z that will impact how KBC churches do ministry in the years to come. "These young people are digitally connected and relationally alone. They have a pessimistic view of their future and increasingly no longer identify their family and their church as their primary grouping in society. They are searching for meaning and have a great desire to impact their world. And they are addicted to screens."

These characteristics, paired with a post-Christian cultural climate, create unique challenges for churches seeking to engage 12- to 17-year-olds with the gospel. Kevin Hash, pastor of students and families at Versailles Baptist Church, identifies three barriers to reaching, baptizing and discipling this demographic in 2020 — "the busyness of their schedules, counter-Christian cultural influences at a young age and unbe- lieving families."

Hash identifies busyness as a universal issue for teenagers, regardless of church attendance or religious background. "From taking more advanced classes to year-round sports commitments, students are less accessible than they used to be," he said.

And, with more activities on their hands, teenagers are less likely to hang out at church to kill time and socialize. Hash notes that this generational shift in attitude toward youth events requires a different way of approaching ministry. "Once upon a time, the church was a hub of activity for bored teens, but today teenagers are rarely bored and often busy. That means we have to go where they are," he said.

"The church needs to shift away from the traditional model of attractional events for teenagers and focus energy on building partnerships and relationships with local schools," Flanagan adds. "Lost teenagers are not looking to gather in large events at churches. If you want to know the teenagers in your community, you must build healthy partnerships with your community schools."

Versailles Baptist Church started a before-school club program to make the gospel more accessible to busy students. "This gives churched students who might be missing midweek programming for extra-curricular activities an additional option for discipleship right at their school and it makes it super convenient for students to invite their unbelieving friends to hear something about Jesus," Hash said.

There are numerous possibilities for engaging with students on school campuses — whether through Fellowship of Christian Athletes programs, See You At the Pole prayer rallies or devotional times before classes start for the day — and Hash and Flanagan agree that it is important churches meet students where they are instead of waiting for students to approach the church building.

Another barrier to effective ministry is early exposure to post Christian ideas and counter-Christian influences. While previous generations were engaged in the church until at least 18-years-old, the age of disengagement is getting younger and younger with Generation Z. "We are struggling to reach them after 12 years old," said Hash.

Unlike previous generations, teenagers in 2020 have unlimited access to information from numerous sources — resulting in frequent consumption of criticism and skepticism of Christian ideas. "Arguments against Christianity that once were delayed to going off to college are fairly normative for any middle and high school kid with Internet," said Hash.

This changing landscape impacts how churches need to approach discipleship. "Much of the negative view of Christianity comes in entertaining, clever and captivating forms," Hash noted. "This type of worldly exposure means that the type of strategy for connecting the gospel and biblical truth to teens, intellectually, will look more like seeking to reach college-age students."

Teaching students to share and defend the gospel is an important facet of discipleship in a post-Christian culture, as is providing a safe environment where those habits are both modeled and expected.

Flanagan advocates both training and sending students. "Students that aren't trained in the gospel are not likely to share the gospel," he said. "Take students on evangelistic and mission efforts and allow them to both observe and lead. Processing these experiences through conversations will be one of the best teaching methods available."

Hash added: "Churches and pastors need to resource parents and students on subjects that seem to be deal-breakers for unbelieving teenagers, such as sexuality and gender." Engaging teens in conversation about difficult subject matter early allows them to take ownership of their faith and seek out answers in a constructive environment.

Unbelieving families are another challenge for making disciples of Generation Z. While the parents of previous generations would be excited to hear that their child had decided to be a Christian, it is no longer perceived positively by lost family members. "Increasingly we see pushback on what should be the happiest news for a family," Hash said.

"Parents today may not be as eager for their student to belong and believe what evangelical churches believe because they themselves have not embraced the gospel," Hash said. Therefore, reaching 12- to 17-year-olds now necessitates that churches reach their parents — though Hash comments believers should be doing that anyway.

Because many 12- to 17-year-olds do not live in Christian homes, there is a growing need for churches to equip and train adults to mentor students. "The greater number of godly adults a church surrounds their teenagers with, the greater disciples the church will grow," Flanagan observed. "Ongoing training and investment in these adults must be a priority."

Understanding 12- to 17-year-olds and addressing the challenges that exist in engaging them with the gospel are the first steps that must be taken if Kentucky Baptists desire to shift the negative trends in reaching, baptizing and discipling Generation Z teenagers. However, according to Hash and Flanagan, intentional discipleship is going to be the deciding factor in whether or not Kentucky Baptists make a difference in the lives of students between now and 2025.

This task is not only for pastors or church staff members. Flanagan notes that 75 percent of Kentucky Baptist churches are without a vocational student pastor, which means that the responsibility for reaching Generation Z lies with believers in the pews. "It is the work of all Kentucky Baptist churches," he said.

Taking on the initiative issued by Floyd is not going to be an easy task for Southern Baptists — in Kentucky or anywhere else in the United States. But Hash urges churches to press on and be faithful regardless of the difficulties ahead.

"The challenges are great … the gospel is greater," Floyd concluded.


Tessa Landrum is a communications major at Cedarville University. She is a member of Unity Baptist Church in Ashland. You can follow her blog at whollybound.com.