Ministry Across America: American South
1.) Please describe the context in which you minister (geographically, ethnically, socio-economically, etc.)
I serve in the American South in a suburban context in Birmingham, AL. My students are almost entirely white and upper-middle class to affluent. Attending church is a major social expectation. Whether it is accurate or not, nearly all of the kids in my context identify themselves as a Christian.
2.) What are your students biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to receiving the Gospel?
Students in the South equate church attendance with being a Christian and having salvation. Compulsive cultural Christianity rules the day. They embrace the religious elements of the faith without understanding the central elements of Christianity being about living in relationship with God and of Christ coming into the world to save sinners.
3.) How do teenagers in your region feel about the Church and Christianity as a whole?
Teenagers generally have a positive view of the Church and Christianity. At the same time, while they do not express this, their views and behavior suggest that they view church as a cultural compulsion, that you “just do.” (“We go because we go. Right?”) Many of the anti-institutional rejections of Christianity seen in other parts of America have not surfaced in a major way down here.
4.) What perceptions and reactions do teenagers in your area have to Christian morality?
Christian morality very often boils down to drinking or not drinking alcohol underaged in high school with kids in the Deep South. A-Team Christian teens do not drink, while second-stringers do, in their eyes. Not drinking makes you good, while drinking means you are not serious about God. Many kids in the South oppose gay marriage and homosexuality but their views on this originate more in “red state” political ideology than a developed biblical theology. Given the traditionally conservative socio-poltical mentality in the Deep South, most teens generally do not have a problem with biblical morality. I will say, though, that over the eight years of my ministry, kids are becoming increasingly geared toward morally relative thinking than when I first started.
5.) 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?
When sharing the Gospel with kids both individually and corporately, I tend to speak in terms of being perfect vs. imperfect before God, rather than sinful or good. So many kids think the formula for salvation is church attendance plus being a good person. They do not understand that the standard for salvation is perfect righteousness, which only can come externally through faith in Jesus. Few kids in the South will accept that they are not good, but nearly everyone will accept that they are not perfect. Therefore, I try to communicate that the only way to be in relationship with God and to have salvation is to be made perfect, something only God can do for you and of which a person is wholly incapable. (“Hell is filled with ‘good people,’ but heaven contains only absolutely perfect people.”
6.) What encouragement would you give to other youth pastors in your area trying to reach teenagers?
I would encourage youth pastors and parents in two ways. First, you need to understand that in the American South seventy-five percent of your work involves deconstructing false belief related to Christianity. You have to constantly remind kids that the faith is about a relationship, not religion. You have to constantly debunk the idea that Christian is a moral code for practical living rather than an invitation to live in dependent relationship with the Lord of the universe. You have to distinguish between biblical theology and Republican socio-political ideology. (Yes, many kids think that anything associated with Republican political ideology, such as gun control, has its roots in Christian theology.)
Secondly, I would encourage youth pastors that we do have a great blessing in the way that kids have a mostly positive view of the church in the South, as compared to other regions of the country. My friends in other regions face enormous struggles in just getting kids to consider attending anything associated with a church. Southern youth workers face less resistance and do not have to work as hard to build trust and overcome deep prejudices against the church.