* (beginning in previous article)
Platoons and shepherds
Somewhere in-between the "peer ministry" and "practices" models is a two-pronged "platoons" and "shepherds" approach that Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California, has pioneered. This captures the "peer ministry" impulse while preserving the intergenerational connection with the larger worshiping body.
John Ruhlman is the high-school pastor mentioned earlier who questioned the effectiveness of "entertainment ministry" to 300 screaming kids. Through prayer, personal investigation, and discussion with other leaders at Shadow Mountain, Ruhlman began to see that the key to successful ministry (to teens or otherwise) was in adopting Jesus' own model: "Take 12; graduate 11; focus on three."
After this realization, he and his colleagues attempted, twice, to launch a small-group approach to their youth program. And twice it failed.
"So we prayed a ton about it," he says. And after a retreat with the youth ministry staff and about 40 youth leaders, it dawned on them that the missing element to success in the small-group context was student leadership.
Ruhlman immediately set up a whole new program under the cell-group model, only this time with teen leaders. Each group is called a "platoon" and has a student leader. Each platoon leader has a "coach" (adult mentor) who meets with him or her for an hour or two every week and who also attends the platoon meetings.
All student leaders must meet the two criteria for leadership: (1) they must be "sold out" for Jesus Christ, not just in word but in action and example; and (2) they must possess the "gift" of leadership. The coach and the student leader pray and study the Scriptures together during their weekly meeting, and they also plan the next platoon meeting.
Five things must happen at every platoon meeting. These include:
1. Fresh bread. "God has been baking something in your oven this week. What is it?" The participants in the group (which includes seven or more regulars and usually two or three newcomers) share a Bible passage that had special meaning during their week. "This is positive reinforcement for a daily Bible study," says Ruhlman. (It also encourages the newcomers to open their Bibles and start reading.)
2. The empty chair. Each platoon always leaves a chair—"the best chair"—empty as a constant visual reminder of the missing friend who needs to be cared for and should be sitting there. The chair reminds the group to pray for these friends, and "almost every week one or two of the people they've prayed for will show up," says Ruhlman. "When that door opens, they are so warmly embraced by the whole group. That is the opposite of what the culture offers these kids. God answers those prayers."
3. Announcements. Mundane as it sounds, this is a critical element in preserving the cohesiveness of the larger youth group. The 43 platoons that presently meet fragmented the larger group, but they continue to worship together every Sunday (before the regular worship service), and they hold monthly "entertainment-type" outreach events for unreached friends. All of these are highlighted through the announcements, preserving the interconnectedness of each platoon to the larger group.
4. Lesson. The student platoon leader "gets into the Word."
5. Prayer, care, share. Platoon leaders write down in a "platoon notebook" (published by the church) praise items or struggles and needs shared in the context of this prayer time. The group prays together; then the platoon leader will revisit the needs mentioned the week earlier, which sets a tone of nurture and follow-up in the group while teaching the student leaders pastoral shepherding skills.
Platoon leader David Miller (17) says that it wasn't until after he had assumed this leadership role that his faith become a vital force in his life: "I knew a lot about the Bible, but I never really felt capable of being a leader until I started doing it. Then I thought, I can do this. So I decided I was through with this half-hearted stuff and that I was going to be sold out. I started reading the Bible, and that made me stop thinking about myself all the time. It made me start caring about others. Being a platoon leader is the best thing that has happened to me."
Kendra McKeever (17), another platoon leader, says, "It's encouraged me to see how I'm needed—it's not a pride thing. It's just seeing how the Lord can use anyone."
The 43 platoons gather Sunday mornings for corporate "teen-flavored" worship (with contemporary songs, videos, and a message from Ruhlman). After that service, the teens join the larger congregation for the standard worship service.
But youth ministry at Shadow Mountain does not stop with the platoons. To integrate the teens of the church and the adult members, Wayne Rice, who works with Ruhlman, has launched a mentoring program. "Every student with a shepherd" is his motto. Rice has undertaken a training program where he works with adult volunteers, training them to be mentors to the youth in the church. "Our kids don't have any significant adults in their lives; some of them don't even have parents."
But it is a struggle, he says, because "most people are too busy and don't have the time for other people's kids. But that's why our kids are in trouble today. No one has time for them anymore."
This can also get "weird," Rice says, because it means the adult volunteers will get fingerprinted and be cross-checked on the fbi database of pedophiles. "Rather than have it be this negative thing, we make it a celebration, proclaiming 'we're above reproach,' " adds Ruhlman. "We make a ceremony out of it."
The mentoring program is separate from the platoons, but the two programs have overlapped nicely. Many of the adults who have undergone Rice's training have ended up as platoon coaches. And Ruhlman will give Rice the names of young people in the youth group who are in special need of adult relationships, particularly teens without a father or a mother (or both).
Ruhlman says that, at present, there are five grandparents serving as platoon coaches and 14 parents who are coaches for their own kids. "People have come up to me and said, 'John, what's going on? My kid wants me to disciple him!' "
Passing the torch
Churches tend to be run by—as Borgman puts it—"control freaks," so reinventing youth ministry might be "an uphill battle," he says. The "youth group" is often considered to be a subplot in the larger church narrative, despite all the evidence that the majority of faith commitments are made during teen years (while the possibility depreciates exponentially as people get older). "Adults' hearts are like set cement," says Wayne Rice. "Teens' hearts are like soft cement."
But change has got to come. Teens need an "in-your-face" gospel message, because theirs is an "in-your-face" generation, says teenage ccm artist Rebecca St. James, who happens to be very big on the youth-ministry circuit. And in her songs and during her concerts, St. James summons her peers "to trust him, serve him, and love him with everything we've got." And she quotes Paul extensively on this: "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out" (Rom. 12 from The Message).
She challenges youth today to stop listening to the media, assert a new voice, and write their own script for the pages of history. "My generation needs to stand up and live radically. I really don't believe that we have to be 'grown up' to be used by God. He is calling us to be sold out for him. We need to know what God wants us to do and begin now."
They are the voice that will herald the twenty-first century. And if the church hears them now, and answers their call, then these Millennial teens may well emerge as the new heroes of the same revolution that turned the world around 2,000 years ago.
—The messages in church and youth group have a strong effect on the decisions I make. (age 14)
—It is extremely hard to pay attention, no matter how hard you try. (14)
—Going to church is the highlight of my week. (16)
—It is good to go to church to get a better understanding of what God wants us to do, but it is boring! (16)
—I have a hard time applying the messages to the hard parts of teenage life. (16)
—A lot of times the messages at church go in one ear and out the other. (16)
—When God has his way in the church, it gets exciting. You can't help it. (16)
—I don't like long sermons or gabbing women after church. (14)
—It recharges me for the week. The pews hurt my back, but that's a small thing. (15)
—Sometimes the church makes everything so complicated that I can't relate it to my life. (14)
—It is for older people who know more and understand more. (15)
—Our church has speakers that talk generally in a monotone, which is mostly boring. If they told how they really felt, and showed it, it would be wonderful. (15)
—If I saw my church telling others about Jesus and reaching out more to others it would influence me to do the same. (15)
—Church is not meant to be boring, because God is alive. (16)
—I like church because it gives me time to talk to God and ask him to forgive my sins. (14)
—A thing I hate about a lot of churches is they make praising God like some show or performance. (13)
About God and faith:
—I love learning about what God says. It challenges me. (14)
—In kindergarten we were studying about Achan's sin. There were graphic pictures of hell, and I knew I didn't want to go there. (14)
—In eighth grade Satan was telling me that I had no purpose for living, and that I should kill myself. This went on for months. Then it hit me that my purpose in life is to lead others to Jesus and to heaven for eternity. (16)
—I have to keep in mind that God is not Santa Claus. (15)
—The first time I felt "on fire" for God I knew that it was the Holy Spirit inside of me. I felt the presence of God, and I knew I wanted to be close to him for the rest of my life. (15)
—Satan makes us think we are wrong in all we do, when God just wants to love us and forgive us. I was convicted of having an "ugly religion." That night Satan fled from me, and he ceased from tormenting me. (15)
—The kingdom of God is an alive thing, and yet we box it in with denominations and rules and boring stuff. (13)
—My father was the pastor of my church for nine years. He devoted himself to God. He was an awesome dad. By his death I have come to know Christ. (16)
—In our car on the way home from church I was wondering if God was real. I asked my brother, whom I respected greatly, and he said yes. Then I just knew it was true. So I went to my room and prayed for God to forgive me. (15)
—Christian music convinces me of the Christian faith. (15)
—At youth group I was really challenged by one of the leaders. Since that day of saying, "God, whatever you want," it has been a roller coaster. (16)
—I was in Kenya and went with a missionary doctor to a disabled children's school. He embodied servanthood and love, and I see in him how life should be lived. (13)
—If you look at it, we're all the same. We are all deformed in the same way; that deformity is sin. (14)
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
February 3, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 2, Page 18
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