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The Christian fraternity house at the University of Michigan looks like a stone castle with two towers and an arched entryway. During the last week of June, 21 high-school students lived here along with six staff members from Knox Presbyterian Church. Their goal: to advance Christ’s kingdom in their hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich.
American youth ministries often follow an entertainment-driven model. Youth ministry as a distinct arm of the church did not emerge until the 1970s, and when it did, churches copied the paradigm of Young Life and Youth for Christ. The goal of these ministries was to reach youth by making church relevant and fun, whether it be with youth pastors who swallow live goldfish or bands with lights and smoke.
The bleak statistics of American youth leaving the church raise questions about the merits of this model. While statistics vary based on studies, LifeWay Research pegs 70 percent of American youth as leaving the church after high school. Even though it found that about 35 percent of those eventually return, it also found that by age 30, 1 in 4 had permanently left the church.
Knox Presbyterian’s youth ministry once followed this mainstream model and had an annual budget of $100,000 that created a programming machine. Several years ago, the senior pastor asked Josh Boehr, the youth pastor, “What would you do if we took away your entire youth ministry budget?” Boehr’s response was, “That would excite me because youth ministry wouldn’t be about programs. It would be about relationships and Christ.” Now Boehr’s annual budget is $20,000, and he’s eliminated almost every single event and mission trip that the ministry once scheduled.
Knox’s Ann Arbor mission trip keeps costs low by staying local while training students to pursue Christ in their own city. “We didn’t have a lot to show for it by the end of the week,” said Boehr. “We couldn’t come back to the congregation and say that we dug six wells or distributed shoes for 10,000 people.” Instead, these students grappled with their understanding of the gospel as they shared it with their neighbors. They visited a Sikh temple and a mosque. They rode on public transportation instead of church buses. They initiated conversations about Christ with people on the streets.
In the evenings, they worshipped and read through passage after passage where Christ talks about His kingdom. Boehr does not want his students to know a Jesus who therapeutically answers prayers and gives peace on a needed basis. Instead, he desires to see Jesus reigning as King in students’ lives.
Toward the end of the week, Boehr and two students, Lydia and Anna, visited a plaza in downtown Ann Arbor frequented by the city’s homeless. They sat by a woman named Melissa whose clothes were tattered and eyes were bruised—effects, she said, from someone breaking into her hotel room and beating her. Melissa’s vision had been compromised from the fight, and they offered to take her to the hospital. She resisted that offer, and so instead, they bought her a glass of water. She started crying, thanking them over and over for the water.
Then Melissa suddenly became aggressive. She moved closer to their faces, yelling that they didn’t understand what it’s like to have six abusive stepdads, to be left in a dumpster, and to be homeless and alone. A security guard in the plaza noticed and started moving toward them. Her aggressive demeanor stopped, and she started to cry again.
Anna, a high-school junior in a Christian family, and Melissa, a bruised and beaten woman on the streets, embraced, and Anna also cried. The girls prayed for Melissa, asking for healing for both eyes and soul.
Anna had struggled all week with the fact that this mission trip had little to show for their efforts and nothing to make the students feel good about themselves. But now she understood that following Jesus that day meant pushing past discomfort with a hug and a glass of water.
Parents still complain to Boehr about the changes he’s made at Knox. The day I interviewed him, a parent asked Boehr why he had to take the fun out of church. His ministry has shrunk in size because many students don’t want to go into uncomfortable situations for the sake of advancing God’s kingdom. But his vision for ministry is not to make students happy. It’s to bring them under submission to King Jesus.