Graduate Ministry, College of Graduate Studies, Indiana Wesleyan University, Wesley Seminary, October 2015

A study of how to engage post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI with the Gospel of Jesus Christ

What role does the current cultural movement toward post-Christianity among engaging high school students with the central teaching of the Scriptures: Jesus Christ? What forms of engagement work best for high school students in understanding the Gospel as well as those students who do not yet understand the Gospel? How important is mentoring, living on mission, intergenerational community, liturgy, instigating questions, and storytelling among current and former high school students in Hayward, WI?

Engaging high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ prior to their eventual graduation and entrance into either college or vocational training is a vital undertaking for any faith community. Regardless of a students’ involvement in a youth ministry or a church community, it behooves the people of God to want to introduce the Gospel and foster faith formation. What does it look like to effectively engage high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Background of the Problem

The number of high school students in Hayward, WI engaging in matters of faith related to the Gospel is in decline. For whatever reason, high school students are not participating in youth groups in a church or in a faith community in numbers previously observed. The cause of this decline might be related to a number of factors. Perhaps one such reason for the observed disinterest is the societal change from Christianity being the implicit default moral framework. In light of this current post-Christian world students live in, how might a faith community engage with high school students in matters related to faith? What does a hopeful and eager Christian adult need to know and do (in light of post-Christianity) in order to effectively engage a high schooler with the Gospel? Another reason could be the rise of more comprehensive sports team involvement—team meals, sleepovers, and team service projects all in addition to practices and games. How does the rise of sports team “youth groups” effect an older adolescent’s faith formation and how would an intentional adult engage with that student?

Not enough can be said about the combative nature of the current media and cultural posture in America related to Christianity. How do high school students who are routinely exposed to such negative and dismissive postures of Christianity handle matters of faith and practice? What does it look like for mentors to engage high school students with an accurate and compelling vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What do students need from mentors who want to engage them with the Gospel?

Problem Statement

This paper is a study of how to engage post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There are many engagement strategies on how to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to high school students within a faith community. There seems to be a lack of appropriate and effective engagement strategies among high school students who exist in a post-Christian society. A study of the relevant literature regarding the impact of post-Christianity on older adolescents would help would-be mentors and hopeful faith communities converse and engage high school students with the Gospel. It would be a worthy study to discern best practices of how to engage, post-Christian high school students with culturally appropriate and paradigmatic terms related to the Gospel. To put it simply: traditional methods of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with high school students do not seem to work in a cultural era that does not start with a Christian frame of reference (post-Christian). Furthermore, our culture’s digital revolution is fueling an entirely new environment among high school students that makes traditional Gospel presentations inadequate. It would seem that this new cultural paradigm would justify the need to craft newly formed, culturally appropriate strategies of engagement when interacting with the Gospel. Therefore, there is a need to study varying methods of interacting with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to this burgeoning new world in light of the emerging post-Christian era in a unique context like Hayward, WI and survey the effectiveness of such methods and attending culturally appropriate engagement among high school students.

Purpose of the Research

A study of how to engage post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI with the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be appropriate for such a dramatic societal and cultural shift present within the burgeoning new world of post-Christianity. It would be prudent to research both the cultural and religious pool Hayward, WI high school students are swimming in. This research has the potential to provide data on how high school students perceive both their own faith involvement as well as their peers. Additionally, it might be helpful to ascertain what belief systems are present that do guide moral judgments and choices. It would also be prudent to determine the particularities of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that are present within the current cultural reality. In other words, how do actual high school students in Hayward, WI understand Christianity and the Gospel? The purpose of the research would be to ultimately discern best practices of engagement with post-Christian high school students related to the Gospel, which is the cornerstone of any spiritual discussion related to Christianity. How have current post-Christian high school students engaged with the Gospel effectively, and what engagement strategies are helpful among their peers? Researching current cultural and religious posture, understanding and definition of Christianity and the Gospel, and helpful methods of engagement are the primary purpose of this research.

Significance of the Research

Failure to discern appropriate engagement methods could result in missed opportunities to share the Gospel of Jesus, which is the hope of the world. Those interested in practical spiritual conversations with high school students need to understand both the culture and the Gospel in order to engage in wise discussions related to the central theme of Christianity—the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Churches should seek to cultivate an environment that is open to dialogue with post-Christian high school students so an ecclesial community would be the best place to engage in conversations related to spirituality.

There are three categories present in the proposed area of research. The first category is the cultural and religious exegesis of post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI. The second category contains the definition and outworking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The third category is a sort of homogenized praxis of engaging with the Gospel to the current post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI culture. This third category seeks to discern best practices to the transmission and outworking of the Gospel among the existing culture of Hayward’s high school students in an ecclesial environment. A questionnaire asking questions among the three aforementioned categories will be used.

Definitions of the Terms

There are several terms that need to be identified and defined: engage, post-Christian, high school students, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and an ecclesial environment or faith community.

  • To engage students with the Gospel in an ecclesial environment means to both converse and discern ways of connecting thoughts, theology and concerns related to Christianity. When an individual or a group engages with others (whether an individual or a group) it is a respectful environment of active, human participation in dialogue and discussion.
  • Post-Christian is a term Blamires (1999) used when he wrote about how our secular culture was letting go of the “restraints of Christian culture” (p. 11) and therefore displaying “popular contemporary attitudes [and] positions antagonistic to the Christian faith” (p. 10). Parsing current culture would suggest that high school students are steeped in an environment that is “antagonistic to the Christian faith” (Blamires, 1999, p. 10), therefore, post-Christian.
  • High school students are teenagers in grades nine, ten, eleven and twelve in an American educational system.
  • The Gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally about the God of heaven and earth rescuing and redeeming His fallen creation through an incredible act of selfless love through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. The gospel means good news and the news of redemption is good and is a borrowed imperial and military term that shares the inauguration of a new Caesar and success in military conquest, respectively.
  • An ecclesial environment is any setting a follower of Jesus creates or participates in in order to discuss matters related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and spirituality. In particular, an ecclesial environment could be in a church building, someone’s home, a coffee shop, or even outside by a river. What makes an environment ecclesial is a disciple of Jesus meeting with a group of hungry learners (disciples) who want to meet together to engage with the gospel. A faith community could consist of those gathered in an environment to discuss matters of faith related to the Gospel.

Limitations and Delimitations of the Study

There could be an unlimited amount of research and discussion related to the questions high school students have about spirituality. The proposed research will limit the discussion to the core tenets of the gospel of Christianity and not to other matters of faith and interpretation.

Furthermore, while a study of actual post-Christian high school students will likely produce fascinating insights into their current culture, the results will be limited to how the current culture impacts engagement with the gospel and general matters related to spiritual discussion in an ecclesial environment.

One of the delimitations of the study will be the conclusions of the best practices of how to engage students in an ecclesial setting—only the top three methods of engagement will be discussed and presented related to how the surveyed high school student engaged with the Gospel as well as how one thinks their peers will engage with the Gospel.

General Conclusions

The research concluded that engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel happens best when we meet students were they are at because in this increasingly post-Christian American society it is unlikely older adolescents would step inside of a faith community (church) as has often happened in the past. Additionally, helpful methods of engaging high school students with the Gospel included mentoring, storytelling, and instigating honest questioning. When asked what would help their high school peers who did not understand the Gospel, the research respondents suggested mentoring, living on mission, and intergenerational environments. It would be nearly impossible to overstate the importance of an intentional adult stepping into the life of a high school student in a natural, organic way to both communicate the Gospel with their words and live out the Gospel with their actions. Mentoring is a modern way of mimicking the life of the incarnational Jesus Christ who mentored disciples in the first century who in turn made more disciples that turned into this global movement called the church. Seeing how Jesus’ disciples were probably in their teenage years, the significance of a mentor in the life of a teenager is incalculable in the propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Structure of the Study

Chapter 2 contains the relevant literature surrounding the cultural and religious exegesis of current high school students (particularly related to post-Christianity), what the Gospel of Jesus Christ means, and the current best practices of engaging older adolescents with the Gospel as indicated by fellow youth ministry practitioners and researchers.

Chapter 3 offers a theological reflection on what Scripture has to say about effective methods of engaging humans with the message and method of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 4 outlines the chosen method of research among former Hayward high school students.

Chapter 5 details the results of the actual research conducted among recently graduated high school students in Hayward, WI.

Chapter 6 provides an analysis of the collected results of the research and seeks to interpret the current cultural and religious environment among high school students, how the respondents understood Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and what effective engagement methods might consist of.

Chapter 7 delivers a summary of the research results, suggests possible solutions to the problem, and offers suggestions for possible future studies related to the topic.

There are three categories present in the proposed area of research. The first category is the cultural and religious exegesis of post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI. The second category contains the definition and implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The third category is a sort of homogenized praxis of engagement with the Gospel to the current post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI culture. This third category seeks to discern best practices to the transmission and outworking of the Gospel among the existing culture of Hayward’s high school students.

Cultural and Religious Exegesis of Post-Christian High School Students

It is difficult to discern how our culture affects the pool we swim in. The cultural pool of post-Christian high school student in the location of Hayward, WI is both unique and ubiquitous. It is unique in that Hayward is a small, tourism-driven community with relatively wide ranging income disparity. Hayward’s high school culture is ubiquitous in that it is not sheltered from the tidal wave of generational and cultural change that is present in the larger youth culture in the West. While the distinctives of Hayward’s unique small town culture are valuable to discern, the wider cultural exegesis of the emerging generational and cultural change among high school students in particular is the focus of this study.

Ortberg (1997) took some time to review a couple of books related to the demise of Christianity and the church in the West in Christianity Today. Ortberg (1997) relays a story about a United Methodist Bishop who was stopped by “a group of 20-or-so year-olds” (p. 40) who asked what the building the Bishop was entering was for. Not only did these young adults not know what a church building was, but they even asked what a church was and, when instructed it had to do with people who followed the teachings of Jesus, they asked an even more profound question: “Who is Jesus?” (Ortberg, 1997, p. 40).

The jaw-dropping conversation cannot be overstated enough: Ortberg’s recounting of the Bishop’s interaction happened circa 1997. This was eighteen years ago. Those young adults are nearing their forties now. Which begs the question: How did we seemingly arrive at a point in time where one does not recognize a church nor its function within a society as well as who its founder is?

In Christendom and Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray (2010) takes the reader on a journey through the emergence of Christendom and its supposed demise. Murray breaks up the era of the church (arguably when the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost through the present) into three epochs: pre-Christendom, Christendom, and post-Christendom. Pre-Christendom was the time of the church when it was dismissed and an often misunderstood sect of Judaism, but had at its heart a crucified, resurrected, and reigning Lord: Jesus Christ. Murray (2010) describes the pre-Christendom church as “one of the few remaining stabilising and civilising influences” (p. 1) in the Roman Empire. The epoch of Christendom came when Christianity was recognized and legalized by the Emperor Constantine and the church began to enjoy a privileged association with the state “that would dominate Europe for over a thousand years and that still impacts the way Christians think and act” (Murray, 2010, p. 2). Christendom is coming to a slow end—the one where folks would recognize the significance of a church building and the central figure at the center of it: Jesus.  Christendom as a functional part of the relationship between church and state has arguably all but ceased to exist, however the “Christendom mindset,” as Murray (2010, p. 5) calls it, is more deeply embedded into western culture and therefore will hang on much longer than its institutions. Murray (2010) highlights both difficulties as well as great opportunities for the church in the post-Christendom epoch. A well-informed understanding of Christendom and its effects as well as the emerging post-Christendom mindset is necessary for accurate cultural engagement.

Henry Blamires (1999), in The Post-Christian Mind, raises more of an alarm to the marginalization of Christianity in this new reality. Blamires (1999) uses alarmist phrases like “hostility,” “assault,” “campaign,” “brainwashed,” “half-truths,” and “sly insinuations” (p. 9) when he refers to the current cultural climate. Additionally, Blamires (1999) writes about how our secular culture is letting go of the “restraints of Christian culture” (p. 11) therefore displaying “popular contemporary attitudes [and] positions [that are] antagonistic to the Christian faith” (p. 10). At the very least, it seems as though Blamires was asking the right questions related to the direction a culture was headed that seemed to oppose Christianity and discriminate against any cultural moorings it might have. Blamires (1999) argued for a combative approach to the encroaching secularism of the culture. Instead of a quiet and faithful subversion or a subtle corrective cultural engagement, the author encourages Christians to engage in protest and the strategic unveiling of cultures’ systemic marginalization and denouncement of Christianity. In other words, the only way Christianity can combat the emerging post-Christian mind is to actively engage or to become louder than the culture itself. No matter what one thinks about Blamires’ assessment of Christianity or his prescription, at the very least he draws awareness that to not engage in this dramatically changing landscape will be to merely acquiesce and sit idly and ineptly by the wayside.

In the spirit of Blamires, Mohler (2004) calls Christian to at least count the cost of engaging the current post-Christian culture.  Mohler (2004) echoes similar themes regarding the emerging post-Christian world that Blamires (1999) and Murray (2010) have already introduced: “the church is being displaced” and marginalized. Mohler (2004) cautions Christians that to “contend for Christian truth in the face of this culture is to discover what it means to be a member of a cognitive minority.” This caution is not meant to dissuade Christians into disengagement, but rather to count the cost of swimming counter to the culture’s current through actually speaking and living contrary to culture’s expectations.

On the positive, yet realistic side of things, there is Pastor James Zerfing (2009) who went on a quest to wrestle with some deep questions he had about the essence of the church, the Gospel that was preached, the mission of God’s new covenanted people in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit, and does church and the Gospel matter to this current generation. In an article entitled, Going to Get Wonder-fully Messed Up: Core Values in a Post-Christian World, Zerfing (2009) shares that Christendom ended up embodying a church that supported culture instead of critiqued it (p. 50). Culture’s shift to a post-Christendom world needs a church who will return to its essence as a prophetic voice amidst a rampantly pluralistic enterprise. No longer can the church assume people know about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the nature and purpose of His church, and what the people of God in Christ are supposed to do in world that is largely antagonistic to Christianity. Zerfing (2009) argues for a more robust Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology (p. 48).

Returning to Ortberg’s (1997) story of a United Methodist Bishop and the young adult audience he encountered outside of his church who did not know what the building was, what a church did, and who they would worship, it seems there is a unique mix of those who are just plain ignorant to the Christian story and other who are refugees from Christianity who walked away because it did not hold any power and those who are largely antagonistic to the Christian faith. It seems Ortberg’s (1997) account connects with those who are ignorant to the Christian metanarrative, Blamires (1999) seems to tackle those who are antagonistic to Christianity, and Zerfing (2009) can sympathize with those who have found the Christian faith lacking in its power to change a life. In an interview with Pastor Tim Keller and author Gabe Lyons on America’s God Baggage? Approaching a Post-Christian World, Eryn Sun (2011) shares Keller’s sentiment regarding our current culture: “A relativistic culture on the one hand gives you freedom since there are no moral absolutes—that’s the upside. The downside is ‘what am I here for? If I’m an accident, then I’m not here for a purpose…and I don’t have anything to live for.’” In other words, there are those who live life without the need for depth of meaning (these folks are often ignorant to matters of faith and meaning) and then there are those who have not got a clear answer from the church that offers a cogent and comprehensive sense of meaning in life (these folks have left the church because it has been found wanting). Furthermore, there are those who clearly find meaning in a belief system of their own choosing (as each individual can), but are often unaware of the religious ground they ironically stand on.

In a fascinating article called Toward Spirituality of Post-Christian Disciples of Jesus, author Jeff B. Pool (2011) makes a case that people no longer want to be labeled “Christian” but rather “a disciple of Jesus” (p. 10). Pool (2011) references the label post-Christian disciples of Jesus not because of the extremes on either end of science and religion, but rather the deep sense of betrayal that both humanistic and theistic worldviews have failed to produce. Thus the shedding of the “Christian” label, but a reticence to lose the efficaciousness of the founder of Christianity: Jesus Christ. Folks are left to wander in the ecclesial and non-ecclesial landscape because the ecclesial traditions, dogmas, and creeds speak of rules, regulations, and boundaries, rather than the pursuit of the teachings and practices of a first century figure who did not succumb to the religious order of the day by speaking against it, but at the same time died in order to save it. In Pool’s (2011) words, “the religious commitments of post-Christian disciples of Jesus do not necessarily affirm any specific Christian orthodoxy that may remain in the contemporary situation of religious pluralism [nor] do they necessarily offer any allegiance to a Christian ecclesiastical organization or denomination nor does the political or cultural situation any longer necessarily retain the power to compel such allegiance from them” (p. 23). In other words, post-Christian disciples of Jesus are not encumbered by religious institutions nor loyal by default, but rather open to dialoguing and engaging in various forms of Christian tradition and practice to inform not a specific Christian tribe’s understanding of Jesus Christ, but a holistic, more biblically and historically-centered understanding.

Narrowing the discussion to the cultural issues surrounding the emerging generation, Dr. Tim Elmore (2010), in Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future, speaks succinctly to the generational milieu our young people are currently growing up in. Elmore says that “more than any previous group, this younger population has been defined by technology… this population, born in the 1990s and afterward, has literally grown up online” (2010, p. 13). Not only is this emerging generation the most connected, but it is also the most “overwhelmed” (Elmore, 2010, p. 19) and stressed, “overprotected” (p. 22) and unable to function very well on their own, and “overserved” (p. 25) and entitled. It seems that generation iY or millennials, are extending their adolescence because most things in their lives are taken care of for them by their parents or society as a whole. This delayed entrance to adulthood produces a sociological phenomenon among high school students that makes them potentially lazy, waste time, and change preferences (i.e. jobs) quite regularly. According to Elmore (2010), there is not much immediacy or societal motivation for an older adolescent to venture out on their own in their early twenties. This newly-minted cultural reality presents unique challenges for an ecclesial environment to share the good news of Jesus Christ. A high school student might think: “What is the motivation for such a discussion and why is it important now? I’ve got enough time to think through these things in the future. I would rather text, surf social media or play video games.”

Youth Pastor Brock Morgan (2013) chronicles his journey of being confronted with post-Christian high school students when he moved from the West Coast to New England in Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World: A Hopeful Wake-Up Call. Through a seminar at a youth worker convention, Morgan heard about this unique new world that high school students are encountering and being baptized in called post-Christianity. It was not until he moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, did Morgan realize how post-Christian the church, its students, and the surrounding culture were. “The biblical narrative no longer has any coherence,” Morgan (2013, p. 26), in our society or among its youth. “Students are growing up with different worldviews and different religions all around them [and] the world is flat, which means my students and your students are not so far apart” (Morgan, 2013, pp. 26-27). In other words, the worldviews offered to Pastor Morgan’s students in Greenwich, CT are available to students in Hayward, Wisconsin because the Internet and its proliferation of ideas are not bound by state borders nor regional restraints. In prior generations, differing viewpoints on a subject or alternative worldviews were primarily available for collegiate students and beyond, but are now accessible to high school students and younger. Morgan shares that “every public school student takes a class called ‘The Myth of Creation’ [that] is not a science class about evolution; it’s a class that basically breeds agnostic thinking” (2013, p. 26). Wrestling with deep questions of life, meaning, and religion has long been a hallmark of the academy, but not typically engaged at the level of secondary education. Furthermore, one could concede that post-Christianity’s amalgamation of multiple worldviews is simply paganism revisited. Each person can make up their own god (language in past generations) or create their     own truth (current language). Current post-Christian culture repeats earlier versions of paganism in a more socially acceptable package.

Finally, Kenda Creasy Dean (2010) in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, clearly lays out her thesis: “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school” (p. 3). In essence, students do not just graduate from high school, but they also graduate from Christianity. The Christian story and its corresponding ethics are appreciated and embraced in elementary school and often into middle school and sometimes into high school. However, in this current post-Christian society, it seems any vestige of the true nature of the Christian narrative that might be present in a high school student is long gone after graduation. It is imagined that a student appreciates Christianity as an extracurricular activity that was good for when they were young, but now that they are old, they have moved past such childish ideas and grown up. It is difficult to imagine a true and integrated faith failing to remain sticky in a student’s heart just because they are moving on into the adult world. That is, unless, the faith communicated is not really an accurate understanding of the faith of Jesus Christ and is an imposter. Dean (2010) calls out the imposter: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length. It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is persona happiness and helping people treat each other nicely” (p. 29).

It seems a well-intended yet bastardized version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has invaded the Christian faith and has succeeded in turning the hearts of many adults and, by extension, their children away from the true Gospel, which leads the conversation in somewhat of a new direction: What is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and secondly, how does one engage post-Christian high school students who have been immersed in the gamut of worldviews and ideas?

The Centrality of the Christian Faith: The Gospel of Jesus Christ

Recently, the church has seen a resurgence of study and interpretive effort on the core message of Jesus in his historical setting. As a result of this resurgence, the message of the Gospel seemingly has been brought from black and white into greater color than ever before. It is not a “new” Gospel, but rather a deeply more understood and robust Gospel in light of its Jewish roots and the surrounding pagan culture. It seems our current “post-Christian” culture is very similar to the rampant paganism of the first century and thus an accurate understanding of the historical nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ could really speak to this recent cultural shift (especially its high school students).

In Learning to Read the Gospel Again, author Anthony Baker (2011) suggests that even though things in our culture are shifting, it is vitally important that the core message of the Gospel be clearly articulated. Baker (2011) reminds Christians that the Gospel and the Gospel alone is what saves us. Jesus, not our trendy practices, saves sinners, and it is important in our current post-Christian culture to engage participants wisely.

Perhaps it is important to ask what the word “gospel” means in order to better understand how it is understood across the ecclesial and theological landscape of history, particularly in its Jewish and Roman contexts. Michael Pahl (2006) explores the early Christian patterns of the use of the word “gospel.” In essence, Pahl shares that the connotation surrounding the word “gospel” had two intonations: 1) it is “good news of God’s kingship and his sovereign deliverance of his exiled people” (2006, p. 211), and 2) it borrows from the contemporary language of an imperial decree that Caesar is Lord in the Roman Empire. In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord, not Caesar, and this Messiah (Christ) is the God-designated sovereign ruler who rescues His exiled people. Pahl (2006) reminds the reader that “gospel” brings the theological richness of the Jewish narrative of redemption from exile in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) as well as the relevant news that a crucified and risen Savior is now Lord over and against the current rulers of the world.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright gives weight to Pahl’s argument that “the gospel” relates to both its Jewishness and its Roman-ness in Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire. “This royal announcement fulfils the prophecies of scripture and subverts the imperial gospel of Caesar” (Wright, 2000). Wright spends considerable time demarcating the implications of a Jewish Savior rescuing the world who is now proclaimed as its reigning Lord. Wright (2000) offers one of the clearest explanations of the gospel: “For Paul ‘the gospel’ is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord.” In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord: Jesus, the historical figure who lived, Christ, the long-awaited Jewish messiah sent to redeem and atone for the sins of God’s people and by extension the world, is, meaning alive, resurrected, and Lord, who has ascended to the right hand of the Father and reigns as king. Paul’s “missionary work…must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering their lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth” (Wright, 2000).

Gavin Drew (2010) reviewed N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope in an article entitled So, if Christians don’t understand the gospel, how can the rest of the world? Drew (2010) articulates Wright’s emphasis on living in light of the life of Jesus, his death, resurrection and lordship as a sense of missional activity in the world. Question: What would a world look like if Jesus were king? Answer: Let’s follow this king named Jesus who is the Jewish messiah that saved the world, is resurrected, and is an actual reigning king. Let’s follow the rule of this reigning king and change the world. In essence, this is the implication of the gospel: not simply the transformation of an individual, but the transformation of the whole world. In The Public Meaning of the Gospels: Kingdom Come, N.T. Wright (2008) posits a similar question: “What would it look like if God were running the show?” (p. 29). Answer: the revealed kingdom of God as witnessed and chronicled in the four canonical Gospels. Jesus introduces and reveals the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15).

Stepping outside of Wright’s influential impact on New Testament scholarship, Jack Gabig (2011) offers a few implications of the Gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord in Exceeding Human Culture: A Christology that Transcends. First, a passage from the Gospel according to John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16 NIV). At its core, the Gospel works because God the Father so loved the world and specifically the people he had created. The Trinity operates out of an abiding love for each other as well as for creation (as is evident by God continued graciousness and compassionate throughout Israel’s history). Second, is the incarnation itself where the second person of the Trinity stepped into human flesh and dwelt among humanity. Again, from the Gospel according to John: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14a, NIV). Jesus put on human skin and succumbed to human weakness and limitations. In essence, he humbled himself to relate and sympathize with our humanness. It is rather difficult to reason why Jesus Christ is Lord is one does not see the great love of the Father and the humility of the Son.

In Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids, Jack Klumpenhower (2014) spends time emphasizing that the gospel is not merely about getting into the kingdom, but it is the means by which one engages as a kingdom citizen. Klumpenhower uses the idea of a “framework” (2014, p. 15) to describe the gospel’s effect throughout the life of a Christian. In computer terms, the gospel is not merely the boot up process to the Christian life, but the actual operating system that runs the Christian life. Klumpenhower (2014) adds an important point about the gospel: it is good news about what God has already done, not what you need to do to earn it. “The good news means you relate to God based on what Jesus has done for you, not what you’ve done to prove yourself worthy” (Klumpenhower, 2014, p. 17). The gospel declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord is good news that I am not Lord, nor that I have to be a perfect Jesus-like figure to earn my way to life in the resurrected order. I am wholly unworthy and yet God loved me anyway. Jesus Christ’s lordship calls for a lived response every minute of the day and not just a once-and-done prayer. The gospel is the Christian’s operating system for life in God’s kingdom amidst a fallen and broken world that needs to know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Tim Keller (2009) in the Centrality of the Gospel warns of what he calls the two thieves of the gospel: moralism and relativism. Put another way, the two errors of the gospel can be called religion and irreligion. “On the one hand, moralism/religion stresses truth without grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, relativism/ irreligion stresses grace without truth, for it says that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us” (Keller, 2009). Moralism and religion seek to perform their way to God’s holiness instead of depend on the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Relativism and irreligion seeks downplay the sinfulness of man and depend on themselves instead of God. According to Keller (2009), “they are both ways to avoid Jesus as Savior and keep control of their lives.”

In his book The Hole In Our Gospel, Richard Stearns (2009) reveals an important corrective to what has popularly been perceived as the goal of the gospel: heaven. “In our evangelistic efforts to make the good news accessible and simple to understand, we seem to have boiled it down to a kind of ‘fire insurance’ that one can buy…then, once the policy is in effect, the sinner can go back to whatever life he was living…we’ve got our ‘ticket’ to the next life” (p. 17). The hole in our gospel, as Stearns (2009) puts it, is Christians’ emphasis on getting people saved in order to get to heaven without much thought for what we are currently saved for here on earth. In other words, is the goal of the gospel a secured destination or an alternative and counter-cultural life here on earth as a subversive agent of God’s kingdom that proclaims: Jesus Christ is Lord?

In the 1950s, Joe Bayly used a narrative form called parables to critique popular Christianity of his day. Bayly (1983) is best known for his parable called The Gospel Blimp. It is a story of a collective group of Christians who had a wonderful idea of creating a blimp which would float around their city and display a trailing message on the back. The message was the gospel…or so they thought. The message that trailed behind the blimp as it traversed the city said: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Bayly, 1983, p. 4). An organization was created to manage donations and make decisions for the blimp. Additions such as loudspeaker were made for the blimp so someone could preach the Gospel from the blimp as well as dropping fire bombs with tracks inside of them onto people’s lawns. Bayly’s story humorously and adeptly highlights an important part in the transmission of the gospel proclamation: incarnational relationships. Trailing a sign or preaching from a floating blimp and littering tracks on someone’s lawn is not going to awaken someone’s need live in light of Jesus Christ being Lord. The irony in Bayly’s story of the gospel blimp was the very reason the idea came from for the blimp was because George’s neighbors were not Christians and they needed to be evangelized. Instead of relationally interacting with them like Jesus modeled in the incarnation, it was decided to float a large balloon over the neighbor’s heads until they thought the need to repent. It was not until George resigned from the board of the International Gospel Blimps, Inc. did he begin a relationship with his neighbors like what should have happened in the first place. Bayly’s (1983) last dig in the story is the Christians who ran the blimp’s organization are worried about George because he was spending time with non-Christians.

With a tacit awareness of the post-Christian culture high school students are growing up in as well as an articulated understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how does one engage in a praxis of sorts with students in an ecclesial setting?

Praxis: Engagement Strategies (of the Gospel of Jesus to Post-Christian High School Students) within an Ecclesial Setting

In light of the cultural pool of post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI and an accurate, “in color” understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how do we engage and pass on the faith as expressed in the Gospel? What are some effective engagement strategies worth considering? Are there any new practices that have not yet been considered amidst a post-Christian culture?

Alvin Reid (2013) offers a missional option as a best practice that engages both our current culture and the core message of the Gospel in As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students. According to Reid, missional means: “to see the world with the eyes of a missionary, to think like a missionary, and to relate to others as a missionary with a message of the Gospel… in short, life is ministry… make disciples as you go” (2013, p. 27). Reid seems to think that along the way of living life and with the eyes of a missionary God will bring people across our paths to minister to them “as you go” (2013, p. 27). This could be a great way of teaching the Gospel with high school students in Hayward, WI. In essence, engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ looks like honestly wrestling with the degradation of our current culture and seeking to participate in God’s redeeming work through the resurrected life of Jesus as sovereign king and Lord by engaging in pragmatic redeeming acts of renewal in the sphere of influence we are placed in.

Another best practice to engage post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is mentoring relationships. In Life-Long Guides: The Role and Relationships of Natural Mentors in the Lives of Christian Adolescents, Lanker (2012) emphasizes the incredible impact that an adult has when interacting with a student in a non-programmatic setting. Natural mentoring provides two things for the adolescent: “guidance and sanctions of a parent [and] the listening ear and acceptance of a peer” (Lanker, 2012, p. 32). Natural mentoring often starts through the intentional attention of an adult with a student, an environment where students are serving and they meet other adults who are serving as well, or an adult asking a student out for one-to-one conversations. Mentoring seems like a rather practical strategy to engage students with the Gospel, no matter the particularities of their post-Christian, digital, adolescent world. Natural mentoring is simply something that is “always one-to-one, involved lots of listening…keep them accountable and to celebrate their successes” (Lanker, 2012, p. 36). Mentoring relationships have the potential to help students wrestle with their faith (the Gospel) in ways a lecture, a formal small group, or an Internet article could not. “In these unstructured environments students feel heard and receive the guidance they seek, often in the form of probing questions that help them to come to appropriate solutions” (Lanker, 2012, p. 41).

Closely related to natural mentoring is the need for students to engage the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an intergenerational community. Darwin Glassford and Lynn Barger-Elliot (2011) in Toward Intergenerational Ministry in a Post-Christian Era share that young people need “community, mentoring and fellowship across both the real and the fabricated generational lines” (p. 371). Adult relationships that can guide young people through questions and engagement with the Gospel are encountered where the generations are allowed to interact with one another. Glassford & Barger-Elliot (2011) bemoan the church’s current generationally fragmented environment. The authors argue for a faith-based (church) community to embrace the generations and allow them interact with each other because although it might seem like the current generation (post-Christian and iY) is much different than generations prior, many aspects of the human experience remain the same: “going to a new school, having a best friend move, unrequited love, getting bad grades, not being able to open a locker, feeling lonely in a cafeteria full of kids, not making the cut for a team or play, learning to drive, getting into your first car accident…” (Glassford & Barger-Elliot, 2011, p. 368). Therefore, a return to mixing the generations in a formative allows for natural mentoring to occur and shared experiences to be related.

Every Christian church practices liturgy. Some churches have an explicit liturgy, others have an implicit one. A youth ministry program also has liturgy—a specific way of doing things on a weekly basis that communicate the essence of what it wants to teach. Perhaps the explicit practice of Christian liturgy can help post-Christian high school students engage with the Gospel in an ecclesial setting. Nikolajsen (2014) shares that liturgical theologians “operate with four pillars in Christian liturgy, namely gathering, sermon, sacrament and sending” (p. 162). Gathering implies a pulling together of the renewed people of God who proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ no matter what age or financial status. “The Church is a social reality in which all social and cultural barriers are transcended” (Nikolajsen, 2014, p. 163). The gathering does not have to be on a specific day, but most churches convenes on a Sunday. The sermon in the liturgy helps orientate the gathered people of God in Christ toward a proper understanding of and engagement with the world. In essence, the sermon offers the Christian community God’s interpretation of current culture and the appropriate, narrative engagement with the culture. The third component of liturgy is the sacrament which offers two rather distinct aspects of the Christian life: 1) communion in the church is not merely an offering of the body and blood of Christ (although this is not meant to be dismissive), but more holistically understood to be “an expression of community, of caring and responsibility for others” (Nikolajsen, 2014, p. 164), and 2) the weekly reminder of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ which acknowledges “the reality of sin and [the] need for forgiveness” (p. 164). The final pillar of Christian liturgy is the sending, which communicates the activity of going out “into the world to serve others and to proclaim the good news to all of creation and to invite others to become part of the Christian church” (Nikolajsen, 2014, p. 164). Sending the church out reminds Christians that the Gospel is meant to be socially and economically engaged. Could an explicit liturgy help post-Christian high school students engage with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Taking a closer look at the sermon part of the Christian liturgy, Kenny Woodhull (2012), in the Art of Missional Parabling, wonders if there is a connection between relevant cultural engagement and the narrative stories of Jesus, particularly his parables. Woodhull notes that while high school students live in an era that proclaims the death of any metanarratives (most especially the Christian narrative), “it has done nothing to quell interest in stories and storying” (2012, p. 56). Woodhull’s research on using parable-like stories is compelling when it comes to engaging high school students with the Gospel: “the reawakened ear of the postmodern adolescent resonates with an artfully drawn narrative that respects teenage sensibilities and invites their participation” (2012, p. 158). According to Woodhull, when the Gospel narrative is presented in narrative form, even post-Christian, digital natives will bend their ear to a story and give it a hearing. Parabling, as offered by Woodhull, shows promise in acculturating high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Eric Venable (2009), in A Tale of Two Youth Workers: A Youth Ministry Fable, takes the idea of parabling and uses it to teach youth leaders about an alternative method to engage high school students with the Gospel. Venable weaves the story of a youth pastor named Wes who runs a large youth ministry and has a crisis of vocation when one of the popular students leaves his youth group for another. This is when Wes meets Brit, a veteran of youth ministry who seems more interested in discipling students than running a well-tuned youth ministry. Brit schools Wes on a method of engaging high school students with the Gospel through three sequential and linear steps: instigating questions that lead to doubt that leads to a crisis of faith. Brit shares that God (and especially Jesus in the Gospels) is always instigating questions in the narrative of Scripture, which forces his people to wonder (or doubt) what is going on and that leads to whether they want to believe or not (a crisis of faith). Venable (2009) uses Brit’s words to explain this engagement strategy: “When students doubt they actually own their faith. When they start to question and rethink what’s been told to them—I believe it’s a sign of ownership and individualization” (p. 88). Engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel just might require students questioning the narrative of the human condition so they can own the narrative of the Gospel.

Out in left field, Morgan Schmidt (2014), in Woo, offers an alternative theory of engagement. Schmidt (2014) highlights a fundamental need found in all human beings regardless of age or generational category: desire. What if “desire” was built into humanity and its only fulfillment was Jesus? If we believe the Gospel is true, that it is good news for all of humanity, then regardless of cultural limitations, like post-Christian, all high school students, somewhere deep down, have an unmet desire for the Lord. What would teaching centered around an awareness and a fulfillment of that desire look like? Can one truly be happy and fulfilled when playing out the narrative the world offers versus the narrative the Gospel offers?

Conclusion

The relevant literature surrounding engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ indicates that current American culture among high school is moving toward post-Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is in need of accurate definition. Additionally, practical means of engaging high school students with the centrality of the Christian faith (the Gospel) have abounded for years. The question remains: how do current post-Christian high school students best engage with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Jesus entered a world that longed for a return to the peace that God brings—Shalom—not the peace that Rome had brought—Pax Romana. Religious groups and ideologies like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and the Essenes, were formed to answer the question: What will usher in the Day of the LORD, the kingdom of God, and the vindication of Israel? So what did Jesus do? How did Jesus engage with the religious culture of his day in a way that spoke to their deep, nationalistic and covenantal desire to see the world turned back to rights again. In other words, what was the unique message that Jesus brought that both challenged and answered the sectarian ideology of the day and in what unique way did Jesus engage with humanity to bring about such a message?

The Message of Jesus

The message Jesus came to deliver is found succinctly stated in Mark 1:15, “The time has come… the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (NIV). The message Jesus came to bring to both his people the Israelites as well as to the broader people of the world—the Gentiles—was that God’s way of being human in all the ways he intended it were going to be displayed in the teachings and actions of this redemptive figure known as the Messiah. Of all the stories and accounts of Jesus’ teachings in the four Gospels, none capture the essence of the kingdom of God more than the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7 (and Luke 6). According to Willard (1998), “what we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount is a concise statement of Jesus’ teaching on how to actually live in the reality of God’s present kingdom available to us from the very space surrounding our bodies” (p. 97). Furthermore, the sermon “deals with two major questions humanity always faces: 1) which life is the good life, and 2) who is truly a good person” (Willard, 1998, pp. 97-98). Jesus tackles these questions in the famous sermon and all throughout the Gospel narratives through his parables and teachings. While Jesus’ teachings can be incredibly dense at times, there were a few occasions where he spoke with incredible simplicity on the other side of complexity. In answer to the question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 NIV), Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (22:37-40 NIV). In essence, Jesus summed up the whole Hebrew Bible into two interconnected statements: Love God with all of your being (vertical relationship and interaction) and love others as yourself (horizontal relationship and interaction). These two great commandments speak to the essence of the message Jesus was bringing to his exiled and expectant people: the kingdom of God is near!

The Jews were well aware that a radical message in and of itself would not vindicate Israel. God’s people knew that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NIV). Jesus was well aware of this as well. He knew that not only did he have to live the message, he would have to die the message. On the day before the Jewish Sabbath after the celebration of the Passover, Jesus’ message led him to a Roman cross on which he died for the sins of Israel, thus for the entire world. Jesus was enthroned as king upon the cross. Earlier in his life and ministry (Mark 10:35-40), two of Jesus’ disciples had asked to sit on his right and left when he entered his glory. Jesus told them that those places belonged to those already prepared. In other words, Jesus entered his glory when he died on the cross. He was the Jewish Messiah, the Christ, as he died on that ancient torture device.

A dead Messiah was a failed Messiah. There were many messianic movements and would-be messiahs in the first century. There was one event that solidified the Messiahship of Jesus: the resurrection. Three days later, on the first day of the week, Jesus rose to life. He is not a dead, failed Messiah. Jesus is an alive and death-conquering Messiah. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of Israel and thus the world.

The message Jesus came to bring to his fractured and scattered people was one that made a way for unity amidst diversity, life in the Spirit on the other side of death to the flesh, and peace and freedom to the prisoners and captives to sin. Later Jesus ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God and serves as a reigning king. This sovereign Messiah, is the king of a new kind of kingdom that is available to all who believe.

The Methods of Jesus

The message Jesus brought was unique in its content and had to be transmitted and relayed in a rather unique and special way as well. Actually, the methods Jesus used to engage his people with the gospel was employed quite regularly in his day: a rabbi gathering disciples. Jesus was a Rabbi who asked twelve men to leave everything and follow him. Any observant Jew would recognize the importance of the number twelve because it represented the number of tribes in Israel: twelve. Jesus was essentially reconstituting the nation of Israel around his twelve disciples. Jesus spent roughly three years with these twelve disciples, teaching them, empowering them, challenging them, and preparing them for his death and subsequent resurrection. To borrow a word from more modern times, Jesus mentored the twelve disciples so that upon his death, resurrection and ascension, they would be ready to propagate this new kingdom message and life by making more and more disciples. Jesus commissions his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:18-20 NIV). In effect, Jesus modeled to his twelve the very way he wanted them to model faith and this new kingdom to others.

Discipleship has three distinct connotations (Putman, 2010). First, it requires an intentional leader. Disiple-ees need disciple-ers to disciple them just as children need parents to parent them. One needs someone who has been discipled to do some discipling. Second, discipleship requires a relational environment. Discipleship happens when one human being relates humanly with another human being (or group of human beings). Third, discipleship requires an intentional process. What is discussed in the relational environment by the intentional leader? The kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated as part of the story of God throughout the Scriptures.

The church became the environment where disciples of Jesus met encourage and teach one another. The author of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke, shares in vivid detail what kind of methods the early church employed to continue to pass on the gospel of Jesus Christ:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:42-47 NIV).

These committed disciples of Jesus believed the message of Jesus Christ and acted out the message of Jesus in their daily lives.

In the letter to Titus, the apostle Paul instructs the church leader to teach the older men and the younger men as well as the older women to “train the younger women” (2:4 NIV). There is an element of both discipleship from one person to another (as Jesus modeled) as well as intergenerational interaction between older humans and younger humans. It seems like it is important to Paul that the younger humans are not left without wisdom from the older humans. An important method of engaging the message of Jesus Christ is for older men and women to be instructing younger boys and girls.

A whole new group of people, a whole new movement, emerged out of the first century that followed a risen Savior who is the reigning Lord at the right hand of God the Father. And this message, this good news, this gospel, is available to anyone no matter what nationality or religious creed. It would seem that such a message, if enacted, has the potential to bring about the peace of a world that is torn apart by violence, hatred, evil, and discord. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not just another religious message among many others. It is the only message that has the power and the ability to bring peace to a broken world; especially a world that believes such a message is no longer valid.

Churches are encountering high school students who have been steeped in the post-Christian world. It is becoming a challenge to process the current cultural climate older adolescents are swimming in and accurately communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them. This study seeks to understand the best methods of engaging post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an ecclesial setting.

Research Method and Reason

The research method selected is mostly qualitative but has some elements of quantitative data mixed in. A questionnaire has been designed as the primary method of research. It is believed that one of the best ways to discern helpful engagement methods among high school students is to ask students recently graduated from high school. The demographic range of students will be limited to those out of high school no more than four years as to keep close to the relevant cultural as possible. Many of the questions asked are open-ended which offer qualitative data in understanding sensitive topics related to religious commitments and beliefs. A couple of questions ask a quantitative question to reveal how many high school students both “act” like Christians or just “say” they are.

Prior to the ten questions there are two blanks to fill out for demographic indicators: ag and gender.

The first five questions seek to discern how the student perceives the current cultural and religious climate of both themselves and their peers. This is in response to the cultural exegesis of the post-Christian world high school students currently find themselves. The researcher wants to know if there is any kind of distance between if one “says” they are a Christian and whether they actually “act” like a Christian. The questionnaire asks the respondent what he/she thinks of his/her former peers and then asks the respondent to answer for him/herself. These four questions might reveal the ever-widening gap between what one says they are versus what they actually are as well as how one perceives the prevalence of Christianity in their school. The last cultural question asks an open-ended question about how one arrives at a moral judgment. Answering this question will offer a brief glimpse into how what belief structures guide current morality. Will it be Christian in nature? Or will the belief structure be humanistically centered?

The next two questions in the questionnaire ask the respondent to relay his/her current understanding of Christianity as well as a definition of the Gospel. There are a few reasons for these two questions: 1) the answers will relay what the former high school student thinks about Christianity and the Gospel, 2) the answers will reveal if there is any difference between the two (Christianity and Gospel), and 3) the answers will reveal if the vague question about the Gospel is even understood or engaged.

The last three questions are closed-ended and seek to ask discern the heart of the research: what are the best engagement strategies to communicate the Gospel to post-Christian high school students in a church environment? In order to limit the pool of responses and narrow the discussion, the research has uncovered six unique methods of engagement. These six methods are highlighted and defined and the respondent is asked what method or combination of methods have best helped them understand the Gospel. This question is personal. The next question asks the respondent which method or combination of methods might help their former peers who don’t know the Gospel better understand it. This question is observational. The final question is an open-ended one in the arena of the six methods of engagement. This question asks if there are any other methods that have not been mentioned that might help high school students better engage with the Gospel.

Population and Sample Size

There are currently around 600 high school students (grades 9-12) in the Hayward Community School District. Because the research conducted will be limited to former students within the last four years, the population size will be fairly similar to the current student population: 600. Therefore, I propose an attempt to obtain questionnaires from between ten to twenty former Hayward High School students.

This research will be conducted online via a Google Form. A pool of students formerly connected with Hayward Wesleyan Church will be asked via email and Facebook to voluntarily participate in the questionnaire. Hopefully, the respondents will fairly represent the Hayward High School population in demographics, religious belief, public school and home school involvement, and gender. Most of the students used to attend youth group with varying levels of commitments.

Research Steps

An electronic web form (questionnaire) will be created and shared privately over the Internet to make submission easy to collect. No student will be rushed to complete the questionnaire within a specified timeframe. Participation is voluntary. Completed questionnaires will be collected in a secure database.

Confidentiality Issues

The researcher is requesting names to be attached to the results; however no names will be mentioned to the results in the survey. Respondents’ answers will remain anonymous.

Research Tool

Age:                    Gender:

  1. Out of the approximate 600 students in Hayward High School, how many do you think “said” they were a Christian?
  2. Out of the approximate 600 students in Hayward High School, how many do you think “acted” as though they were a Christian?
  3. When you were in high school, would you “say” that you were a Christian? Yes, No or Other?
  4. When you were in high school, would you say that you “acted” like a Christian? Yes, No or Other?
  5. Among your high school peers, what would you say guided their moral decisions and actions? In other words, what beliefs might your peers have had that helped them make moral judgments?
  6. What is your current understanding of Christianity?
  7. How would you define the Gospel as you understand it?

In my research I have encountered six methods of engaging young people with the Gospel. They are:

Missional: the Gospel isn’t just talked about, it is enacted. It’s not just a religion in a church building, but it is brought into real life in order to impact real life.

Mentoring: the Gospel is transmitted from one person to another through an intentional relationship.

Intergenerational: the Gospel isn’t lived out just by teens hanging out with teens, adults around other adults, senior citizens in the company of other senior citizens, but with the young, middle, and older generations interacting with each other.

Liturgy: the Gospel is relayed in the weekly gathering of Christians who engage in intentional reading of Scripture, a sermon, participating in communion, and being sent to live out the Gospel the rest of the week.

Parabling/Storying: the Gospel is engaged through the wise use of storytelling methods (i.e. parables, modern day stories related to the Bible, movies, music, a metaphorical book like the Chronicles of Narnia).

Instigating Questions: the Gospel is understood and engaged by being able to both ask the difficult questions about faith and be asked touch questions regarding faith and wrestling through how the world and the life that God created all works.

  1. Which method or combination of methods (mentioned above) have been the most effective in your personal engagement with the Gospel? Why?
  2. Which method or combination of methods (mentioned above) do you think would best engage your peers who don’t know about the Gospel? Why?
  3. Can you think of another method of engaging high school students with the Gospel that hasn’t been mentioned in this questionnaire? If so, please describe it.

Respondents responded comprehensively to the questions asked in the questionnaire. The research method sought to determine the practical way to engage post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Hayward, WI. Every participant shared one or multiple methods of possible engagement of the Gospel with older adolescents, which lends credence to the research tool used.

Demographics

Out of a total of seventeen respondents, eleven were female and six were male (see Table 1). The age range was as follows: seven 18-year olds, seven 19-year olds, one 20-year old, and two 22-year olds (see Table 2). All the students surveyed graduated from the Hayward area and spent some time in its particular culture.

Cultural and Religious Exegesis

When asked how many of the approximately 600 students in Hayward High School “said” they were Christians, the respondents answered with wide range of numbers. Eleven of the seventeen subject responded by numbering the amount of “said” Christians to be over 300. That means that almost 65% of the respondents thought that over 50% of their fellow peers in high school “said” they were Christians. Three people said 450. Four respondents said 400. The remaining four students said between 300 and 350. The middle of the road seemed to be among four respondents where the range fell between 120 and 200. One student responded with a specific 98 and another student answered with “I don’t know.”

When asked how many of the approximately 600 students in Hayward High School “acted” like a Christian, the respondents were less than generous with their answers. There was a definitive drop in the amount that actually “acted” like a Christian versus just “saying” one was a Christian. In every answer the number dropped from the previous question. Three students answered with high numbers like 350, 300, and 260. Six respondents answered between 100 and 150. Another six subjects were more pessimistic with their peers with answers like 80, 75, 60, 49, 25, and 15. One student responded with “close to none” while one other student answered with “I don’t know.”

The subjects were then asked to respond to their personal experience in high school: Would you “say” that you were a Christian? The options offered were “yes,” “no,” and “other.” Fifteen students said “yes.” One student said “no.” And one student responded with “Wesleyan.” When asked if they “acted” like a Christian in high school the answers were more qualified. Ten students simply answered “yes.” One student said “no.” One respondent said “yes and no.” The remaining five responded with the following: “I tried,” “sometimes,” “tried, but not always successful,” “for the most part, but I had my downfalls,” “yes, I defended God and stood for him, but did not set the best example all the time.”

The last question to determine the respondents’ cultural and religious context in high school asked what they thought guided their peers moral decisions and actions. The question was further qualified in the questionnaire: “What beliefs might your peers have had that helped them make moral judgments?” Here are the subjects answers (summarized): Focus on themselves and their personal beliefs, a lot of people run on their own moral compass, peer pressure among friends, whatever the cool kids were doing, an overwhelming desire to “fit in,” the beliefs of their parents or family morals, overt Christian beliefs like what they thought was right based on Christian values or embedded and unaware beliefs like a lot of moral decisions and actions spring from Christian virtues whether people recognize them as those or not.

Theological Understanding of Christianity and the Gospel

Questionnaire subjects were then asked two questions related to their specific theological understanding of Christianity and the Gospel, respectively.

When asked about their current understanding of Christianity, the answers ranged from generalities to specifics: “Love everyone [and] be there for others…” to “Christianity is the belief that Christ came to earth, was sinless, died, rose again, and is coming back to earth again.” Some answers were simplistic in that it related to basic religious activity like going to church and being a part of a Bible study, being good and doing good, and statements of belief like “one Almighty God.” Most of the respondents’ answers were thoughtful musings on the totality of the Christian tradition and its central character: Jesus died so we could be forgiven, Christianity is to be Christ-like, about wanting to do the right things because we know we are saved by Jesus. Additionally, subjects said things like: “Jesus died or us and he took away all our sins, which means I am a new person inside and out…” or “I understand that God wants us to know him so badly and wants us to be free of sin so much that he sent his son, who willingly died on the cross for us even though we did nothing that made us deserving of this incredible act.” An unexpected answer went like this: “I would describe Christianity as the collective act of following Jesus.”

The second question sought to draw even deeper on the respondents’ understanding of the central message of the Christian story: the Gospel. “How would you define the Gospel as you understand it?” Out of the seventeen responses, only six mention “Jesus.” The most common answers were: God’s Word (the Bible), sin, God saving humans, God loving humans, set of guidelines, and God’s story. A handful of respondents mentioned the need for a Savior, the need for the presence of the Holy Spirit, being able to live as a child of God, a lifestyle or way of life in God’s kingdom, God being a rock and a solid foundation, and being in relationship with God.

Methods of Engagement

The remaining six questions on the questionnaire sought to determine the best methods of engaging high school students with the Gospel. The first set asked students for the most effective method of engagement in their own personal spiritual formation while the second set asked about effective methods of engagement among their peers in understanding the Gospel. Before the subjects could respond, six methods of engagement were offered and described:

  • Missional: The Gospel isn’t just talked about, it is enacted. It’s not just a religion in a church building, but it is brought into real life in order to impact real life.
  • Mentoring: The Gospel is transmitted from one person to another through an intentional relationship.
  • Intergenerational: The Gospel isn’t lived out just by teens hanging out with teens, adults around other adults, senior citizens in the company of other senior citizens, but with the young, middle, and older generations interacting with each other.
  • Liturgy: The Gospel is relayed in the weekly gathering of Christians who engage in intentional reading of Scripture, a sermon, participating in communion, and being sent to live out the Gospel the rest of the week.
  • Parabling/Storying: The Gospel is engaged through the wise use of storytelling methods (i.e. parables, modern day stories related to the Bible, movies, music, a metaphorical book like the Chronicles of Narnia).
  • Instigating Questions: The Gospel is understood and engaged by being able to both ask the difficult questions about faith and be asked tough questions regarding faith and wrestling through how the world and the life that God created all works.

In answering the question about personal engagement with the Gospel, the respondents could pick one method or multiple methods. The results are illustrated in Table 3.

Four students picked only one method, five students picked a combination of two methods, three students picked a trio of three methods, three students picked a mixture of four methods, and two students only left out one method because they picked five methods total. Mentoring was picked a total of twelve times, while parable/storying were selected ten times and instigating questions marked nine times. The intergenerational method of engagement came in at seven clicks, while liturgy and missional were tied with five mentions.

When asked why the specific method or methods were selected, the students responded with tremendously helpful clarity, which further helped to define each engagement method. Even when a specific method was selected in the previous question, when asked to explain why the method was chosen, the answer actually indicated another possible engagement method meaning there was some misunderstanding of what some engagement methods were.

Mentoring was picked for these stated reasons: “see someone who is older and trying to follow the path of God,” “face to face [and] heart to heart,” “talk on a deeper level,” “led by an adult who really helps keep us grounded in our relationships with God,” “one on one conversation” that “helps to build a personal relationship with that person and God,” “people who are walking alongside Christ with me,” “close to a person” and “easier to listen,” “students want wisdom,” “if there is trust, mentoring will happen naturally,” “mentoring showed me a bit of what God was like,” “being able to talk about anything and there still being a bond between the two of us,” and a “safe place” to “speak my mind” and “feel heard.”

Parabling/storying was picked for these stated reasons: Teaches how to read and study the Bible, storytelling helps to “visualize” the Bible’s point of view, easy to connect with stories from the Bible, “music and modern day stories really help me connect with the Gospel,” helps make the “Bible relatable to teens,” and “when I was younger, storying was the main way that I engaged with the Gospel because that was most of what my brain was capable of processing.”

Instigating questions was picked for these stated reasons: “the difficult questions help you go deeper and really think,” “getting asked the hard questions,” “pondering tough questions,” “this method really allows you to thoroughly think about your faith and to also keep questioning yourself and learning from your past as every Christian and non-Christian should,” “having questions and seeking them out is a good thing because it builds our understanding of the Gospel and brings us closer to Christ,” and “prayer-soaked questions are used to provoke thought and growth.”

Intergenerational was picked for these stated reasons: “My parents and I” engage faith together and “I could learn from pastors, Mr. Frenchick, and my parents.” It seemed as though most of the stated reasons for selecting intergenerational had to do with interacting with other peers or a mentor rather than an immersive community of older adults, adults, and young people.

Missional was picked for these stated reasons: “hands on learner,” engage with people, go to people where they are instead of expect them to come to church, and “it allowed me to put action along with words and thoughts” and “it helped me see real people in real situations rather than just hypothetical ideas.”

Liturgy was picked for these stated reasons: “helps me understand certain aspects of the Bible that I haven’t really thought about before,” “going to church gives me the opportunity to be told things about Jesus and the gospel that may have never occurred to me before,” and “corporate worship and teaching is great…I don’t believe it should be the point of our ministry but it is a component.”

The second half of the engagement method research asked students about their peers: “Which method or combination of methods do you think would best engage your peers who don’t know about the Gospel?” The results are listed in Table 4.

Out of the seventeen respondents, seven selected only one engagement method, three students picked two methods, five subjects highlighted a combination of three methods, one student crafted a five method grouping, and one student decided that all six methods were important. As was the case in the first set of engagement questions, mentoring scored the top spot at ten selections. Second place changed from parable/storying in the first set to missional (eight selections) as a way to engage peers who don’t yet know the Gospel. Intergenerational moved up to third place with seven responses. Parabling/storying came in at six picks, while instigating questions and liturgy scored five and three respectively.

When asked why the specific method or methods were selected, again, the students responded with tremendously helpful clarity, which further helped to define each engagement method.

Mentoring was picked for these stated reasons: “If they can become close to someone who lives their life for the Lord, but at the same time doesn’t smother them with the whole thing,” “get on a more personal basis and find out what they want/need,” “it’s important for teens to have an adult mentor to guide them and help them in their walk with God…my mentor keeps me accountable in my actions so that my faith shows in all aspects of my life,” “the mentor has to be someone the teen really trusts and who’s opinion is really valued,” mentors help “lead [students] through understanding,” and is a “really important starting place for amongst peers because it helps to create a safe place where people can tell stories, engage in liturgy, and wrestle with instigating questions…relationship building is what I believe to be the first step in engaging the gospel and transforming lives effectively”

Missional was picked for these stated reasons: “it helps students see God’s work in action,” to “hang out” and “do something fun,” actually “see how God works in our everyday lives…recognizing how God works in our everyday lives and how powerful he is can create a hunger for understanding the gospel,” and “people need to see first-hand what the effects of living by the Gospel are…if they hear about it, that’s one thing, but to actually experience it and live out a gospel life is another thing”

Intergenerational was picked for these stated reasons: “Because everyone likes to interact with friends and loved ones…this way eases them in if they are unsure or afraid” and a sense of overarching Christian community not limited to one specific age grouping.

Parabling/storying was picked for these stated reasons: “Storytelling really helps people to understand the Bible without having any prior knowledge” and a sense of that this is “how I learned.” In other words, this engaged “me [so] it most likely would engage my peers.”

Instigating questions was picked for these stated reasons: “consider thought provoking questions and having deep discussions with others” and questions tend to “stimulate one’s thought process.”

Liturgy was picked for these stated reasons: “carefully paying attention to sermons or discussions” and “going to church to learn more…”

An opportunity to offer any additional engagement methods produced a few more results. Fourteen students selected “no” to having any additional engagement methods to offer. Three students offered some suggestions. One student suggested having “more Christian clubs at school” would help engage high school students with the gospel. Another student offered some electronic options like “blogs and online sermons and social media” but qualified the offering by stating “they are only ways to lead to relationship.” The third student wondered if “living their lives humbly and truly for the Lord” would show the “fruits of the spirit [which] will be noticed by students who are actively or unknowingly seeking something more for their lives or who need a change in their lives.”

Buried in the responses that explained why methods of engagement were beneficial or most helpful were a couple more ideas for possible engagement methods among students who both don’t yet know the Gospel as well as those who want to grow in the faith. One noticeable method was interacting with peers. This student said: “I think it’s really important for teens to bond with other teens and talk about the Gospel with each other.” Additionally, one more engagement method possibility stood out when a student was talking about parabling and storytelling: “[it’s] helpful when people share their testimonies—how God has personally impacted their lives.” It is important to add these two additional engagement methods—peer interaction and testimonies—to the list of possible best practices of engaging post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Participants in the research offered a plethora of data related to their thoughts on the current cultural and religious environment of high school students, answers to one’s current understanding of Christianity and the Gospel as well as helpful ways they engaged with the Gospel that grew their faith in high school. Respondents also offered suggestive ways to engage their peers who do not yet know about the Gospel both related to and different than the ways they engaged with the Gospel. Additional ideas were shared beyond the six methods of engagement presented.

A handful of themes and implications seemed to present themselves in the research data. While the research analysis is focused particularly on the area of methods of engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel in an ecclesial setting, the other two areas of research helps to inform how those engagements methods come about. Present in the research data in the cultural and religious exegesis as well as the current understanding of the Gospel are implications that will help to inform accurate engagement strategies among high school students.

Cultural and Religious Exegesis Analysis

In the area of cultural and religious exegesis, one theme was the obvious difference between the amounts of people who “say” they are Christian versus the amount that actually “act” like a Christian. It seems the age old adage is true: it is not what you say that matters, it is what you do. This observation is not something new, but it seems regardless of age, stage of life, or where one is on the trajectory of Christianity, this awareness is near universal.

What was more revealing was another theme found in the answers to the question of how high school students made moral judgments and decisions. While many of these answers might be related to adolescent developmental parameters, it is interesting to note the individualistic nature of most of the respondents’ thoughts but the familial and societal embeddedness of the varying values that influenced judgments and decisions. In other words, it seems adolescents act as though their actions are guided based on their own personal beliefs, but are often unaware of how those beliefs are shaped—both positively and negatively—based on the environment of adults around them. In partial answer to the research problem in question, how to engage high school students with the Gospel is the environment surrounding those adolescents, both in the family environment as well as other natural environments: sports teams, church youth groups, workplaces, friends’ homes, school clubs, and recreational opportunities. It would seem that no matter what environment a high school student might be in there are adults around who could (and do) provide, at the very least, intentional means of transferring positive morals and beliefs. If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the subject matter, an important engagement method would be the presence of intentional adults in the environments where high school students naturally engage.

High School Students’ Understanding of the Gospel Analysis

Present within the research data is an unsettling amount of uncertainty when it comes to articulating what Christianity is all about as well as what the definition of the Gospel is. Most of the respondents seemed to be aware that Christianity and the Gospel had to do with Jesus dying for our sins and coming back to life to be our Savior. However, the participants understanding of the Christian story seemed to be primarily focused on being good and doing good, loving people, and doing the right things as well as good participatory actions like going to church and having a good relationship with God. Most of the answers were somewhat right, but did not reflect an accurate picture of the Christian story in its totality. This observation could be limited to adolescents’ ability to understand the complexity of the Scriptures as well as the deficiency of religious instructors or disengagement with Christian community among the students themselves. Regardless of exactly why this deficiency of understanding has come about, it is disconcerting to note the range of answers related to a fundamental belief system that students often use to help guide moral and life decisions.

Methods of Engaging High School students with the Gospel Analysis

There were two categories of questions related to engaging high school students with the Gospel. One asked the participants to share the most effective method (or methods) of personal engagement with the Gospel and the second asked the participants what they thought would be the best engagement method (or methods) to engage their former high school peers with the Gospel. The participants’ answers go a long way toward helping answer the question: How to engage post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In order to limit the scope of the research, only the top three engagement strategies in each category (personal and peers) will be discussed.

Preferred personal engagement methods. It did surprise the researcher how strong the engagement method of mentoring came out. Out of seventeen respondents, twelve said that mentoring was the most helpful engagement strategy to understand the Gospel. In each participants’ explanation as to why, most went into great detail as to why mentoring was so instrumental. The answers tended to be somewhat the same. Natural mentors were preferred more than assigned or contrived ones. Trust was an important factor in the success of a mentoring relationship. All the students seemed to crave an adult who they could personally relate to and be able to have honest, deep, heart to heart, and attentive conversations. Most students seemed to starve for wisdom from someone older than them. Perhaps no matter what current culture is like (post-Christian or not), human beings want to be mentored and poured into by someone who is older, wiser, and caring. This model is evident in the method of Jesus as a rabbi who called disciples to follow him. Combining an early observation of environments were students find themselves, it would seem a best practice of engaging high school students with the Gospel would be a wise, trusting and intentional adult who can participate and be available in natural environments where adolescents find themselves.

The second engagement method that the participants highlighted with great frequency was Parabling/storying. This method is defined as the Gospel being engaged through the wise use of storytelling methods. Remarkably, a return to an emphasis on teaching the Bible in a narrative fashion is not just in vogue, but actually a return to an earlier form of teaching/learning in which the Scriptures find its most natural home. A large portion of the Bible is a narrative. It is primarily a story that has been turned into a set of overarching principles. It is no surprise that the students appreciated this ancient form of communication as a preferred method of engaging the Gospel. Everyone likes a good story. No matter what environment a teacher or a mentor finds themselves, a high school student will always appreciate a good story. Perhaps the trick is to retrain youth leaders and adult mentors in the art of storytelling where the punchline and application is left for the student to discern rather than a lecture on how to apply the story to one’s life. Think about it, when was the last time someone stopped a group of people after they left a movie theater and talked through the various principles found in the film? Most good stories have a way of making their way into conversation and embedded themselves into people’s lives in ways formal didactic education cannot. Perhaps mentors who are intentional with being present in adolescent environments can leverage the powerful engagement strategy of storytelling to engage high school students with the Gospel.

The third engagement method that was most preferred was instigating questions where the Gospel is understood and engaged by being able to both ask the difficult questions about faith and be asked tough questions regarding faith and wrestling through how the world and the life that God created all works. High school students have developing minds that can process more and more abstract thoughts which leads to complex questions that simplistic answers cannot answer. High school students seem to be more and more aware of the current state of the world due in large part to the accessibility of information through the Internet and mobile device computing. Students are exposed to the complexity of issues far earlier than in previous generations. This might be a factor in this emerging post-Christian world. The fact that many high school students either were not allowed to ask or were given insufficient answers to the difficult questions might be related to the speed of post-Christianity in America. To accurately transmit faith, mentors and storytellers need to entertain and instigate difficult questions among high school students. They are craving adults who are not afraid to wrestle with the complex questions that exist. To avoid such questions and seeming doubt will be to not only lose the current students, but also the peers closely surrounding them because the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be perceived as being insufficient to handle the complexity of the human condition. The students in this survey seem to recognize a need to engage post-Christian high school students with difficult questions to encourage and strengthen faith in the Gospel.

Posited preferred engagement methods among high school peers who do not know about the Gospel. Unsurprisingly, mentoring scored the top spot again. It is supposed that because the participants thought that mentoring was so important for them, it had to be instrumental for their peers as well. A few respondents underscored the importance that relationship and trust were the vital components for any one of their peers to engage with the Gospel. Additionally, the element of environment came up again when a respondent shared that it would be necessary to “create a safe place where people can tell stories, engage in liturgy, and wrestle with instigating questions.” This engagement strategy is a carry-over from the personally preferred method of engagement where high school students who do not yet know about the Gospel be introduced to it though relationships and trust, all in a safe environment.

The second posited preferred engagement method among peers was missional: The Gospel is not just talked about, it is enacted. It is not just a religion in a church building, but it is brought into real life in order to impact real life. Perhaps it was the wording of the definition of missional, but the participants seemed to indicate that an effective and enacted faith was something their peers needed to both see and experience for them to engage with the Gospel themselves. This idea brings with it the assumption that the Gospel actually makes a difference in this world. And it does. Perhaps high school students need to see and experience the effects of the Gospel in action for spiritual growth to take place.

The third engagement method was intergenerational: The Gospel isn’t lived out just by teens hanging out with teens, adults around other adults, senior citizens in the company of other senior citizens, but with the young, middle, and older generations interacting with each other. This method surprised the researcher as well. It was not thought that high school students would be aware of a need for a mentoring presence across the generations, but the participants sense the impact that immediate and extended families have on emerging faith. One respondent commented on the importance of an overarching Christian community that spanned the generations rather than being limited to one specific age grouping. It would follow then that exposing high school students who do not know about the Gospel to adults both young, middle and old would be important as well as exposing them to other natural environments where older and younger generations are present (like a faith community or a family gathering).

Conclusion

While it is important to understand the current cultural and religious world high school students live in, the timeless message of Jesus Christ is transmitted through intentional relationships (mentors) who tell the stories of God’s work among his people (parabling/storying) that do not mind honestly wrestling with Scripture and its application to the world and its problems (instigating questions), in an intentional environment that consists of many generations (young, middle and old) who actually believe and live out the faith in real life circumstances (missional). Perhaps such a strategy will strengthen faith already present in a high school student as well as seen and spawn faith in a high schooler who does not yet know the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Parents, mentors, coaches, and pastors of high school students are deeply concerned with how current culture is impacting these students. It is often an intangible concept to be able to wrap one’s mind around the influence an emerging post-Christianity has on older adolescents. Of particular importance is how faith is sustained when it seems much of the surrounding culture is moving beyond Christian fundamentals and ideals. A study on how to engage post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ would have wide reaching implications for not only the students themselves, but also those interested in passing on the faith of Jesus to the next generation.

Summary of the Research

The research has shown that the most natural place to engage with high school students is in his/her already involved environments. In the increasing departure of our culture related to Christian values, less and less students would choose a church environment to learn about faith or the Gospel. Being able to articulate the essence of the Gospel is vital as well. The research showed great discontinuity among answers related to what Christianity is all about as well as what specifically the Gospel might be.

The heart of the research focused on best methods of engaging post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI. Two arenas were explored: what engagement methods a respondent found most helpful in understanding the Gospel and what engagement methods their high school peers might have found helpful in understanding the Gospel. Mentoring came out strong in both arenas. Subjects shared that the power of an intentional and trustworthy adult was instrumental in their understanding of matters related to faith in practice. Furthermore, respondents shared that sharing the Gospel through the means of storytelling and instigating questions was helpful in forming faith in high school. Among their peers who did not yet know the Gospel, the research showed that the subjects thought that engaging in mission (Christianity in action rather than merely a religious activity) and intergenerational environments (where older, middle, and younger people all gather to engage in faith).

Implications of the Study

A number of implications emerge for those interested in engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ (and not just limited to Hayward, WI). Among the students themselves was the strongest possible statement: We want mentors. Mentors provide a flesh and blood human to walk through life together with another human being. Jesus is the best example of such a ministry of mentorship. The ancient world of Judaism called this method discipleship, where a spiritual father (or mother) gathered a handful of spiritual children and walked them through life and modeled faith in action. Jesus was the epitome of this kind of mentorship. Jesus called twelve disciples to follow him and learn from him and watch him. Jesus not only talked with them about life in God’s kingdom, but he also modeled how to engage in such a life. Jesus also trained his disciples to engage in the ministry of further sharing God’s kingdom in an effort to develop a pattern of transmitting this kind of kingdom after he left. Jesus was the ultimate mentor. It is this pattern that Jesus demonstrates in the Gospels that causes people today to crave help from those that have gone before us. Even beyond Christianity in particular and into life in general is this insatiable desire to learn and watch from those who are ahead of us in life. Most people look for those who they can emulate life after and mimic those people’s actions, ethos, and decisions. High school students are no different. They inherently know, whether they are a Christ follower or not, that folks older than them who they look up to and admire, have something to offer them. What high school students in particular (and everyone in general) want is an adult to take notice of that particular need and desire and be both available and vulnerable in that potential relationship. High school students, regardless of where they are at in their faith, crave a mentor to help show them the way of living life. Mentoring has the greatest potential to yield incredible fruit in the life of an older adolescent.

Another significant implication of the research is related to what one might do in an environment of gathered high school students. Among those who stated they were active Christians in the study, they craved creative storytelling and helpful question asking. The Bible is primarily narrative in form, but teachers and faith transmitters often rely solely on principalizing the narrative rather than letting the stories transmit the meaning and relevancy to the context themselves. Respondents strongly appreciated a masterful storytelling posture from those who taught them faith. Principalizing faith is not inherently bad or unhelpful; after all, principles do help to summarize life and offers great wisdom. Stories, on the other hand, seem to offer change in ways mere principles can. Perhaps that is what the respondents to the questionnaire had in mind when they selected storying as a strong method of engaging high school students with the Gospel.

Additionally, the research showed that creating an environment where students can ask questions is vital to engaging high school students with the Gospel. In a time when an adolescent is gaining significant mental faculties to wrestle with abstract ideas and problems, it would be a powerful method to provide a setting where questions and doubts can be entertained and engaged rather than didactically explained without honestly wrestling with the issues. It would seem that such a mental wrestling could provide the mental fortitude to stand the future years of college and synthesizing faith with science and philosophy. Perhaps providing an environment where questions related to faith are honestly engaged would help high school students maintain some semblance of faith through their tumultuous young adult years, particularly in the growing post-Christian society surrounding America.

Another implication related to the research comes in the form of an enacted faith. For too long, it would seem, faith has been relegated to one’s private world and it has been deterred from being brought into the public sphere. After all, no one wants someone to impose their belief system on another. This is where the method of missional engagement comes in. What does it look like for Christians, both young and old, to practice a faith that matters and a faith that has the power to transform societal structures and institutions? This is the church on mission. Respondents seemed to think that if their peers saw such an enacted faith, that might make them more in tuned to the Christian message, or at the very least, respectful of Christian belief and practice. The post-Christian world, it would seem, is fueled by an assumption that Christendom and its potential to transform society has failed, thus a new world order is emerging. Reflective post-high school students wonder what might have been if their peers had seen a missional kind of church rather than a doctrinally sound church or a merely fun kind of place for teenagers to hang out.

A final implication comes in the form of a radically inclusive environment centered around the various generations. It was interesting that the research indicated that high school students thought their peers who did not yet understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ would best understand it in an environment where young, middle, and older adults all spent time interacting and engaging in faith together. The research did not indicate that high school students did not want to spend time with their peers at all, but it did indicate that the value of intergenerational engagement was significant in understanding the Gospel. This sentiment seems to fly in the face of the popular segmentation of the church’s formational ministry environments. In essence, it has been assumed that children best grow in matters of faith in an instructional environment where strategies can be developmentally appropriate and tailored. This thought is present among teenagers in youth ministry, young adults in the young adults group, and senior citizens in the “Senior Saints” group. Divide the church’s ministry engagement along developmental and generational lines and there contains a recipe for relevant and effective spiritual formation in the Gospel. Respondents in the questionnaire did not reject such a methodology (mainly because it was not within the scope of the research), but did indicate a vastly different methodology of engagement: an intergenerational environment. Perhaps high school students sense a void of godly and wise examples in the life of the church. Older adolescents need to swim in a world where the wisdom of a grandfather in the household of faith is shared in a context of deep engagement with the Gospel. At the very least it is a window into a world where the Gospel has transformed a life lived over time and is shared among its younger population. Maybe high school students want to see the end of a life lived in service of the Gospel to see if it truly does transform one’s life into the likeness of God’s son, Jesus Christ. Without such longitudinal examples, the only model a high school student often sees are their peers, family members, and the occasional adult mentor who may or may not be an intentional presence in their life. A faith environment that values Gospel-centered interaction across the generational spectrum has the potential to give weight and vision to a young person who would not get such a thing otherwise.

Suggestions for Future Research

It might be helpful to do further research on exactly what fuels current culture’s departure from Christianity, especially among high school students being exposed to a world that does not default to Christian ideals and morals. What effect does current culture’s post-Christianity have on older adolescents who have somewhat of a faith background and want to hold on to it and be relevant to the world around them? Additionally, the research noted wide and varying understanding of the Christian story and the Gospel as its central tenet. Why were there such varying responses given and what are some effective strategies of engaging high school students who are present within a faith community more accurately understand Christianity and the Gospel?

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