Teenagers in the Chinese Church — Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

March 1, 2001

[Reprinted article originally published in Challenger, Feb-Mar 2001. Used with permission from Chinese Christian Mission.]

Teenagers in the Chinese Church — Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

by Victor Quon

We are living in desperate times. The Chinese church has existed in North America for almost 150 years. Approximately 90% of the Chinese churches today have been birthed during the last half of the 20th century.* But we are only a few steps closer to solving the problem of ministry to the second generation than the Presbyterian missionaries who started the first church in San Francisco in 1853.

The solutions offered in the past almost always focused on persuading adults to enter seminary and take up leadership in the English-speaking congregations in our Chinese churches. We talked to college students about God’s call to full-time ministry. We also searched for second career people who might be willing to opt for early retirement or a change in careers to take up leadership in our pulpits. Although we have had some success, we have to admit that the demand still greatly exceeds the supply.

The horror stories keep piling up. There are far too many stories of men who once filled English-speaking pulpits but are now involved in secular careers. Most of them have no intention of ever entering professional ministry again. My purpose here is not to write a eulogy over all the past setbacks. There is no need to cause widespread weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Instead, I wish to propose another option. It’s nothing new. God has been doing it since Old Testament days. We are reluctant to consider it though, because it requires a long-term investment and our churches are in need of a quick fix. But in the long run, it offers possibly our best hope to solve the problem of ministry to the second generation. I am speaking of Youth Ministry.

Many adult-oriented pastors don’t want to have anything to do with teenagers. They prefer to find a Bible college student, an intern or a lay person to keep the church’s youth out of trouble rather than dealing with the group by themselves. That’s understandable. Not everyone is called by God to this particular ministry. But what would the impact be if a pastor to adults would keep his eyes open for a teen with the call of God upon him/her? If the pastor would invest some time in a teen’s life with the intention of directing the student to full-time ministry, wouldn’t this pay off at some point in the future?

Consider how God called upon and used teenagers throughout the Bible to accomplish His purposes. Joseph, David, Daniel and Mary were all in the formative stages of life when the Lord first spoke to them. Some of the disciples were possibly in their teenage years when they were taught by Jesus. When He held discussions with the religious teachers, Jesus Himself was only twelve years old. Think back in history concerning the lives of some of the great Christian leaders of the past. How many of them first received their calling to ministry during their teenage years? God has always used young people to get a revival going. There is no reason for Him to change strategies now.

In over 16 years of youth ministry, I have conversed with many teens who felt the Lord’s call to ministry upon them. Only a few have been able to respond in any positive way. There are some steps that pastors and lay leaders can take to encourage young men and women to follow God faithfully into full-time Christian service. Here are the ones that are most crucial.

Teach the Student How to Love God

During the early years of my ministry to teenagers, I felt that the most important task I could achieve was to direct young men and women to full-time ministry. Considering the tone of this article thus far, it may surprise some that I discovered that I was wrong. Being Chinese, we are too caught up in doing things. We put such a heavy emphasis on serving in church. It’s often the initial entry point for teenagers getting involved in ministry. We recruit them to be ushers, sing in the choir and to help with children’s Sunday school. Then we congratulate ourselves that the youth have a role in the church.

Serving God is vitally important. But too often, we put the cart before the horse. Someone can not serve God simply out of obligation. This causes misery, bitterness and burnout. What is of greater concern is that we begin to plant the seed in a teenager’s mind that our relationship with God is centered on loving Him, not what we do for Him in the church. This is a deception that can lead a young person to believe in the church without believing in Christ.

Before we even start talking about ministry, we have to teach youth to love God. Our exhortations include too many uses of the words “ought to” and “should have.” Absent from our vocabulary are intimacy, passion and knowing God. A speaker once threw out this challenge: “Can you describe your relationship with God without describing service or ministry?” That question hit me right in the heart. My entire interaction with God had been built around doing something for Him. Terms like “arms of love,” “Abba,” “Father” and “under His wings” made me uncomfortable. But that’s how we learn to love God-by receiving His love for us.

A teenager whose only interest is Christian service is only going to make everyone else around him/her miserable. They will be motivated by guilt and obligation. That’s how they are going to try to manipulate others around them. The service can wait. Teach them how to confess sin, pray for their healing over past hurts, and to personally and privately worship God. This will be harder for us to teach than for teens to receive. They are living in a generation that seeks experience, not just truth. They will eagerly desire to know how to experience the presence of God in their lives.

Is yours a church that values the inclusion of teenagers? If it is, that’s great. But it’s not good enough. Including teens has to be preceded by ministering to their spiritual needs. Of all the age groups and social groups in a church, teenagers are the second most open group to having God impact their lives. They are surpassed only by children (those who are twelve and under). If a revival is to begin in your church, a likely source of the spiritual fire is the youth ministry. Teach your teens how to love God. Let them learn the steps of passionate, heart-felt worship. As they develop hearts for God, the adults in the church will take notice. There won’t be any self-congratulations offered. The response will be thanksgiving and praise to God for what He has done to transform the lives of your teenagers.

Provide Opportunities for Ministry Right Now

It has been said so many times, “The youth are the future of the church.” Teens hate to hear that. What it communicates is that if you can stick around this church for the next 10-15 years and grow up a little bit, we’ll find something for you to do. None of them are excited to hang around for another decade before they’re given permission to do something. They want it right now! What’s more, they deserve the chance right now.

Years ago, churches got upset when the law prevented youth pastors from going to high school campuses to lead Christian clubs. We figured this would lead to the end of all evangelistic efforts in the schools. It’s good for us that God knows better. Over the past few years, He has raised up teenagers who have taken up the responsibility to preach the Gospel to their peers. All over North America, you can find stories of revivals that came to high school or college campuses. These movements are student-initiated.

The best person to reach a teenager for Christ is another teenager. A few years ago, our youth group conducted an outreach trip. We planned the whole evening program. There were games, music, a testimony from a member of the UCLA Rose Bowl team, and an evangelistic message. At the end of the evening, I gave a call for salvation. NOBODY prayed to receive Christ. We held our counselors meeting and just instructed everyone to keep praying and to follow up on the non-believers after we got home. But God was not willing to wait. He did an amazing thing during the next few hours. By 6 a.m., six students had made decisions to receive Christ. What happened was that the students returned to their hotel rooms and simply started talking. The Christian students started telling their stories. The friends who had come with them were so impressed at what God had done that they decided on the spot that they wanted the same thing for themselves. Teens, not adults, were leading other teens to Christ.

You may be thinking, “Well, that’s fine as long as they’re with their peers. But don’t expect them to do the same with adults.” Don’t be surprised. It’s amazing to see the energy, the excitement and the faith that teens can bring to adults. In what areas of ministry are your teens gifted? Some can be effective worship leaders, prayer intercessors, Sunday school teachers and evangelists. Would you dare to allow a teenager to preach in your pulpit? Maybe not, but he/she can offer testimonies. Let them tell their stories. The Holy Spirit can use their sharing to touch someone in your congregation on that day.

There are many churches where teens pretty much run the VBS or the Children’s Sunday school. Find out how your teens are gifted and let the Lord use them today. He doesn’t want to wait another 10 years either. Teenagers are the future of the church. They will be the leaders and the pastors. But they are also the church of today. They are the teachers, the prayer warriors and the evangelists.

Give spiritually gifted teens a chance to minister right now. As they are put into more and more ministry situations, their gifts will begin to surface. It will become apparent if God is calling them to full-time Christian service. You will greatly assist a young person in discerning God’s will for the future.

Talk to the Parents in Your Church

“The biggest problem in doing youth ministry in a Chinese church are the parents.”

“The greatest asset to a successful youth ministry in a Chinese church are the parents.”

Both of these statements are true. Parents who control the ministry and the youth pastor cause all kinds of heartaches. But, parents who submit themselves to support youth work can have significant impact on the church’s youth group.

The issue of full-time ministry is even bigger for the parents than it is for the student. Most likely, they have immigrated to North America with the intent of material improvement for their families. The emphasis in their talks with their children is always on good grades in school and financial success in future employment. To hear that a son or daughter might consider ministry as a career can be quite devastating. This is more so for a son than for a daughter. The son is destroying all the dreams that the family had in making the decision to immigrate. Some parents will view themselves as failures. Others will blame the church and consider the son too immature to make such an important decision. In some cases, the Christian parent can have a more negative reaction than a non-believing parent. A pastor can do a lot by simply speaking to parents in the church about the issue, and helping them understand the concept of a call. We can also teach them to pray for their teenage children.

Here’s a story that came out a few years ago. An immigrant Chinese mother sat her 10-year-old son down one day and told him, “You can do anything you want in life as long as you get good grades.” The son listened and eventually obeyed. He maintained a 4.0 GPA and in the meantime also got involved in some serious criminal activity. This deeply grieved his mother. But he had done exactly as she had instructed. He did whatever else he wanted, but kept getting good grades. She would have given anything to take back the words she told her son. Fortunately, the young man later came to know Christ and allowed God to turn his life around. Instead of focusing on academic performance, Christian parents can take a different stance. They can sincerely say to their teenage children, “Yes, we want you to get good grades and to be successful in life. But above all those things, we want you to love God and to obey Him.”

What happens when a Christian teenager takes God seriously and hears the call to full-time ministry? How does the typical parent respond? There are two normal reactions. The first is to ignore or deny the call. The parent assumes that the teenager is too young to think about such things. The other reaction is to use reasoning techniques. They will say, “Oh that’s very good for you to want to do that, but you should get a secular education first. Get some training in another field first in case you fail in the ministry. After you do that, you can go to seminary.” Although this is sound advice, the motives are not normally pure. The parents are hoping that after a few years their child will change his/her mind. If the child persists, the parents will create other obstacles to delay the decision to enter the ministry. They will even pray that God will help the son to see things more clearly.

Instead of denying the son’s call to ministry, or trying to guide him in another direction, here’s what a Christian parent can say: “That’s a major decision you’re talking about. We’re not sure about it and we’re not exactly comfortable with it. But we will submit ourselves to what God wants for you. We will pray with you about the decision until God makes things clear for all of us.”

This is all a Christian parent can do-submit themselves to the will of God. Encourage parents to give up control over their teens. They should not create obstacles and should not offer premature encouragement or discouragement. Tell them to give that control over to God and submit to His sovereignty. They can promise to pray with their teen about the decision. That’s the best position for all of us to take.

Look For the Diamonds in the Rough

At a Youth Workers Summit held in Nyack, New York in April 1999, Joseph Tsang from the Chinese Bible Church in Rockville, Maryland made an interesting observation. There were 14 youth pastors and volunteer youth workers in the room at the time. He asked the question, “How many of us grew up in a non-Christian home?” Surprisingly, 11 hands went up in the air.

Although this was not a scientifically conclusive study, it did make a point. Not all of your potential full-time workers are going to be coming from churched families. If the same question were asked in more places, it might even show that some of the most effective workers were the first believers in their families.

Why would a student from a non-Christian home be such a good candidate for full-time ministry? There are numerous possibilities. Here are a few to consider.

Many non-Christian kids come from very harsh backgrounds. Sex, drugs, alcoholism and violent crimes may be a part of their past. They have seen and experienced the other side of life and they have no desire to return to it. When they receive Jesus Christ into their lives, a terrible burden is lifted. They fully realize the miracle of being set free from the bondage of sin. Their thanksgiving to God is so full that a lifetime of serving Him is a very natural response.

Because the newly converted student has experienced such a rapid and complete turnaround, some of their friends stand up and take notice. Some of those friends may turn on the new convert and break off the friendship. But others will witness the changes and begin to seek after God themselves. Consequently, the new Christian kid begins to develop a powerful evangelistic ministry. He/she is able to reach a segment of society that the church kids don’t even want to touch. There will be many reinforcements encouraging the kid to consider entering ministry as a career.

As the teen from a non-Christian home continues to grow, every step of the Christian life continues to be exciting. Events and activities that bore the church kids are all brand new to the unchurched student. The Christian kids know all about the hazards of full-time ministry. Their parents have told them about all the politicking and church board arguments. They want nothing to do with such unpleasantness. The unchurched kid, on the other hand, can’t think of anything more fulfilling than serving God as a pastor.

With the understanding that there are kids coming from Christian families who will enter wholeheartedly into full-time ministry, it would be wise for us to keep our eyes on kids who fit the description of “diamonds in the rough.” They may not come from well-to-do backgrounds. They may be a little different from your church kids. But keep your eyes on them. They are full of passion for God; they love to learn more about ministry; and they have an attitude of being willing to die for Christ. In their former lives, they may have been on the verge of death anyway. It was probably for some reason that was totally meaningless. Now that they have found a relationship with the living God who pulled them out of the clutches of death, what greater achievement could they have in life than to serve the God they love.

Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

Many of us are unwilling to consider a millennial teenager as the answer to the problem of filling the leadership void in English-speaking congregations in our Chinese churches. We feel like we can’t wait that long. We need an answer that can come to us more quickly.

In the early 1980s, I heard the same arguments and the same possible solutions to the dilemma. I also heard the same excuses for not putting some time and effort into youth ministry. That was 15-20 years ago. Some pastors did take the time to help nurture the growth of some young members of their congregations. Many of those individuals are key leaders today. How many more were in our churches who had nobody to encourage them?

Ten years goes by quickly. If a pastor invests some time, not to do youth ministry, but to take an interest in particular teens who may be gifted and called to ministry, think of the return that could come when those kids turn 28 and are beginning careers in ministry.

Too often, we look at teenagers as part of the problem. “We have to find someone to minister to the second generation. If we don’t do something soon, we’re going to lose all of our kids.” It’s time to look at them as part of the solution. They can be taught to minister to their peers right now. They will make mistakes but take the risk. Show them how to do it better next time. As they take up their responsibilities in being the church of the present, they will also be trained to become the church of the future.


* Yang, Fenggang, Chinese Christians in America, the Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 1999, p. 6.

Victor Quon has been the Youth Pastor at San Jose Christian Alliance Church since 1988. Prior to that, he was the Christian Education and Youth Director at the Chinese Evangelical Church of San Diego.

[Reprinted article originally published in Challenger, Feb-Mar 2001. Used with permission from Chinese Christian Mission.]

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