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Keeping the Flame Alive

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A version of this article first appeared in the September 2006 issue of Youthwork magazine

Nigel James is one of the men behind the Ignite discipleship declaration - designed to keep young people focused on and passionate about Jesus. Explaining the thinking behind the declaration itself, he unpacks six principles to help you keep your young people's passion alive.

Keep the flame alive illustrationIt's a challenge that faces every youth leader. When young people return from an inspiring, high-energy event such as Soul Survivor or a Spring Harvest, or even your own youth group weekend away, how do you help them maintain the spiritual intensity that they have experienced? In other words, how do you keep the flame burning?

We shouldn't get too downhearted if the spiritual fervour of our young people isn't always permanent and if they always seem to lurch from event to event rededicating their lives at each one. A woman asked the legendary American evangelist Billy Sunday why he kept organising revival meetings when the revivals didn't last. He simply replied to her 'Why do you keep taking baths?'

Consumers or Consumed?
The ministry of Ignite started in Cardiff as a response to the fact that even at many of our citywide youth events we were seeing young people treating Christianity as consumers - picking and choosing the bits they liked, attending or not attending events according to the popularity of the speaker and the band. We wanted to radically change a bunch of half-hearted and lukewarm believers into a generation of young people who would be consumed by the call of God on their lives.

Many of these young people were veteran attendees at all the right concerts, conferences and events, but somehow that didn't quite translate into being 'on fire' spiritually. We decided that we wanted to challenge young people to step over a line and not to turn back in their walk with God. The Ignite declaration came about as a way to inspire a generation to discipleship, and now close to 4,000 young people have committed to live out the declaration. It was birthed in Cardiff, but very quickly grew much wider. Here are some of the principles that we worked on:

1. Fan a burning flame; don't wait till it's dying
The time to start keeping the flame burning is right away - when young people still have that passion and excitement from their mountain top experience; striking when the iron is still hot! One of the advantages of young people signing the Ignite declaration is that they can be reminded of the life they have committed to and can be held accountable. Whenever we take young people away in the summer, we always ask our small group leaders to write, email and text the young people in their small group within a week or two of being away with them. It's an easy task, but a quick note of encouragement and a reminder of how they experienced God can be a real help. Regular emails or text messages can be a great way of imparting positive stuff into young lives.

I'd suggest that you make a spiritual pledge and work it out practically, so that once God has raised the temperature in terms of the spiritual intensity of your group you are not going to let it cool down. Don't wait weeks or months to try to rekindle the heat - it may well be too late.

My daughter's youth pastor makes sure the young people are given space in a service to share some of the exciting things God has being doing with and in them when they've been away on a youth weekend or a summer week - it's just another small way of encouraging the young people and of informing the rest of the church.

2. Disciples not Decisions
Although our ministry had a history of evangelism, we came to the conclusion that youth ministry needed to be about discipleship and not just creating ways for young people to 'make decisions' for the Lord.

Now don't get me wrong; there is no greater privilege than seeing someone come to faith, but we want to see them keep on going from that starting point and grow in their faith. That's why we believe that equipping young people to put the fundamental building blocks of the faith in place is so important. To use a consistent image -it's about adding fuel to the fire. In Ignite we do that by focusing on three words:

  • Community
    We all know the old illustration of a hot coal burning strong in the middle of other coals, but quickly getting cold outside of the fireplace. So creating consistent ways for young people to meet together in Christian community is vital. We hear so much about 'peer group pressure' being a negative thing, but in terms of keeping the Holy Spirit's flame burning then peer group pressure can be very positive - if it's the right group of course.

    Ignite acts as a support ministry to all that goes on in local churches, and it's in the church that young people need to find that positive community. However, we do have an online community and we email all the young people who have signed the Ignite declaration every 2 weeks with some devotions, encouragement and information.

     

  • Intimacy
    Here's perhaps the heart of the matter, or the cause of the blaze. How am I going to help a young person remain as intimate with Father God on a cold November night as they were in the middle of a field full of worshippers in August? There's no magic formula, but a big part of the answer has to be instilling the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible reading into the life of that young person.

    So I'd be making sure every young person had a set of Bible reading notes or equivalent that were able to help them grow, I'd also be asking them regularly what the Lord has been saying to them when they've been reading and praying. I'd even be encouraging them to meet together in twos or threes to pray and read the Bible together.

     

  • Purpose
    Perhaps the biggest bucket of water we can throw over a fired-up young person is to allow things to go back to default mode and let boredom set in. So the sooner you get them engaged in serving the Kingdom the better. One of the most exciting things to happen in the little village of Dinas Powys, just outside Cardiff, where I live, was when a bunch of teenagers came back inspired from Soul Survivor and decided to run Soul In Dinas! Four churches combined for a week of social action and outreach and they're repeating it this summer.

    One of my favourite verses is Acts 13:36 where we read about David 'serving God's purpose in his generation...' Young people engaged in mission and ministry in whatever shape or form will be in much better shape to remain on fire than those who remain spectators.

3. Lifestyle not Events
I firmly believe that to effectively fan into flame the gift of God in your young people you have to move away from an event driven mentality and into a mindset that wants to build Christian lifestyle in your young people. That's not to say events aren't important, because they can be important landmark occasions in young lives, but remember we don't want consumers. As I've already mentioned, it can be so frustrating to see teenagers lurch from mountaintop event to mountain top event, with the accompanying months down in the valley in between. So our challenge is to help young people stay strong outside of our meetings.

4. Character not Hype
It seems to me that the call to discipleship that Jesus sets out is an optional one. He says: 'if anyone would come after me...' Perhaps in other words he's saying that you can 'be saved' and leave it at that, but real followers know what it is to deny themselves every day and to take up their cross. If we are going to help young people to understand that then we must ensure that lives are developed through character and not hype. It's not good enough to breed a youth group who wear the tee shirt, listen to the CD, and go to the event. Rather we want to see them grow more and more like Jesus, and so our programme should reflect that. It's relatively easy to hype things up; it's much more of a challenge to strengthen character.

5. Enemy territory or land of opportunity?
It's most likely that the place your teenagers most feel under pressure isn't in church or youth group, or even at home. It's probably at school. That's the place where they may be compromised and swayed to lead a double life. If you can help young people maintain their faith at school then you will have accomplished a massive victory. Three ways of working at this are firstly to encourage them to be public about their faith, which means giving them the tools to share effectively and answer the challenging questions that might get thrown at them. Secondly, you need to teach positive Christian values so that Christianity is seen not as a set of things a person doesn't do, but a fulfilling life that a person can embrace. So if you aren't covering issues such as sexuality, alcohol and drug abuse, use of money, fair trade, environmental issues, then you should be.

Thirdly, you could help develop a regular Christian meeting in the school if it doesn't already have one, and you could ensure the meeting is cool, contemporary and makes Christian students hold their head high, not down in shame because the meeting is so boring.

You might even consider arranging a concentrated period of prayer for the friends of your youth group. Our Ignition project helps young people pray for their not-yet Christian friends and equips them to invite those friends to a strategic event where the good news of Jesus will be explained to them.

6.Speck or Plank?
The final word has to be a caution that I'm always aware of. If we are really going to ignite a passion for Jesus in the lives of young people then we need to have that flame burning in our own lives.

As the person who wrote the Ignite declaration I am constantly challenged to live up to a life of discipleship myself. There have been occasions when it's been easier for me to spot the speck of wood in a young person's eye than it has been to deal with the plank sticking out of my own. So if you really want to keep the fire burning, start with yourself. The young Billy Sunday went to his pastor one day and said that he wasn't satisfied with the spiritual fervour of the church, and asked how could he help bring about more intensity. The pastor replied to him, 'Go into the meeting hall, draw a circle on the floor with a piece of chalk, kneel down inside the circle and pray these words - 'Lord, bring revival, and start inside this circle.'