A recent Associated Press poll found that a majority of Americans, 8 out of 10, think the country is going in the wrong direction. There is little to no doubt that the United States has been through a difficult season between political turmoil, a pandemic, racial unrest and financial hardship. You may be like me in wondering has our country been through anything like this before. The book of Ecclesiastes is clear that there is nothing new under the sun, so the short answer to the question is yes, we have been here before, although the circumstances were different. Many Historians and Sociologists believe that what we’re going through currently resembles the year 1968. Our country was dealing with a long war and the assassination of two leaders along with a President who decided not to run again. However, it’s what happened after 1968 that little is talked about, which is our country experienced a revival, unlike anything we had seen before in modern history. Recently Richard Ross, Founder of True Love waits and Youth ministry expert for the last 51 years, sat down for an interview to discuss why what we are experiencing could be the beginning of a spiritual awakening.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CH: How long have you been in student ministry?
I have just completed 51 years of ministry entirely focused on Jesus, teenagers and the adults who matter to teenagers. I know such a journey is not common. I tell Jesus often how grateful I am that He allowed me to stay engaged with a young generation my entire adult life.
And the journey is not over. I continue serving as a fulltime professor of student ministry at Southwestern Seminary and as a volunteer in my church's student ministry. Someday I will be lying in hospice, still considering better ways to launch a young generation to change the world.
Why do you love teenagers?
I love teenagers for two reasons. First, God crafted me in his mind before creation. He formed my DNA to fit his plan for my life perfectly. It is hardwired into my being to love teenagers.
Second, I love teenagers because they are lovable. I realize many adults would not agree. Sadly, they only look at the thin façade teenagers often maintain in public. But that exterior is not who they truly are. I love their joy, spontaneity, passion, faith, and capacity for dreaming big dreams. I also love their ability to see through the matrix created by adult culture—and to see reality more as it is.
I research teenagers, and I teach about teenagers. But I love actual teenagers. I love being in their company. I don't think that will ever end.
You recently stated that, after the 1968 year of turmoil, spiritual revival/renewal took place in America. Can you explain that?
The year 1968 was one of the most turbulent years of the 20th century. All that took place during my senior year in high school. And yet, that social upheaval became the soil out of which the Jesus Movement emerged. Almost like time-lapse photography of a seed rapidly sprouting, this spiritual awakening among a young generation grew up practically overnight. An awakening that began on the west coast was visible across the nation by 1970.
By the tens of thousands, hippies in communes turned from LSD and promiscuity to the greatness of Jesus. Christian coffee houses appeared everywhere, usually featuring music and readings that expressed the faith of new converts. Even we teenagers in churches found a new passion that paralleled that of those leaving the counterculture. Before worship would begin on Sunday morning, we filled the air with Jesus Cheers. "Give me a J ... Give me an E" etc.
By 1969, I was attending a Bible college. But even there, many students met Jesus—and sometimes were baptized in the school fountain. It was an exuberant time, all focused on Jesus.
Are there some similarities to what we're experiencing as a country now, to that of what was experienced in 1968?
1968 and 2020—both marked by protests that turned violent. In 1968, students led demonstrations continually to protest the war in Vietnam.
1968 and 2020—both marked by a bitterly divisive presidential campaign. In 1968, the two parties were full of anger at each other.
1968 and 2020—both marked by upheaval related to racial injustice. In 1968, major riots occurred across the nation in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
1968 and 2020—both marked by a young generation who felt ignored by older adults. In 1968, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy caused many of the young to feel as if they had lost their voice.
1968 and 2020—both marked by the church reeling from the speed at which the culture turned away from God. Regarding 1968, some Christian historians have called that the year America spiritually died.
Was the American church ready for the spiritual renewal that took place in 1968 with youth and young adults?
In 1968, the church was not at all prepared for the Jesus Movement. The first Sunday morning that Jesus Cheers interrupted the organ prelude; many older hearts needed a defibrillator. Soon deacons were being called into emergency sessions. And things got even worse when the converted hippies showed up in worship. They had met Jesus, but their hair was as long as ever. And they wore sandals in the holy place. And they hugged a lot. You can imagine the tension.
But things got even worse. That young generation began to slowly slip in drums and guitars—not just in the youth room—but in the auditorium. Our recent worship music wars were nothing to compare to the controversy about new instruments on Sunday morning.
Of course, cheers, drums, and strange Sunday clothes were not the real issue. Sadly, somewhat cold and comfortable adult hearts were not ready to sense that God was doing a new thing with the young. They could not detect that it was Father God who was drawing all-new attention on his beloved Son. Adults could not look beyond externals to detect that God's Spirit was blowing a fresh breeze through the church.
The Jesus Movement brought multitudes into the Kingdom of God. And the movement did impact worship music in ways that matter today. But here is the sadness. Unlike the two Great Awakenings and the Global Awakening, the Jesus Movement was relatively short-lived. The movement did not alter the DNA of the church in ways similar to previous awakenings. The older generation in the church mostly rejected the exuberance of the young and pushed the movement outside. Like a burning stick pulled from the fire, the flame flickered and eventually went out.
What can churches and spiritual leaders, do to prepare for the spiritual renewal/revival that may come from students after 2020?
The Spirit of God will never lead the people of God to places outside the Word of God. Whenever God does a new thing in the church, He always leads in directions consistent with his Word. Therefore, adults do not need to fear when King Jesus descends to lead a young generation in new directions. Adults do need to hold fast to Scripture, but they do not need to hold fast to human traditions and customs.
I believe transformed adults do pray for revival. But they need to stay open to the possibility that the earliest moments of that revival might appear among the young—especially since that has been God's patterns in the awakenings of history. I often quote Jonathan Edwards, the key figure in the First Great Awakening. He said, "And indeed it has commonly been so, when God has begun any great work for the revival of his church; he has taken the young people and has cast off the old and stiff-necked generation."
God's people today need to humble themselves, pray, turn from their evil ways—and do all of this with an eye toward God's movement among the young.
What should every pastor and church leader know about Generation Z?
Many leaders think teenagers want to be entertained. But, those who genuinely know believing teenagers know they want to matter. They want to be part of some grand adventure. They want to get caught up in some cause that is greater than themselves.
The church cannot out-entertain the culture. But, the church can and should invite teenagers to make a difference for the greatness of Christ. Teenagers roll their eyes when adults proudly exclaim, "You are the church of tomorrow." Teenagers want to be the church today. That is why I have so much hope for them.
What is one book that every church leader should read concerning Generation Z?
This is a little embarrassing, but I would suggest my book, Youth Ministry That Lasts a Lifetime. The book captures what we know from Scripture and from research about student ministry that tends to create adults who follow King Jesus and make a difference in the kingdom for a lifetime. As you might expect, the model of ministry laid out in the book turns typical student ministry upside down.
Rather than leaving teenagers to spend six or seven years only in an age-group silo, the ministry model calls for immersing teenagers in relationships with the entire congregation and doing the work of the church side by side with adults. Also, the model moves parents into a rich partnership with the church in the spiritual impact on teenagers. The model also calls for discipling core students in basic doctrine, apologetics, worldview, ethics, servant leadership, and biblical interpretation so they can become agents of change in D.C., Hollywood, Wall Street, and Main Street.
After we come out of 2020, what are some changes that we should expect to see culturally?
Companies are discovering their employees working from home are as productive as those working in cubicles. Going forward, we will probably see a much higher percentage of youth parents working from home. And, the weeks of quarantine already have given families far more hours together in 2020 than in recent years. And then the multiplied weeks of online Sunday worship services have meant family members were sitting close together in worship for the first time in many years.
Church leaders absolutely must capitalize on these developments. Now is the perfect time to call and equip parents to lead their teenagers at home spiritually.
You've been at this a long time, is this the most dramatic cultural shift you've seen in your ministry career?
Early in my life, many people knew Jesus and believed the Bible was the authoritative Word of God.
In young adulthood, a higher percentage of people were lost. But, most of those were mostly OK about people of faith. The new dynamic is the overt distrust and even antagonism against the faith community. Now we must tell church teenagers, "You've got to get off the fence. You are part of the kingdom of light or the kingdom of darkness. You cannot dabble in both worlds. If you belong to King Jesus, it's time to go all in."
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