How Can Your Church Reach Young People for Jesus?

How do young people come into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ? The research is clear: the vast majority of people (young, as well as old) come to faith through a relationship with a Christian friend or relative.[1]

Jesus often modeled the process. To the demon-possessed man (Mark 5:19) he said, “go home to your friends and tell them what wonderful things God has done for you…” When Zacchaeus believed, Christ told him that salvation had also come to his friends and family (Luke 19:9). After Jesus healed the son of a royal official we learn that the Centurion, and all of his family and friends, believed (Mark 2:14-15). Jesus knew that the way the Gospel would travel around the world would be through relationships.

How to Get Started
The foundation of an effective outreach strategy for young people is building relationships with them. How do you start building relationships? C.S. Lewis gives us a wonderful insight: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”[2] To reach young people, we must create times and places where friendships can grow between Christians and non-Christians. Think of these as “relationship greenhouses”.

How do such friendships flourish? Two ingredients are required: (1) time and (2) common interests. In other words, young people need to spend time with Christians with whom they share things in common. Once you have these two ingredients, you’re well on your way to effective outreach.

These days, finding one of those two ingredients — time — may prove difficult. What do you do when people tell you that they can’t make it because they don’t have time?

Change the Question
The leaders of a Lutheran church in Burnsville, Illinois encountered this problem. They conducted small group meeting after small group meeting but had few attendees. The common excuse? “We just don’t have any time.” Then an insight hit them and they solved the problem. Rather than asking, “Would you attend our group?”, they started asking, “What kind of a group would you change your schedule to attend?”[3] When they found people’s “hot buttons” for which they would make time, they solved their small group attendance problems!

There are two categories of groups for which young people will change their schedules to attend: recreational and developmental. The first category relates to how young people like to spend their free time. The second category relates to dealing with major life concerns, such as health, finances, relationships, and employment or school.

To attract young people, you need to build your “relationship greenhouses” around felt needs. If the attraction is strong enough, the promise appealing enough, and the first step small enough, then young people will come.

From Felt Needs to Deeper Needs
But focusing only on felt needs limits your potential for nurturing deeper relational and spiritual growth. A good “relationship greenhouse” moves from felt needs to deeper needs. What are the deeper needs of young people where real relationships will grow? Young people are looking for five things:

  1. a place to belong
  2. a sense of balance
  3. authentic relationships
  4. help through transitions
  5. spiritual answers

If you can provide for these deeper needs, then you will see people coming back even after their felt needs have been met.

From Deeper Needs to Eternal Needs
Ultimately, the “pilgrim’s progress” will move from deeper needs to eternal needs, and the pilgrim will develop a relationship with Jesus that fills the God-shaped vacuum inside every human being. But young people won’t make those jumps from felt needs to deeper needs to eternal needs with people they don’t know or trust. Disciple making is a process. And such journeys take time. I recommend Bob Whitesel’s book, Spiritual Waypoints,[4] for a helpful discussion on facilitating people’s journey from ignorance to intimacy with Christ.

What’s Our Product?
A marketing executive with Ford Motor Company once said to me, “I’ve often imagined what it might be like if our church were a business. What would be our product?” He went on to answer his own question: “I think our product would be ‘relationships.’ A relationship with God through Jesus Christ, relationships with others in the body of Christ, and, finally, relationships with people in our community.” Hmmm. That’s a great product, isn’t it? And there’s certainly a need in the “marketplace”!


[1] See Side Door: How to Open Your Church to Reach More People by Charles Arn, Wesley Publishing House, 2013, p. 9.)
[2] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves. Harcourt, Brace, & Company, Orlando, FL: 1988 p. 247.)
[3] David Stark. Growing People Through Small Groups. Bethany Press, 2004, p. 94.
[4] Bob Whitesel. Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey. Wesley Publishing House, Indianapolis: IN, 2010.

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