This is no time for passive youth ministry, urban youth leaders were told Saturday.
Youth are being empowered in gangs and dying in the streets, yet Larry Acosta of Urban Youth Workers Institute finds many churches giving teens nothing more than the role of passing the offering plates every fifth Sunday.
"Are you kidding me?" he said during the institute's youth worker training event, Reload 1.2.3. in Bronx, N.Y.
"You need to empower youth to lead with real ministry opportunities," he exhorted. "I'm talking next generation leaders empower[ing] youth to teach Bible studies, to lead small groups."
Just month after accepting Christ around the age of 19, Efrain Figueroa was encouraged by his youth leader to become more engaged and active in the ministry. Within a year, he had become president of the youth group and site director of a youth center.
Figueroa had neither prior ministry experience nor a relationship with Jesus before he found himself in church, chasing after a girl. He had been kicked out of college and couldn't find purpose or value in himself.
After his youth leader, Mitchell Torres, took a gamble on him and placed the young and obviously fearless Puerto Rican in leadership positions, he found himself valuable and having something to give.
And he has paid it forward over the years, investing in teens and trusting them to take up greater roles.
"The work that we need to be doing is finding the greatness in young people," he said at Reload 1.2.3., which was webcast live to a national audience. "I'm not looking for [them] to be the next Billy Graham.
"We need to see what they are for, who they are and let them be."
Today, Figueroa is senior pastor of Glad Tidings Assembly of God in the Bronx.
Reiterating the significance of empowering youth, Acosta challenged youth workers to be "intentional" in calling teens out and engaging them in ministry.
"This is no time to play church. This is no time to be soft," he stressed. "This is [the] time to be bold and dangerous and inspire kids to change the world. Be intentional about finding young ... fearless warriors.
"Allow them to join you in ... leading a Kingdom dream."
Acosta further challenged urban youth workers not to simply conduct the usual Vacation Bible School for a bunch of church kids this summer. Instead, he called them to send their youth to the projects – public housing areas – and to show communities what it looks like when Jesus shows up.
"We want you to know that we believe in you," he told next generation leaders. "We need you ... to rise up and lead the church into the future. You're alive at this time in history at such a time as this. We need you to help us complete the Great Commision in the cities, in the ... neighborhoods, in the projects, in the parks, in the places where too many from my generation are afraid to go."
The Urban Youth Institute was launched in 1997 initially to equip and mobilize Latino youth leaders on the West Coast. It has grown to involve multi-ethnic urban communities throughout the country and continues its efforts in training leaders who train leaders.