Youth leader and co-chairman/director of Jesus Global Youth Day, Ron Luce believes if senior pastors were more hands-on with the youth then churches would be full of young disciples.
Luce is spearheading a historic Jesus Global Youth Day on August 8-10 at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines. The 3-day event will be streamed live to thousands of locations around the Philippines and then the world on the final day of the event.
Organizers are encouraging Christians everywhere to pack their churches with young people united in the name of Christ. Over 83,000 churches have already signed on to participate in the broadcast with the possibility of reaching almost 10 million young people.
Leaders from various denominations in 45 nations have come together to host the event that will feature world boxing champion and Philippines Senator Manny Pacquiao, actor Stephen Baldwin, and Nick Vujicic, founder of Life Without Limbs. There will also be worship from Christian artists such as Planetshakers, Lecrae, Miel San Marcos and others.
As studies show a decline in youth attendance in churches worldwide, Luce is hoping ministers everywhere will get serious about reaching and discipling the younger generation.
Below is an edited transcript of an interview between Luce and The Christian Post in which he shares about the inception of JGYD and how ministers everywhere can reach the heart of their young people for Jesus.
Christian Post: What is the genesis of this event? How did it come about?
Luce: Jesus Global Youth Day was conceived when Bishop Efraim Tendero — the general secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance, which is in, which you might know, 129 nations around the world and it's been around for over 100 years — looked at me and said, “Ron, the Catholics have done Catholic World Youth Day for decades. Why has there never been anything for Protestant youth on a global scale? We need to do a global event for young people and you need to lead it,” as he points his finger at me. And that was a number of years ago. That was about four to five years ago and we've literally been dialoguing and then planning ever since.
The idea is this massive event for young people from all over the world, both as they travel to Manila to be part of the live event, and to be part of the global broadcast that we'll have on August the 10th, around the world, uniting the younger generation in the name of Christ and at the same time empowering and inspiring leaders all over the world, that is youth leaders and senior pastors, to begin to focus on reaching and discipling the next generation.
CP: People of God are having a hard time reaching the youth. Considering your long experience in youth ministry, what would you say the church has gotten wrong about youth ministry?
Luce: The data says that fundamentally, most places that are Christianized all around the world are not reaching the younger generation. You could look at any number of Pew studies, things like the median age of Christians is 30. The median age of Muslims is 23. You could see the average age of a megachurch attender in America is 40. The average age in a small church in America is 53. The average age of an attendee in U.K. is 61 years old. You can look at South Korea where at the height of the revival they had 33% of the population were Christian, now with the younger generation, it's 1.7%.
So we have a phenomenon called the grain of the church, which I document thoroughly in my upcoming book, Faith at the Speed of Light. It's a chronic and global issue that the church is facing. Even in places like Nigeria, where there's widespread revival, the revival is more among the adults than the young people. The young people are simply not in the churches.
Part of our issue is that as great as some youth groups are and even as great as some youth conferences, youth ministry has sort of been seen as the stepchild, the necessary obligation of the church.
If we have a really great one, we get a really cool guy, he tracks a lot of us, he leaves in a few years, those kids go off to college and they then don't feel like that church is even their home church because the person that pastored them is gone. They call it their parents' church, not their church.
We know all the data about young people not continuing in their faith when they go into college but very few have done anything about it. The good news is that there's some best practices that I found around the world that are breaking this whole mold, where they're very effective at reaching and discipling. Among these best practices, what they do differently is that the senior pastor takes responsibility for the younger generation, not just those that come to his church or whose parents belong to the church, but they think and they plan about how to effectively reach the younger generation in their community because they know that they are the most prone to come to Christ and then they map out a plan to disciple them once they come to Christ.
CP: How will JGYD reach a disenfranchised generation?
Luce: Well our prayer is that they will be encouraged that someone's paying attention to them on a global scale, recognizing that there are a lot of them that do love the Lord. We’re going to encourage them, empower them to reach their own generation. At this event, we have worship leaders from all over the world coming. We have speakers from all over the world, so it's not America-centric. We've got almost 100,000 locations around the world, churches and host sites all around the world, that will be taking the broadcast on the 10th, filling their churches and locations with young people, watching them come to Christ and to spark hope in every community and every senior pastor that their physical building can be used as a hospital to reach the younger generation.
CP: What would you say are the key spiritual differences between the younger generation in the U.S. and those in countries such as the Philippines?
Luce: Well one thing I've heard from leaders all around the world, they’re asking me to come to help them, saying, “Our young people are listening to your music from America, and they're watching Hollywood, YouTube, they're more like your culture than our culture. Can you come help us reach them?”
I don't know if there's any spiritual difference, the younger generation is now a global generation, all singing the same songs, wearing the same kind of clothes, same kind of trends.
Our opportunity is to take the tools that they're using, interaction with social media, what they have in their pocket, connection to the internet and leverage that, rather than fight it, leverage that to get the Gospel to them in relatable ways. There are three and a half billion people on the internet now. By 2025, there'll be about 7 billion on the internet. Most of those will be young people because we have a very young world. And so leveraging the tools of this that some are calling the fourth industrial revolution, or this wave of change, this coming for the Gospel, that is our opportunity. So when the wave hits, we ride it rather than get crushed by it.
CP: The event will reach across denominations, how so, and why would you say that's important?
Luce: The main focus is Jesus at Jesus Global Youth Day. We actually have some of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church coming. Some of the leaders in the Orthodox Church I've met around the world are very deep in their love and their commitment to Christ.
One thing that almost all churches have in common is that they're not growing and they're not reaching the younger generation. Instead of our infighting of denominational and doctrinal differences, this is the opportunity to unite to say, “You know what, we all want to reach the next generation. Let's learn together the principles from those that are doing it all around the world, these best practices that I document in my upcoming book, as well and many of those leaders will actually be in Manila sharing their best practices with leaders that come and then let’s take those principles and adapt them to the DNA of our ministry, to the culture of our home country and let's get about the business of reaching the next generation before it's too late.
I say before it's too late because data says they're most soft and prone to receive Christ 13, 14, 15 years old. So it's focusing on them before we end up trying to catch kids that don't want to get caught. That seems to be mostly what youth ministry is, once they turned 16, 17, 18 they want to be cool, they're driving their cars, are having fun, and they've got their own money. And then they don't want to get caught. But 13 and 14-year-olds, they want to get caught, they want to belong. We can reach them and then begin to disciple them, teaching them that radical Christianity is actually normal Christianity.
CP: You've been involved in youth ministry for decades. What have you seen change both positively and negatively in working with young people?
Luce: Well it seems that as a Christian entity we’ve become more event-driven than process-driven. We emphasize, “Come back next Sunday, this cool thing is going to happen, that cool thing is going to happen, this drama is going to happen, this music's going to happen.” We do it with youth events as well. So we end up competing with the culture going from event to event, hoping that if they come to enough events that they'll grow in Christ and they'll get discipled.
In America, we don't even hardly know what the word discipleship means. It’s a couple of classes you take after you “pray the prayer.” But in the best practices that we’ve identified around the world, it really means taking a new follower of Christ through a very thorough process of growth that empowers and enables them to reproduce and become a multiplier, rather than just an attendee.
For so long youth ministry has been, “I want to make sure that the parents who come to my church have a good place to send their youth,” rather than thinking, “this is the key to growing our church now and for building it for future generations.” That kind of change of paradigm requires the senior pastor to get involved.
Many times, senior pastors have felt like, “What can I do to reach a younger generation? I'm not cool, I don't have tattoos and I don't play the guitar, no piercings.” None of that's important. Do you love young people? The guy that runs Viacom, which is the entity that owns MTV, he's not cool, he’s not young, he’s smart, he’s a strategist. That's the role of the pastor, that’s the role of the bishop, the denominational leader, to be the strategist orchestrating how to effectively make sure the Gospel gets into the hearts and hands of the next generation.
CP: What inspired you to make this event a global broadcast? What are you hoping to achieve?
Luce: We’re really hoping to inspire senior pastors, even those that might feel like, “What can I do to help a young generation?” Well, I would say, can you open your doors on August 10th, invite the young people to bring all their friends and unsaved friends to church that night?
The hope is that you see your church filled with young people and many of them come to Christ, you see them start to get discipled. We actually have discipleship materials for the youth to begin to go through now so that they can pray with people, their friends who come to Christ that night, and then go through the same materials with them. That will inspire hope in the senior pastor that you don't have to be this edgy person. You've got a lot of tools at your fingertips that you can use. It's so encouraging to see so many people from around the world jumping in as a part of this global broadcast on August 10.
CP: What would you say to anyone concerned about participating in the event because of past controversy?
Luce: For 30 years leading Teen Mania and Acquire the Fire conferences, we saw more than 3 million people come to the events and have profound encounters with Christ, thousands upon thousands go through our internship, 80,000 go on mission trips around the world. Really we feel like it was the grace of God that enabled us for 30 years to sustain a youth ministry that's very difficult to sustain. Many youth ministries started and ended before we did, so we were able to be face to face with about 5% of the whole millennial generation over those years and we thank the Lord for that.
We also thank the Lord that there was no accusation of anything immoral or improper during all those years. This new season is really about helping youth around the world and church leaders around the world to effectively reach and disciple. It's not just all my ideas. We’re curating, we’re finding and curating the ideas from around the world and inviting those that want to reach the younger generation to grab arms together with other pastors around the world and say, “You know what, you're not alone, we can do this thing.”
CP: Is there a guest speaker or performer you're particularly excited to hear minister at JGYD?
Luce: Well I'm very honored that Nick Vujicic is coming. He was born with no arms and legs and now travels all over the world speaking and preaching and many are coming to Christ. He'll be a part of the global broadcast. Nick and I have been friends for 15 or 20 years when he first came to America.
There's also a number of great musicians, Planet Shakers and Bethel will be a part. I'm very excited about Manny Pacquiao, who just won the welterweight World Championship once again in Las Vegas; he will be coming to share his story. He loves Jesus profoundly and has millions of followers. The thing I love about Manny is he's been a persistent follower of Christ when he wins the fight and when he loses it. He's just a steady follower and he's humble.
CP: Will there be future events?
Luce: By the grace of God, we're already talking to some locations about doing another Jesus Global Youth Day in the next couple of years and give an opportunity for the church to continue to rally around the next generation.
CP: When all is said and done, and your mission is complete, what would be your greatest achievement?
Luce: Well for Jesus Global Youth Day and the aftermath, it's really not about the event. We're praying that it would be a catalyst for the church around the world and church leaders to realize this is our moment around the world to focus on the next generation. Even though we haven't done well for the last several decades, in spite of our best efforts, now let's learn from each other. We could see 100,000 churches begin to effectively reach and disciple and then that multiplies to 200,000 and then 500,000 churches around the world that are aggressively reaching and discipling because they've learned from others that are doing it well. Well, then we're on our way as a church to making sure that the Gospel is safely in the hearts and the hands of the next generation.
Our hope would be that just like there are many other normal things that are normalized in Christianity, things like we know we need to worship, we know we need to read our Bible, in church we know we need to give opportunities for people to hear about coming to Christ, that what's normal for us to do in the body of Christ is we all focus on the next generation. That's just what we do because that's what Jesus did; most of His disciples were young. Many scholars said that they were teenagers except for one or two of them.
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs, not just my sheep, but my lambs, my young ones.” As we focus on the next generation, it's just part of what is normal leadership in the body of Christ, normal Christianity we're all reaching the young who are most prone to receive Christ and build their life as a disciple. Then we've done our job.
Watch the broadcast on Aug. 10 (Manila time) here.