Stop Trying to 'Attract' Youth; Go to Them

Chelsen Vicari
Chelsen Vicari serves as the Evangelical Program Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Off the top of your head, who can you say ignites crusades in America where 90 percent of the attendees are under 18 and have never been saved by Jesus Christ?

I struggled to answer this question too when it was posed to me recently by a 24 year-old Hispanic pastor named Brian Barcelona. Barcelona knew the answer. Actually, Brian Barcelona is the answer.

Barcelona is the founder of One Voice, a Los Angeles-based ministry that seeks to bring the Gospel to local high school students by strengthening student Bible clubs.

"The LGBT, Planned Parenthood, the Marines — all of these organizations understand one thing: if you get a student in high school, then you most likely get them for life," said Barcelona as he sat with me in the student center of Campbellsville University. "There are 14.7 million students that go to public high schools in America. That's something we have to understand as a Church."

The typical pizza party youth group is not Barcelona's style of student ministry. Instead of youth pastors hoping to attract teenagers to them, he asks, "What happens if churches were to start sending youth pastors onto high school campuses?"

Barcelona half-jokingly explained to me that there is no other mission field on the globe where the missionary knows exactly what time the non-believers will arrive, when they will break for lunch, and what time they will leave five days a week, nine months a year.

As it happens, Barcelona's high school mission field includes entrenched Los Angeles and along the Pacific Coast, which a December 2014 Barna study found is the "home to the largest percentage of churchless per capita." But the secular cultural giant that is Los Angeles doesn't discourage One Voice's ministry team. The Holy Spirit has placed on Barcelona's heart that another Jesus Movement (a Christian revival during the late 1960s and early 1970s among America's youth that began along the West Coast) will start in California soon.

"Be prepared, because these students aren't going to look like you. They're not going to act like you either." He added, "And what the hippies were for the Jesus Movement, I believe homosexuals will be for the next one."

Barcelona's strategy is simple and — praise God — it's also successful. By strengthening the student Bible clubs on Los Angeles' high school campuses, Barcelona is able to preach at weekly meetings on those campuses. Meeting at schools has allowed Barcelona to meet the students where they are, even leading local teenage gang members to Jesus Christ. At one particular campus meeting, nearly 2,000 students showed up in the school gym to hear about Jesus.

Passion for high school students stems from Barcelona's own conversion experience. He was raised in church, but watched his parents "backslide." He became disgusted by Christian hypocrisy. In high school he started challenging fellow believers and shares, "I was a depressed, atheist high school kid before I met Christ in 2007."

Barcelona believes that America's high school students are like the blind man Jesus healed in John 9:1-34.

"Like the blind man who had never seen the light, these kids are born blind." Reading from the Scripture passage Barcelona explained, "The disciples asked Jesus, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' But instead of the Church asking, 'man, whose fault is this?' look at Jesus' response: 'It was not this man sin or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed.'"

"Reaching high school students is more than saying 'yeah, God wants to do something with the young generation,'" said Barcelona. "Do you understand this generation actually needs you? Most of these students just want families. They are craving mothers, fathers … We need your prayer, your love, your funding, and your action."

So stop worrying about the latest cultural capitulation that will "attract" Millennials and Generation Z to your youth group and church. Just take the uncompromised Gospel to them.

If you'd like more information on how to get started or support One Voice's ministry, please visit

Chelsen Vicari serves as the Evangelical Program Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She earned her Masters of Arts in Government from Regent University and frequently contributes to conservative outlets. Follow her on twitter @ChelsenVicari.

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