Having spent most of my adult life in different forms of radical youth ministry, I have a deep and passionate message, which I want to share with America. I am not a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist, a movie star or an award-winning professional athlete. All I am is a simple ordinary man. However, I am a man of prayer, and a man who heard God call me to do whatever I could to reach out to a generation of American youth in the mid 1980’s, a generation, which was committing suicide in epidemic proportions.
What I urgently want to tell you is that the number one mindset standing in the way of today’s kids being able to get back in school is the exact same thinking that has drastically affected youth ministry for the last thirty years. I guarantee that when you finish reading what I am about to tell you, you will be shocked, but I also guarantee that you will say to yourself “That’s it!”
To start off, I need to tell you that I knew nothing about reaching teens when I first answered God’s call. I used to say that the only thing that I know about reaching teens is, “I used to be one!” As a teen, God placed some wonderful mentors in my life. I was so fortunate to have my dad love me more than anyone ever could, and although he did not always understand me, he reached into my life in so many ways to prove that love. In addition, my wonderful teachers, athletic coaches, after school mentors and the greatest friends in the world created a solid foundation for my life. Because of that, to this day I still believe the teen years should be the happiest, most fulfilling, wonderful years of a person’s life, and that when they are not, something is seriously wrong, and something somehow needs to be changed.
When the call settled into my heartstrings in the 1980’s, one teenager was committing suicide every 90 minutes and two to three thousand failed attempts were being reported each day. These stats shocked me! I started sharing them with people and I was further shocked that they were not shocked! Actually their blasé attitude toward teen suicides will end up conclusively proving the point of this article. Although something was dumbing down the emotions of the adults I spoke to, I had yet to realize what it was. I continued to seek an understanding of this in regular prayer before the Lord.
God started me on the path of youth pastoring slowly but steadily. As God moved my family from place to place as an evangelist, I was customarily asked to speak in our new home church. My main focus as an evangelist was to share the burdens on my heart that I had been praying about – the needs of America’s teens. In almost every church there was a need for a youth pastor, so I did my best to awaken the awareness of that need in the hearts of the church members and leadership. As a result of passionately sharing the needs of America’s youth, I would often be asked to be that church’s youth pastor, and I would prayerfully accept.
In those 25 years, I was the youth pastor or leader in five different churches, building up the youth groups in two of those churches from scratch. During those years, an incredible opportunity opened up for our ministry to purchase mountain land, which with God’s help, we were able to buy. There we built a mountainside home, retreat and youth facility. We eventually cleared hiking trails, created the space for a basketball/volleyball court and hockey rink, and cleared out and built an outdoor music stage in the naturally sloping side of the mountain. Over the years we had special events, speakers, musicians, and camping experiences there for the youth that were in touch with the special ministry God had called me to.
While we were engaged in all these new initiatives, I really felt that I'd found the answer to defeating the blasé mindset towards our hurting youth. My goal was to lead by example. I wanted to show that if we all worked together, we could build bridges that would reach into their world. I felt that when they saw such radical concern for them, they would open the doors of their hearts. I was positive that I must let my heart be tenderized by our hurting teens and make the most of every opportunity that God had given me.
I had pledged early on that our ministry home’s door would always be open to any young person in need of a place to stay. A young man named “Mike” came to live in our home and found Christ as his savior that summer. His parents, his grandmother and eventually his great grandparents had kicked him out because of behavior issues. Mike arrived in mid-summer, helped work on the mountain home and started school at the local high school the following fall.
The improvement in Mike’s high school transcripts was so dramatic that the school guidance counselor called me in for a meeting. His very first words were “What did you do to this kid? Look! His grades, his attendance, his attitude; everything is up!” I quietly told the counselor that Mike had received Christ as his savior during the summer and explained that I had been mentoring him in his spiritual growth. The counselor then began to ask me about my ministry. His next statement shocked me: “Nolan, we have a real problem keeping substitute teachers in our districts’ special education program. Many of our subs do not have patience with today’s young people. Would you ever consider coming and working with us as a substitute teacher?” Again I prayed, but in my heart knew that this was a job that God was opening up for me. I soon started working there. While the average sub lasted two weeks, through dependence on Christ’s love and His grace, I worked there thirteen years. Within that time period, I got to see many young people touched by God’s love, some of whom I still know today.
As an outreach ministry starting in the mid 1980’s during the height of the national suicide crisis, God put on my heart the need to expand our ministry by reaching directly into the homes of unreached teens. Once again, although I had no previous training in radio ministry, I purchased a Radio Shack microphone and plugged it into my home stereo and produced a half hour radio program called “Teen Talk Radio” in my living room. Over the next 12 years, Teen Talk expanded greatly. In all, we ended up producing over 2,500 broadcasts being syndicated through smaller networks that aired in five-minute-after-school time slots. However in all this seeming fruitfulness, I came up against that same blasé mindset time and time again.
I soon realized that in spite of all we were doing to try to reach teens, this mindset was hanging over us and the entire nation like a curse. When I consulted others in youth ministry, I learned that they had come against it also but had given up trying to fight it because it had dug in too deep.
At what seemed like the height of fruitfulness in my ministry, I was asked to consider becoming a regional Youth for Christ director, including running a drop-in youth center. It seemed like an unusual conclusion to my last youth pastorate. At that time over 100 teens, many of which were more mature adolescent believers, were coming out for a special Friday night worship service. Every week their parents were waiting in their cars frustrated because pick-up time was 9:30 pm but their teens were still seeking God around the altar well pass 10:00 pm! After a concerted time of prayer, I accepted the position, which lasted in total over seven years.
At that point I remember sensing distinctly that due to my years of experience and my new title of “Executive Director of Twin Tiers Youth for Christ”, I had reached a new springboard in ministry. My greatest burden had always been for unsaved teens. I felt their need for Jesus was more urgent than that of any other age group. In addition, I felt that teens were the age group that was also the most hungry to receive the truth. I remember seeming certain that surely now the negative mindset, which had hung over me when I was working with church teens and church boards, would no longer be a problem. Almost immediately, however, it became obvious that this same lack of understanding was there, too. Teens had a great need, and we had a great opportunity, but hearts just were not engaged to go the extra mile to reach teens. Cutting edge thinking on reaching youth not only was not there, it seemed the dumbing down effect was keeping it from being heard! After seven years of dealing with this thinking, sadly, the Youth for Christ ministry in that area was shuttered, in part, due to this same attitude.
Twenty plus years later, this same mindset, this same type of thinking concerning teens, would emerge once again, this time in the midst of a pandemic. What is that thinking, that mindset that is now preventing the reopening of our schools and is creating dangerous pockets of depressed and isolated teenagers who are battling thoughts of suicide? Plainly stated, it is “I WAS A TEENAGER ONCE AND I MADE IT. IF I MADE IT, THEN THEY CAN NOW TOO! KIDS ARE STRONG, THEY ARE RESILIENT AND THEY WILL BOUNCE BACK.” The severity of any teen suicide crisis or any other teen crisis is cleverly dumbed down by means of this one assertion. This philosophy hinders people from taking any urgent action now or ever. The ugly truth is that this attitude is likely focused on concern for the bottom line, while giving a blind eye to real teen needs.
As a veteran youth minister, I want to declare from the bottom of my heart that in truth, many teens do not bounce back. Countless young people need help in this hour, and countless young people could find the Lord but they may not find Him unless we move now!
It is time to get schools back open. It is time to get kids back into their normal world, a world surrounded by their friends, their teachers, their coaches, and their teammates. It is time for them to return to a world they need every day to thrive emotionally. Teens are not strong right now. They need our immediate help. The Chicago area has had 40 teen suicides recently! The CDC is reporting that teen suicide has been rising at an alarming rate for the last few years! We need to get the fallacy out of our heads that teens are strong and start realizing they need our help now! Then we need to prayerfully see what God would have us do SOMETHING TODAY. Their future is in our hands.
Rev Nolan J Harkness is the President and CEO of Nolan Harkness Evangelistic Ministries Inc. since 1985. He spent most of his adult life working in youth ministry. He also felt the calling of Evangelist/Revivalist and traveled as the door was open holding evangelistic meetings in churches throughout the Northeast. His website is www.verticalsound.org.