Reaching Youth In South Asia

Note: Unedited Document: Proof-reading not yet done


Ajith Fernando, Youth for Christ Sri Lanka

A Paper read at the International Conference of Evangelism, Rawalpindi, Pakistan

19th October 2005





Acts 17:16-34



In this paper we are dealing primarily with Evangelising youth, especially unchurched youth. Such youth are very different to youth who have a background of involvement in the church. Therefore what we are talking about is cross-cultural evangelism. Paul was a master at this. And in this paper we will observe his ministry in Athens.





Acts 17:16 gives us a glimpse into the heart of Paul: “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (ESV[1]). These things that Paul was so upset about were housed in some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. From an aesthetic standpoint, Athens was unrivalled for its exquisite architecture and statues.”[2] However Paul was in a rage! The word translated “provoked” (paroxuneō) means “to stimulate, to provoke to wrath, to irritate; passive to be angry.”[3] The people of Athens were missing what they were made for because they were worshipping idols rather than God. And Paul was broken inside over that.

He expresses a similar attitude when he thinks of the unbelief of the Jewish people:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Rom. 9:1-3).


To evangelise unreached youth you need to be broken by the fact that they are living outside of Christ. There is a sense of urgency here. Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, said: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” That is what we need: broken hearts over lost youth. This means that even older people can be involved in youth evangelism if they have this burden for lost youth. Of course, they will not do all the work. Their job may be to enable others to do the work, and to give them a protective covering so that they can try new things in their efforts to reach more young people.


This passion for lost people gives rise to a passion for sharing the gospel. Paul said, “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). Paul goes on to say how he is willing to do whatever it takes to win people for Christ. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 he says how, in order to win different groups of people he became like them. He became like a Jew, like one under the law, like one not having the law. He even says he became weak in order to win the weak (9:22a). Then he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (9:22b). I sometimes tell our Youth for Christ staff that if God wants us to stand on our heads to win young people to Christ, we will do it.


Passion, of course, is a characteristic of youth. Idealism is a feature of youth culture. They want to change the system, to attack hypocrisy, to make a difference in this world. Yet they have their ups and downs. One day they are ready to change the world. The next day they are too lazy to leave home for an important meeting. Such youth would respond to persevering passion—leaders who persevere with them without giving up when the youth have their down times.


So youth leaders need to be passionate about the work of youth evangelism. They present the grand theme of the Great Commission to idealistic youth who latch on to it and give themselves devotedly to the task. The New Testament presents seven different versions of Jesus’ Great Commission, each one presenting a different aspect of the commission.[4] As a good motivator would do Jesus, during his last days on earth, kept hammering away at this great theme with his disciples so that they too would catch the vision.


A youth leader will not give up when the young people have lost interest. He/she will keep working hard. If leaders do not work hard and are not enthusiastic about the work they will have little chance of seeing their youth groups grow. This has been our experience in Youth for Christ (YFC). If the leaders do not work hard and if they are not enthusiastic about the work, usually the motivated volunteers lose motivation and drop off. Colossians 1:24-29 has a comprehensive description of Paul’s ministry of evangelism and discipleship. He climaxes it by talking about how hard he works at this task: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29). There are two words “toil” and “struggle” which present a picture of a hard-working servant of God who perseveres amidst much hardship.





Paul was upset by the idols in Athens, but he does not express his anger outwardly. He was not like the prophets who addressed Jews who knew the Word of God. They needed to be rebuked for their disobedience. But the Athenians did not know God’s word. So Paul uses a different method to the prophets in his response to idolatry: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (17:17).

The word translated reasoned here is dialegomai which has been defined as follows: “to reason, discuss, discourse; to argue, dispute.”[5]  The word is essentially used in Acts for speaking, but it allows for feedback and discussion. Reasoning and discussion are very important in sharing the gospel with youth and with people of all ages.


1. Our audience may not be interested in listening, but by involving them in the dialogue we can draw them into the discussion. I spoke once at a YFC camp to a group of young people who knew very little about Christianity. I had to finish my first talk very soon because the audience was very restless. I preached only for about fifteen minutes and ended up exhausted. During my second talk I engaged the audience in conversation through questions and discussion. The group was very attentive even though I spoke for about forty-five minutes, and I did not feel exhausted at all at the end of it!


2. Their thinking is so different to ours that we do not know what has gone into their minds. We can find out by discussing with them. After I had given an evangelistic message on John 3:16 at a YFC club, I found out that there was a Buddhist boy there. At the end of the meeting I took him aside and asked him what he thought about what I had said. He said he liked it very much. And then he said that Buddhism also teaches the same thing. I thought I had made it clear that the gospel is vastly different to Buddhism. But he had taken my Christian message and sent it through his Buddhist way of thinking and ended up hearing a message that agreed with Buddhism.


3. When we give an opportunity for people to talk we are able to respond to their objections and to their questions about the Christian gospel.


4. Often though our audiences may be looking at our faces they may not be paying attention to what we are saying. Their eyes are fixed on us, but their minds are far away! By involving them in the conversation we provoke them to take the message seriously.


At our YFC evangelistic camps the young people are usually divided into different groups. After some key messages we have the youth to go into their groups and discuss what they heard. We find that some youth make the major decision to commit their lives to Christ during these group discussions.




We are told that Paul “reasoned… in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (17:17). Ancient writings record that Socrates (469-399 BC) did the same thing in Athens. Athens was the city of Socrates, and when Paul shared the gospel there he used the method of Socrates. This was a university city and the people were very intellectually oriented. So the speech he gave later on was intellectual and philosophical in style.


One of the most important questions we ask in evangelising unreached youth is, “How can we win a hearing and keep their attention?” In order to do this effectively we study their religious beliefs and practices. We find out what they like and how we can use that to make contact with them. We may need to find out how they usually learn about a programme? With westernised youth we have found that attractively produced handbills are effective. With poorer youth we once found that a van fitted with a loudspeaker on top announcing the meeting was a more effective method. Usually our experience with poorer youth is that the most effective means of getting people to come for a programme is visiting them at home. Our volunteers do this all the time even though this is one of the most tedious activities in youth ministry. Affluent youth may respond more positively to an attractively produced document that is sent by e-mail.

We must ensure that they feel at home once they come for the meeting. A good motto to follow is “The unbeliever is king or queen at our youth meeting.” This would include giving them a warm welcome when they come, and refusing to use Christian jargon which would immediately make them feel like a stranger because they don’t understand what we are saying. We must make sure that we do not include any item the programme which will make them feel out of place or confused. The believers must resist the temptation to hang out with their Christian friends during the programme, and instead they should move with the newcomers.


The way we start the programme is especially important. The newcomer’s attitude to the programme is often formed by what happens at the start. We often start our programmes with games (called crowd-breakers or ice-breakers) which help to make the people feel at home. We have found that books from the west describing such games are very effective when used with westernised urban youth. With non-western youth, however, these games were not very effective. In fact, in some places the people told us that they would not come for our programmes if we have such games. The games coming from the west are geared to individualistic youth who are used to doing things alone in public. But most Asian cultures are more community oriented. With them we have found that games which have a team emphasis are more effective.


We must remember that youth culture changes constantly. Therefore our methods must also change all the time. What worked in one year may not work in the next. Till about 20 years ago we found that football (soccer) was very effective in attracting male youth to our programmes. Over the years however cricket has taken that place, because TV came to Sri Lanka and our team began to do well internationally in cricket, unlike our football team.


One of our effective means of outreach is taking young people on trips to places young people like to go. This works well with youth from the Sinhala race. But it does not do well with Tamil youth as Tamil youth are checked by the Police because of the on-going war. They are afraid to go on such trips for fear of being arrested.


Cultures change according to geographical areas also. For example, rural youth are very different to urban youth as we saw from the illustration about individualistic games. Sometimes we will have different cultures within the same geographical area. In the city of Colombo we find youth whose first language is Sinhala, English and Tamil. Each of these groups has a different culture. Similarly the affluent youth in a given area have a vastly different culture to the poorer youth.


These days TV is beginning to bring some uniformity as many of the youth may watch the same programmes. However, youth usually choose what they are going to watch according to their tastes. This is why I am a bit cautious about terms like “Global youth culture.” I think we use terms like “global middle-class culture and affluent youth culture,” but I would be hesitant to say, “global youth culture.” I believe that poor youth constitute a majority of the worlds youth population. As is often the case, the poor are neglected in these discussions about youth culture.


It is important to remember that the young people know best about youth culture. The older ones in youth ministry need to make a special effort to be in touch with youth culture. I try to listen to radio stations which young people listen to, and I occasionally watch TV programmes that are popular with youth. Popular music is a good indicator of the direction in which a culture is going.


Of course, the young people will be the best evangelists, though I know some older people who are very effective youth evangelists. Often the older person’s job is to enable others to be effective evangelists. The young people are our best teachers about youth culture. Over the years I have personally had to make sure that my younger colleagues and friends educate me about contemporary trends in youth culture.


Having young people teach us about their culture could be a way of helping opening their lives up to the gospel. I served as a youth worker in a church in USA when I was a student. A girl who was not a Christian was assigned to do some work in that church by the government. Her culture was totally different to that of the youth in our youth group. She was very interested in rodeo. So I got her to teach me about rodeo. It was the first breakthrough we had with her. Eventually she came on an evangelistic camp and committed her life to Christ.


So we are always asking, “What works with young people?” and “Can we use that as Christians?” William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, said, “Why should the devil have all the good music” and started putting Christian lyrics to the tunes of secular songs. The people liked the tunes and there was nothing innately sinful about the tune!


Once we decided to focus our evangelism on unchurched youth, we found that we had to relearn a lot of things. So we had non-Christian musical and drama specialists teach us music and drama so that we could use the art forms which the young people we were trying to reach were used to using.


Of course, when you start making these innovations in youth ministry many Christians will not understand. The answer to this is not for the youth leaders to isolate themselves from the rest of the church. Sadly, this happens often. If the youth leaders remain close to the church leaders and try to explain what they are doing, then, even though the leaders may not understand what the youth are doing, they will support them because they know that the youth leaders are sincere Christians who are seeking to honour God.


Often God uses older encouragers who are trusted by the youth and by the church to help build bridges between the youth and the adults. This is what Barnabas did when he went to the first gentile church in history in Antioch. He must have seen many short-comings in this brand new church. But Acts 11:23 says, “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad….” To see the representative from Jerusalem glad must have been a great encouragement to the Christians in Antioch. With that opening Barnabas was able to help them: “…and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord.”


Let me urge more adults to get alongside youth movements to be encouragers. The young people could really benefit from their wisdom, and they could be like advocates for the youth in the church. For these older encouragers just sitting back and looking at the way these young people do great things for God could be a great thrill!


Adults are often quick to criticise youth programmes without really asking why they do what they do. This alienates the youth and often they get discouraged and the work dies off. Sometimes the youth leaders are determined to persevere with their programmes despite the opposition. The danger here is that these groups can become cultic. They are disillusioned with the rest of the church, and they can become arrogant and judgemental. Group like this are in great danger of becoming imbalanced and cultic. They become critical of everyone except themselves and tend to have an unhealthily strong influence on the youth to the exclusion of other influences. God intended Christians to grow in a family where young and old learn from each other.





While it is true that Paul involved dialogue in his evangelism there was a definite message that was being communicated. Acts 17:18 says, “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” The expression, “Preaching Jesus and the resurrection,” is significant. The familiar Greek word euangelizō is used here. Here is how it is defined: to preach (bring) the good news (gospel), often with a focus on the content of the message which is brought. In the New Testament it always refers to the death, burial, resurrection, and witness about Jesus Christ, including its implications for humankind’s relationship to God.”[6]


God has spoken definite message to the world. This message is the only hope for humans to come out of the mess they are in. Therefore in all Christian ministries the message must have a position of primacy. All programmes are servants of the message. It is very easy to get carried away with games and other activities and to feel happy that we have attracted many youth. But that is not enough. We must get the message across. This is not very popular in our society, especially if conversion results.


Acts uses the word “persuade” seven times to describe the evangelism of the first Christians.[7] This word (peithō) means “to convince someone to believe something and to act on the basis of what is recommended.”[8] We are working for a definite change of heart and mind. Today persuasion in connection with evangelism is frowned upon by some. It is said to reflect arrogance and disrespect. This is strange because persuasion is a very common practice in society. This is how marketing and politicking operates. Advertisers try to get us to purchase their products or vote for their candidate by using persuasion.


Arrogance is impossible for a Christian because we are servants of the people. Those who serve Christ are serving a servant Lord who wants us to be servants like him (John 13:15; see Phil. 2:5-11). Besides, our message makes arrogance impossible. To be a Christian is to believe that we can do nothing to save ourselves, and that we do not deserve salvation. How could such a person be arrogant?


Actually persuasion is an expression of the respect we have for people. Even the great God of the universe will not force his way into people’s lives. He says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18). We will appeal to people and help them to make an intelligent decision about the truth.


There are, however, two false methods of persuasion which express disrespect to people and which we must avoid. The first is manipulation: Here factors which are not part of the essential gospel are used in influencing people into making the decision to follow Christ. This happens when Christians give people the impression that they will give them some aid if they become Christians. The aid could be economic assistance, a job or an opportunity to go abroad. But such methods are dishonouring to Christ.


In YFC we found that it is possible to emotionally manipulate people too. At our camps we used to have a very tight schedule. The youth have a lot of fun, and enjoy some great fellowship. Because of their tiredness they can become vulnerable to an emotional appeal. If we keep on making the appeal to people to accept Christ in such an environment some would succumb to the sheer pressure applied to them in their emotionally tired state and make a decision to follow Christ which they would not have made under normal circumstances. This realisation caused us to change our programmes so that the youth are not subjected to such pressure.


The most extreme form of emotional manipulation is brainwashing which cults indulge in. This is a trap which youth movements are also in danger of falling into especially because youth tend to respond positively to strong leadership and dogmatic proclamations.


The second disrespectful way of persuasion is imposition. Here ones authority used to unreasonably influence people to make a decision for Christianity. This could happen in Christian schools where non-Christian children are forced to do things which Christian only do. This happened during colonial times when colonial rulers used their powers to influence people into becoming Christians.





Paul is able to secure an invitation to speak to the Areopagus (Acts 17:19-21), which was the main administrative body and the chief court of Athens.[9] His speech is a model for anyone seeking to preach the gospel to the unreached. He starts by stating, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” This is not a case of flattery as that was discouraged as a way to start speeches at the Areopagus, according to the ancient writer Lucian.[10] He was making a point of contact with his audience through an observation he makes about them.


Actually the next verse shows that Paul had discovered a thirst which the Athenians had: “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god’” (17:23a). They seem to have had a god for every conceivable area of their lives—love, safety, wealth etc.—but they were still not fully satisfied. So just in case they missed out something they had an altar for “the unknown God.” This was an acknowledged need—a felt need—in their lives. And Paul says, that this need is met by the God he is proclaiming: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (17:23b).


Paul was presenting the gospel as the answer to their questions. We sometimes say that Jesus is the answer. But we must ask whether we are presenting him as the answer to our questions or to their questions? Our questions may be different to theirs. So we begin with what they are asking and, having made a point of contact, we move on to what we think they should be asking (e.g. how they can receive forgiveness for their sins and have a relationship with God).


So in presenting the gospel to youth we should be addressing their questions and felt needs. Here is a list of the questions we have found to be important to youth in Sri Lanka.

1. Their relationship with their parents. I mention this first because this is a serious concern of youth. Here are some of their areas of concern.

a) Alcoholic fathers;

b) Mother is working abroad (sometimes mother is abroad and father is not working but using the money the mother sends on alcohol);

c) Rich parents who do not have time for their children;

d) Over-ambitious parents who push their children too much;

e) Under-ambitious parents who want their children to drop out of school and earn for the family;

f) Distant parents who have little communication with the children;

g) Parents who favour one child over another and/or constantly compare children;

h) Parents who exploit duty conscious children so that their own progress is hindered;

i) Broken homes, and parents who are unfaithful to their spouses;

j) Parents who are involved in serious sin and crime;

k) Families ruined by conflict and unhappiness;

l) Parents who are out of touch with youth culture and do not understand their children;

m) Youth are beginning to get a taste of freedom; they are getting ready to be freed from their parents to take responsibility for their lives. This is compounded by the Asian cultural tradition of dependence upon parents even in adult life clashing with the western tradition coming through the media of independence from parents.


In YFC evangelistic camps the session on parents is often the most popular session. We try to present our Father God as the One who heals the wounds of children and gives them the strength to relate positively to parents.


Though many youth are in conflict situations with their parents, deep ties of love remain which cannot and should not be erased. We must do all we can to strengthen the ties between youth and their parents. Sometimes the place of the parents may be temporarily taken by the youth leader in the minds of the young person. While this is flattering to the leader, he or she must not encourage it.


When working with non-Christian youth the youth workers should try to make contact with the parents, if this is at all possible. We have found that this has resulted in a lot of reduction of persecution to the new believer. The fears of the parents about their child going to a strange religion are reduced because they know and trust the youth leader.


2. Sex


Adolescence is the time when youth discover their sexuality in a big way. They are sexually mature physically but they have a long way to go before marriage. Naturally sex is a big topic in their thinking. Therefore it should be a big topic in Christian youth work too. In youth evangelism we can tell the youth we are trying to reach how Christianity approaches this all important topic in their thinking.


Here are some issues that our youth face relating to sex:

a) The invasion of western morality through the media. E.g. dating, boy-friends and girl friends;

b) The pressure of living in a sex-saturated society;

c) Easy access to pornography has resulted in many youth become porn addicts;

d) In cultures which appear to be very “conservative” like in the villages of Sri Lanka, there is severe immorality which is taking place privately and secretly, so that youth may themselves be exposed to severe sexual temptation or images;

e) Young people who have been sexually abused carry deep scars which need to be healed;

f) Homosexuality is becoming more and more accepted as an alternate lifestyle. Often in Asia homosexual inclinations were considered a stage which some teenagers may pass through. Now it is being presented as a legitimate lifestyle so that the youth are not encouraged to drop these inclinations.  


3. Love


Love has always been an issue that young people grapple with, and those considering the claims of Christ need to be told the way Christians approach this issue. Here are some of the specific issues faced by youth:

a) Who will I marry?

b) When should I start looking for a mate?

c) I love this person, but people say I am too young.

d) I am ugly/I am not very capable/I am a poor student/I come from a problem family; who will want to marry me?

The beauty of living under God’s plan and waiting for him to satisfy our deepest needs can be a liberating thing to a young person plagued by the above questions.


4. Uncertainly Regarding the Future


The bleak economic prospects of Asian countries place huge pressure upon youth which is difficult to bear. Here are some issues they face:

a) Bleak economic situations and prospects.

b) Rampant unemployment even of graduates.  

c) The competitive educational system which places much stress on the student and in which some students are going to be left behind.

d) Not having funds to get the best education, e.g. to go to a good tuition class.


A youth ministry will need to be involved in several fronts here. Most important would be helping the youth to hand over their lives to the God who has a good plan for their lives. Most poor young people do not go to schools with a good standard of education, and they cannot afford to go for tuition classes. Therefore many Christian groups have found holding tuition classes to be a very effective means of helping youth and in the process making contact with unreached youth. YFC started providing teachers to schools in poorer areas which did not have teachers to teach Christianity to the Christian students. Once we went in to these schools the principals would ask us to supply teachers of key subjects for which there was no teacher in the school. In addition, vocational guidance and opening doors for better vocational opportunities should be part of a healthy youth ministry.


5. The Problem of Identity and Self-Worth


So many changes are going on in the lives of youth that they don’t know what to make of it. They wonder whether they will make it favourably to adult life. This is aggravated by the fact that they are living in an increasingly competitive society. Parents aggravate this problem by comparing their children with others when trying to motivate them. Usually in a young person’s life there are four features which boost their sense of self-worth. These are

a) How beautiful or handsome they look,

b) How intelligent they are and how well they do in their studies;

c) How capable or talented they are in sports or some other activity.

d) Their status in society, which is measured usually by their family background and wealth.


Here are some typical responses of young people in their attempt to compensate for their sense of low self esteem:  

a) Conformity: this illustrates the power of peer pressure;

b) Aggression: they try to win the attention of the people through aggressive behaviour of which the extreme expression is juvenile delinquency;

c) Clowning, laughing it off: For example, fat young people often respond to their fatness in a jolly manner.  

d) Withdrawing into a shell: The mind is a hive of activity, but these people are private people. Sometimes they shock everyone by suddenly exploding and committing a terrible act of violence.

e) Escaping: They are unhappy with their present situation so they try to escape into another world. This world may be the internet or the security of belonging to a gang. Sometimes a girl who has faced misery at home runs away with the first boy who shows her some concern (and regrets that decision the rest of her life).  

f) Succeeding at something: This is the best way to compensate. But if the self-worth issue is not solved the drive for success could take some dangerous forms.


The gospel has a wonderful answer to this question of identity which humans lost as a result of the ravages of sin upon the human race. Christianity has a three-fold answer to this problem which is a very powerful source of attraction to young people.

a) You are accepted into the kingdom family. This gives them acceptance. This is a time of much stress in the lives of youth. There are huge physical and psychological changes taking place. There is increasing conflict at home. They will seek security through friends who are going through the same problems. The Christian community can provide such friends who not only identify with their struggles but also truly care for them.

b) You are a child of God. This gives them identity. Usually it takes some time for the youth to grasp this. Actually for all of us accepting fully our identity in Christ is a process which will go on until we die. We first give them the theory as given in the Bible, and that will surely impress them. Gradually through understanding what the Word says, through the acceptance of the Christian community and through using gifts God has given them they will begin to have the thrill of feeling like children of God.  

c) You have been made useful through gifts God has given you. This gives them significance. A key to effective youth ministry is to get the youth involved in a great cause that is worth dying for, and making them realise that they have a significant part to play in fulfilling the goals of that cause. All successful youth movements are driven by a strong sense of mission. The youth sense that they are in this to help change the world, and they have been commissioned by the Creator and Lord of the universe to do this.


Our youth programmes need to fashioned in such a way that those who participate sense acceptance, and discover their identity and significance.


6. The Idealism of Youth Gives Rise to Revolutionary Fervour


It is no secret that youth have been involved in many of the revolutionary movements of the world. As free market economic policies become more and more accepted in developing nations, we can expect the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. I believe that because of this the revolutionary fervour of youth will grow in the next few years.


Here are some Christian responses to this situation:

a) We must show that Christians agree with their protest against the hypocrisy, corruption and inequality in society. While we disagree with the methods of many revolutionary groups, we agree with their condemnation of injustice and exploitation and with their desire to do something to change society.

b) Sometimes these revolutionary feelings are aggravated by nationalistic feelings. We must show that Christians are true patriots. That is, (i) we want equal rights for everyone in society (not just one group) and (ii) we do not condone the strangling of our nations by powerful foreign economic giants.

c) No one should feel that they have to deny their national culture in order to become a Christian. In an age of globalisation when young people are attracted to western culture, youth workers need to think long and hard about how their programmes can be relevant and exciting while being nationally authentic.

d) Wherever possible Christian youth groups should be involved with movements trying to establish justice in society.

e) The youth should get the sense that when they join the Christian youth movement they have joined a truly revolutionary group. The history of the church is studded with great leaps forward that the church made through the enthusiastic and devoted ventures of young people. A great example is the Haystack movement which began in 1806 with five young university students who met for twice-weekly prayer for revival at Williams College in Massachusetts. They met in the fields as they were ridiculed by their fellow students. One day they had to take cover under a haystack as it was raining. That day they committed themselves to missions and American missions was born! May it happen again! And may the church leaders be humble enough to allow great youth movements to grow and change history.


7. The Fear of Spirits


This is a felt need especially with adults. But youth are not immune to it. We should show how Christ is Lord over all principalities and powers.


8. Poverty and Suffering


Most of the youth in Asia are poor and suffering is a major problem. Other religions have explanations for this problem. Because this is such a felt need, those evangelising the poor need to explain what Christianity has to say about this? We should not only explain the theological teachings on this but also present concrete programmes where in our small way we are acting to alleviate poverty at least in the lives of a few youth.


One of the most powerful attractions when working with poor youth is a community which treats every one as equal. Generally there are two models used in ministry among the poor. One is represented by the large groups, like the international NGOs, which help poor, but where the workers of the group do not have much close contact with the people. Much good is done through these programmes, but this is not the way to go for churches and Christian youth groups. Often the poor come to such groups with one thing in mind: “What can I get from this group?”


The biblical model of ministering among the poor is the incarnational model. Here the leaders get close to the people who are treated equal to the leaders. It will be necessary for the leaders to adopt a relatively simple lifestyle if they hope to get close to the poor. Through incarnational ministry a Christian community develops where people are equals and accountable to each other. It becomes difficult to be dishonest in such a community. The lack of integrity is a major problem when working with the poor. I believe the best way to overcome this problem is to practice true Christian community where there is spiritual accountability.


The greatest blessing of this incarnational approach to ministering with the poor is that leaders develop from among the poor. And in the process we demonstrate the breaking of the class barrier. However to do this we must make some important structural changes so that poorer youth will not feel second class. We should be very careful about the use of English which is usually known by the more affluent youth but not by the poorer youth. We should fashion criteria for leadership so that the biblical requirements such as godliness, wisdom, skill and ability to motivate others are uppermost rather than educational qualifications and the knowledge of English.

We should get the poorer youth also to contribute financially and to help with the raising of funds, and make sure that the big donations of the richer people are not given greater prominence than the much smaller but powerful mighty mites of the poorer people.  


When poor young people see such community life among Christians, where the rich and poor clearly have equal status, they would be greatly attracted to Christianity.[11]


9. Fun and Pleasure


Youth have boundless energy, and they want to use it by having fun. This is one of the blessings of youth, and all youth ministries must reckon with this. We must show that God is the creator of our capacity for fun and pleasure and that he alone can fully satisfy those desires. I often say, “In Youth for Christ we are serious about fun.” And that is true! We see fun as God’s creation which we want to use for his glory. Therefore our programmes must emerge from a theology of pleasure.


This places on youth leaders the responsibility of finding good programmes of fun. Sports has been very effectively used in reaching unreached youth. But we must bear in mind that different types of youth like different sports. In our ministry we often organise softball cricket tournaments which attract hundreds of young people. The Christians do the organising the non-Christians play cricket! Out of the hundreds who participate in such a sports tournament about 5-10 youth may end up coming for our other programmes. But that is a significant figure when you realise that these are totally unreached youth. Yet we know that some youth, especially those from very affluent backgrounds, are not usually attracted by sports programmes.


I am always amazed at how receptive youth are to music. Styles differ, and what works with westernised youth does not usually work with youth who are less influenced by western culture. But the significant thing is that, whatever the culture, youth like music. They are provided with top quality music now through the media. Therefore Christian youth groups need to really work hard on developing good quality music teams. In YFC we have decided that it is well worth spending considerable sums of money to train our musical people.


One of the most pleasant learning experiences I have had in youth ministry was when I first visited Mannar, a city in North Sri Lanka, where we had just started a YFC ministry. Those who started this work were from Mannar itself and had come to Christ in a YFC camp and decided to start YFC even without asking us! Now we had an official YFC centre there. And I was making my first visit. They had an evangelistic programme at which I was going to speak. To my surprise, they started with about 20 minutes of worship. Normally we start with ice-breakers like games.


It was my first visit and I decided that I will not comment on this departure from YFC tradition. Later I understood that the non-Christian youth loved the music used for worship and found the free expression of praise and lively communication with a personal God very stimulating and attractive. From this brand new YFC programme we learned that worship can be an effective means of attracting youth to our programmes.


Adventure outreach which is popular in the west could, I believe be a new frontier for growth for youth ministries in Asia. Here the youth experience the thrill of doing exciting and dangerous things, like climbing down steep precipices using a rope (abseiling). They experience good fellowship as they struggle together, and learn many valuable lessons about life. It is important that well trained qualified staff always be there at such programmes, as the wrong methods could result in serious accidents.


Through the programmes involving fun and pleasure we must demonstrate that we can have the best fun in a clean way. You do not need to sin to have a riotously, hilariously, crazy time of fun. You do not need to be one person in church and another when you are with friends because you have fun when you are with friends. Church is also a place where you can have fun. One of the greatest attractions of Christianity to youth is the joy we have in Christ. Even when we do not indulge in sinful pleasure, it is because we want to preserve our joy! We don’t sin because we want to be happy J


Here, then, is a list of felt needs about which we need to we think when we evangelise youth. We must find out how the gospel meets those needs and communicate that to them in a dynamic way. When we tell youth how Christianity addresses their real problems they realise that Christianity is relevant. It has something practical to say about the day-to-day issues they struggle with.


There are different ways to highlight felt needs. One way is to incorporate programmes meeting these needs into the programme of the youth group, as we have shown before. Here are some such ways to do this during evangelistic proclamation:

a) The evangelistic message is a certainly one of the most powerful ways of doing this, especially when it is illustrated by examples from real life.

b) A drama illustrating a real life situation that highlights these needs could be a great introduction to an evangelistic message.

c) Many of the secular songs and films illustrate these needs. We can use clips of these during our programmes.  


Felt needs are an important subject of study for those doing youth evangelism. We must listen to youth; spend time with them; study about them; and watch and listen to what they watch and listen to. We older folk will need to consult younger people when preparing our messages to youth so that we can speak relevantly to their lives. We can use the felt need to launch into a discussion about the gospel.





Paul speech in Athens is a model of how to present the unchanging message of the gospel in ways that are relevant to the audience. Here are some examples of how Paul was relevant.


1. Paul was speaking to a philosophically oriented audience and so his message was what John Wesley called “a divinely philosophical discourse.”[12] He used a style of speaking that his audience was familiar with.

2. While Peter’s and Paul’s messages to Jewish audiences were loaded with quotations from the Scriptures, this speech had no quotations at all. However, as the great New Testament scholar Prof. F. F. Bruce says, “His argument is firmly based on biblical revelation; it echoes throughout the thought, and at times the very language, of the Old Testament.”[13] He presented the message of the Scriptures but not as direct quotes because the audience did not accept the Bible as a significant book.

3. It is interesting that, though Paul made no direct quotes from the Bible, he quotes (probably twice) from writers familiar to the Athenians. Verse 28 says, “…for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Of these two statements there is a question about whether the first is actually a quotation, but the second certainly is.[14] Paul would not, of course, agree with the philosophical system out of which these statements arose, but he could agree with the individual statements and use them to buttress his argument.


When working with unchurched youth, we, like Paul, could use quotes familiar to them, especially from the lyrics of popular songs. We must not use language which Christians readily understand but which they will not understand. Sadly, many preachers do this as the following examples show:

Preacher says: “You remember what John said.”

Young Person thinks: “Which John is he talking about? John Denver? John Lennon?”


Preacher says: “When the angel Michael came…”

Young Person thinks: “This must be Michael Jackson. He certainly dances like an angel.”


Even when we use necessary words like “Old Testament,” “salvation” and “sin” we must make sure that we explain to the hearers what we mean by them.


5. I need to add one word of caution. Studying youth culture can be dangerous to our spiritual health. There are many obscene things that we will encounter. I was shocked to hear some of the things that were aired over the radio in Sri Lanka. We all know what a dangerous world internet opens us to. Therefore anyone who is going to a study of contemporary trends should be have accountability partners who ensure that they do not fall into the trap of exposing themselves to unclean material under the pretext of educating themselves. This is a very easy trap to fall into.





All our searching for relevance would be useless unless we clearly present the unchanging message of the gospel to the youth. This is what Paul did in Athens even though what he was saying sounded strange in the people’s ears. Through using creative and relevant means we may be able to attract unreached youth to our programmes. But, as Jesus said, it is when they know the truth that they will be set free from the bondage of sin (John 8:32).


One of the great traps of youth work is to be satisfied with relevance and not give full attention to the message of the gospel. Big crowds are coming for the meetings, which makes us look very successful. But lives have not been changed permanently. The youth programme meets their present felt needs, but it does not meet the most important need they have, which is for a vital relationship with God through Jesus Christ. When they pass from the youth phase of their life, they forget Christianity.


Therefore we need to work hard at making the gospel clear, understandable, acceptable and attractive to the young people. I will not deal with this issue as I have done so in two books, The Supremacy of Christ[15] and Sharing the Truth in Love: How to Relate to People of Other Faiths.[16] These two books arose out of my efforts to share the gospel to non-Christian youth and to respond to their questions and objections regarding the gospel. They are classified by the publishers in the apologetics category. I never intended to be an apologist. But by talking to non-Christian youth about the gospel I realised that I needed to work on the issues they were bringing up, and I was forced to go into the field of apologetics.


Let me make some brief comments about some features of Paul’s message in Athens and their relevance to youth evangelism today.


1. God.

Most of the space in Paul’s message was given to his response to the Athenians wrong ideas of God, especially idolatry, and to his explanation of the biblical idea of God (Acts 17:24-29). He had been debating with the two groups: “…some of the Epicurian and Stoic philosophers” (17:18). The Epicurians were like the deists of the modern era who believed that even if there is a God, he is uninvolved in the universe and irrelevant.[17] Though the Stoics believed in a Supreme God it was in a pantheistic way, that is, God is in everything, so everything is divine. Paul clearly responds to both these views in his speech.


Unreached Youth today have very different views about God to those of the Bible. We must know these views and show how much fuller and more glorious is the biblical view of God. We will find that the youth we work with will have several objections to the Christian understanding of God. For example, many youth in Sri Lanka believe that modern science has disproved the biblical idea of God. We will need to respond to these questions.


2. Jesus

Like in the other evangelistic messages in Acts, Paul introduces the person of Jesus here too: “…because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (17:31a). There seems to be only a passing mention of Jesus here. But we must remember that the speeches recorded in Acts are probably only a summary of the actual speech with a note of the distinctive highlights of each speech.[18]


In the evangelistic messages of Acts there is a strong emphasis on the person, life and ministry of Jesus. This is a key to our evangelistic proclamation too. If we are asking young people to become followers of Christ they must know who Christ is. Therefore we need to tell youth the story of Jesus. This is what the Gospels do, and the gospels were evangelistic documents. I have found it helpful to simply narrate the story of Jesus without much explanation. The story speaks for itself. Of course the various films about Jesus could have a powerful effect upon the youth.


There is a great appeal to young people in the life of Christ. Youth think that religion is an esoteric thing which is not related to life. Anyone who observes the life of Jesus would be charmed by how “down to earth” Jesus was. I believe that the “down to earth” nature not only of Christ but also of the Christian life is one of the greatest attractions of Christianity to a young person.


Today youth are disillusioned with their leaders. They see that those who are regarded as good people cannot be very successful in society, while the successful people are those who break principles. They have lost their confidence in leadership, and some are resorting to revolution to express this. The whole world recognises that Jesus was a truly good man. But not only was he good, he was also very successful. He founded the most globally influential movement in history. This is the type of leader that the youth are looking for.


Presenting the power and lordship of Christ is important not only because young people respond to strong leadership but also because, if they became followers of Christ, some of the most powerful forces in their world would be enraged. They could be afraid to make a commitment to Christ because of the prospect of this opposition. But if they were convinced that Jesus is more powerful than the opposition, they would realise that the safest thing would be to commit their lives to him.


3. The Huge Difference in Worldviews


Paul’s speech ends with a reference to the resurrection of Jesus as proof of his message: “He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (17:32b NIV). This reminds us of what a huge different there is in the worldviews of Christians and that of other peoples. No wonder some of Paul’s audience in Athens mocked when they heard of the resurrection of Christ (17:32). My experience has been that it has been very difficult for unreached youth to warm up to the idea of Jesus rising from the dead as proof of the Christian gospel. It is such an alien concept that they tend to switch off when they hear about it. This is an illustration of the fact that there are the unique features of Christianity which most non-Christians will find difficult to grasp.


To most people, religious systems are a group of beliefs to adhere to and actions to do in order to progress in life. The religion is a way of life. The events which are part of the history of the religion are not so crucial to the religious system. In fact, in some religions, like Hinduism, it really doesn’t matter if these events even took place. What is important is the teaching. When the Buddha lay dying, his disciples asked him how they could remember him. He told them not to concern themselves with remembering him. What is important is the teaching. The teaching presented the way of life prescribed in the religion. That’s what is important, not certain historical events.


In Christianity what is important is not what we do to progress in life, but what has been done on our behalf through a historical event. It is not so much a way of life as it is a way to life based on what Christ has done. So Christianity stands or falls on whether the resurrection took place. Paul says, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). This is why in Athens he described the resurrection as the proof of his message (17:31).


We can see that before non-Christians accept the gospel a huge shift has to take place in their thinking.


This presents a huge challenge to the Christian witness. We will have to carefully think about how we can help effect this shift in thinking. One way would be to present the logic of the gospel. Here are some things we may need to do.


a) We can challenge the people with the thought that, if Jesus really rose from the dead as a proof of what he has achieved, then they should take what he did seriously. In this process we may need to present the evidence that attests our belief in the resurrection. They are left with the inescapable fact of an event that they have to reckon with. If Jesus really rose from the dead, as he predicted, then what are the implications of that.


b) We can show how the idea of one dying to pay the penalty for ones sins really does makes sense. When doing this we will need to answer some of the questions they ask:

  • How could the defeat of a good man who lost his battle against wrong and died a shameful death win the salvation of the world?
  • How can one die for another’s sins?
  • Must we not pay for our wrong doing?
  • How could the death of one person, result in salvation for so many people?
  • How can an event which took place so long ago be effective two millennia later?
  • Is it not unfair that Jesus should suffer for what we have done?
  • It is not unfair by the persons we have hurt when we are not punished for what we did to them?
  • Is it not a mockery of justice to let another pay the penalty for my sin?
  • Isn’t this a cheap way of salvation which opens the door to irresponsible living?  


Almost all these questions have been asked of me, and I have tried to respond to them in my book The Supremacy of Christ.[19]


c) We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will open their minds so that they can understand the truth. Ultimately the work of persuading people about the gospel is the work of the Spirit (John 16:8-11).


d) We must present a consistent testimony of the Christian faith. This is done in different ways:

  • through genuine love and care for these persons and through Christians living the Christian life radiantly;
  • through them seeing the power of God manifested in wonderful ways in answer to prayer;
  • through us faithfully presenting the content of the gospel to them.


Often people open their minds to consider the gospel only after they have seen the gospel at work in real life. The features presented above are well expressed in Paul’s statement, “…our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5).  


4. The Need for Patience


The above point about the vast difference in worldviews reminds us of the need to be patient when working non-Christian youth. There is such a huge shift of worldview (or approach to life) involved accepting the gospel, that it may take a long time before they understand the heart of the gospel. Sometimes they may accept Jesus as the Lord whom they want to follow without yet understanding the meaning of salvation by faith through the grace of Jesus Christ.


We have seen this in our ministry often. We have a close friend who was a Buddhist woman. She was impressed by the change that took place in her brother’s life after he came to Christ in a YFC camp. This resulted in her accepting Christ and getting baptised. We thought she had understood the meaning of grace, but her subsequent actions showed us that much of her worldview was still Buddhist, and that she often thought of religious duties as things that one does to earn God’s favour. It was much later that she fully understood the marvels of grace.


This how the Hindu scholar Pandita Ramabhai came to Christ. As a Hindu campaigning for women’s rights, she had been attracted to Christ because of the way he treated woman. This led to her becoming a baptised follower of Christ. Only later did she understand the primacy of grace to Christianity and become a believer in the biblical sense.


This shows the need for comprehensive follow-through care of those who commit their lives to Christ. We have found that the small group Bible study is the ideal place for such care. Here they can apply the truth of the Bible to their personal lives through discussion. The group also provides warm fellowship and care and is a good environment for fostering growth in grace. In our ministry, almost all of the youth from other faiths who we know grew to be strong and mature Christians were part of a small group in their early (and later) years as Christians.


So we need patience when we are working with unchurched youth. In our impatience to show some measurable results of success we may proclaim as converted people who have not yet understood what the gospel is. Or we may move to working with youth who are more receptive to the gospel—like nominal Christians who come to church. Or we may give up evangelism and go into training, especially the training in evangelism! Or we may simply concentrate on giving good programmes to the youth who are already committed to Christ.





We need to mention that there is strong resistance today to the idea of “converting” young people. We need to be very sensitive to this. One thing we have done is to be very low key in the way we publicise our work. People of other faiths feel very intimidated by the sense that we are triumphing over their youth. Their memories of being defeated and ruled by western colonial powers makes them very suspicious of anything that looks like a triumph by our so-called western religion. The typical western methods of publicity do not go well in our cultures.


Another thing we do is to make sure that there is no dislocation with the families of the young people as I mentioned above. We encourage them to get as involved as they can in family functions, even though they will need to abstain from involvement in the religious rituals. For example, whereas they never washed dishes after these functions and swept the floor before them, now they will do that, much to surprise of their parents.


We do not usually recommend that young people from other faiths get baptised until they become legal adults. They can participate in a church without taking this step. After all, baptism does not save a person. It is held back because of the legal complications of being baptised while you are still legally a minor. Of course, some churches do not encourage such a delay.





It is important for us to remember that young people represent one segment of society that is open to change. They are interested in new ideas. In this way they could provide an entrée to a whole unreached community. This has been our experience in YFC. The children come first and through them whole families have come to faith in Christ. While we cannot report of huge numbers of families who have come to Christ this way, the figure is significant. This we can say for sure, young people in Asia are generally open to listening to the claims of Christ. We must be faithful in telling them!


[1] Unless otherwise stated all scripture references are from The English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).


[3] Cleon Rogers Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, New Linguistic & Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), Pradis CD-ROM.

[4] Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:45-49; John 17:18; 20:21; Acts 1:8; 10:42.

[5] Greek-English Readers English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), Pradis CD ROM.  

[6] Readers English Lexicon.

[7] 17:4; 18:4; 19:8, 26; 26:28; 28:23, 24; see 2 Cor. 5:11.

[8]Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, editors, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, Vol. 1 (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 423.

[9]David W. J. Gill, “Achaia,” The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, vol. 2: Graeco-Roman Setting, Bruce Winter, and others, editors (Carlisle: The Paternoster Press and Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 447.

[10] F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 380.

[11] For a more comprehensive study of on evangelising poorer youth, see my “Evangelising Young People in Poor Communities,” in Their Future, Our Passion, edited by Lowell Sheppard and Gerard Kelloy (Singapore: Youth for Christ International, 1996), 95-115.

[12]John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (London: Epworth Press, 1966 reprint), 464.

[13]F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, Revised Edition, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 335.

[14] From the fourth century b.c. writer Aratus of Soli in Cicilia. Cited in Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament. Ed. M. Eugene Boring, Klaus Berger and Carsten Colpe (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 328.

[15] Ajith Fernando The Supremacy of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1995; London: Hodder and Stoughton; Secunderabad: OM Books, 2005).

[16] Ajith Fernando, Sharing the Truth in Love: How to Relate to People of Other Faiths (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishing, 2001; Manila: Lifechange Publishing, 2003; Bombay: GLS, forthcoming).

[17] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), from the IVP reference library CD-ROM.

[18]Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, edited by Conrad Gemph (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 418.

[19] Fernando, Supremacy of Christ, chapters 9-11.