It was a Saturday morning, yet more than 270 young people were excited to be in school. They had gathered in Rosemont Middle School, across the street from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, for the Reality Evangelism Experience, an entire day set aside to train young people how to witness for Christ at school.
The day of evangelism training for youth from across the nation was part of the Youth Ministry Lab 2006, a conference which is entirely organized by Southwestern Seminary students. This year had one of the largest enrollments in the 38-year history of the lab: In all, some 1,320 youth ministers, volunteers and youth came to the April 7-8 lab around the conference’s theme of “Reunion: Bringing a Generation back to God.”
The Reality Evangelism Experience was new to Youth Ministry Lab. In fact, Chad Childress, director of Student Evangelism with the North American Mission Board, had not seen this method of training elsewhere. However, he said it was an “excellent” and transferable method.
Childress taught the youth participants three principles of evangelism before they embarked on an afternoon of evangelism training. He emphasized the importance of building relationships, intentionally loving people, and proclaiming the gospel to others. He also trained students to share their personal testimonies and showed them a witnessing method that uses John 3:16 to share the gospel.
After this training session, the youth practiced evangelism in a mock-school setting at Rosemont Middle School. They went through events of the average school day, going through classroom, cafeteria, and campus club settings. In each setting, they spent time intentionally witnessing to other youth who had volunteered to act as non-Christian students.
“Students were incredibly engaged in the experience,” Edward Willoughby, student leadership conference chairman for the Youth Lab, said. “I got to talk to about 30 students at the end of the day, and they were just excited about …what they’ve learned.” Johnny Derouen, associate professor of student ministry at Southwestern, added, “Student ministers appreciate the quality of training they receive at Lab. This year, they got to see their core teenagers receive training at that same level of excellence.”
Willoughby said that students were eager to apply their experience and training on their campuses.
“It’s just been great to sit back and just watch the students get a passion to say, ‘People have always told me that I need to be witnessing in my school … I’ve seen how to do it, and now I feel I can go back and do it,’” he said. He also noted that those who played the role of unbelieving students during the training went away with a new perspective.
“They got to see how a person feels when they are being witnessed to,” Willoughby said. In this way, they learned what “not to say” and do, as well as what ought to be done while sharing the gospel.
Jenni Kennemur, a freshman at South Grand Prairie High School, Texas, participated in the day of training.
“It was good. Usually when you go to a youth conference someone just talks to you about how to witness and share with your friends. But this time it was realistic and challenging. We got to actually do something, not just listen. By practicing it helped give us confidence in going back to school and sharing Christ with our friends,” Kennemur said.
Maggie Ledbetter, a youth from Inglewood Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas, volunteered to act as an “unbelieving” student.
“The kids did really good … It was hard for us because we knew that this wasn’t real, so sometimes they would ... expect you to know something that a non-Christian wouldn’t know,” she said. Ledbetter also said that some groups did really well at working together to witness to her.
Helen Cranford, a youth from Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, said that most groups that spoke to her were “good about trying to use the Bible and trying to use historical facts to try to prove that Christianity was real.”
On the first evening of the conference, Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson entered the “Lion’s Den.” This was another innovation at Youth Ministry Lab which provided students with the opportunity to find answers for difficult religious questions. The sessions were free-wheeling. Questions ranged from the doctrine of predestination, dinosaurs in the Bible, to end times and other controversial topics. Patterson also answered their questions about the College at Southwestern.
Richard Ross is a professor of student ministry at Southwestern Seminary and one of the co-founders of True Love Waits. As one of the head conference organizers, said that both student ministers and teenagers showed a “hunger” for leadership training throughout the weekend.
“The students that came to Lab perceived that they are going to be leaders, so they just soaked up the teaching on that,” he said. At the same time, speakers such as Doug Fields, Ken Davis, and J.R. Vassar “created … hope in the youth ministers that a generation really can be brought back to God.”
Youth ministers and volunteers have a strong sense of the “brokenness” and “pain that fills the lives of the young people,” he said. In the midst of this pain, the conference resounded with the theme that, with God’s power, “this generation can be brought back to God.”
Wes Black is another Southwestern Seminary professor of student ministry. In an e-mail sent to Southwestern Seminary faculty and staff, Black reported that prayer was essential to the orchestration of this conference.
“No one who was part of the planning process for Lab believes eternal impact flows simply from quality planning. Prayer was the key,” Black said. Those involved with Youth Lab committees prayed from bedtime to sunrise two Friday nights. They also prayer walked on the campus, “praying over every room and in many cases every chair” as they prepared for the conference. Southwestern Seminary students also met for prayer at daybreak one day each week for months.
This emphasis on prayer carried on throughout the weekend. As conference attendees arrived at Southwestern, they were met by a Prayer Committee member who prayed for their group. Event organizers also used prayer bracelets to ensure that each attendee was being prayed for throughout the week. Those who attended the conference also had the opportunity to spend time with God in a prayer tabernacle set up on the seminary campus.
“Perhaps the largest conference attendance in Southwestern’s history is related to what may have been the most expansive conference prayer strategy in the seminary’s history,” Black said.
Roy Fish, professor of evangelism at Southwestern Seminary, said that prayer is essential to bringing a generation of youth back to the gospel. Fish, speaking in a session for volunteer youth leaders, recounted the Great Awakening that spread across the United States during the mid-19th century. This revival began with an emphasis on prayer among lay people, he said.
“Newspapers reported what was going on in terms of it being a prayer revival. You want to bring a generation to God? That’s the starting place. That’s the place in which it’s kept going, the prayer room,” he said.
Plans are already underway for Youth Ministry Lab 2007 at Southwestern Seminary April 13-14, 2007.