Real followers of Jesus key to youth discipleship

Every church has a youth ministry, says Conrad Parsons, because in the end, "it will be normal Christian people who will show teenagers how to follow Jesus."

By Emma Halgren

March 4 2018

Young people are looking for something real to connect to, and if they don’t find it in the church, they’ll disengage and look elsewhere, says the Revd Conrad Parsons.

The Melbourne Diocese’s new Youth Ministry Consultant has been coaching and empowering people in youth ministry for more than 30 years, in Australia, the UK and the Pacific. He sees relationship-building as central to building good youth ministry.

“A genuine relationship with someone who is genuinely following the Lord can change the lives of and give a good start to a small number of young people who, themselves, then go on and do bigger things,” he said.

Revd Parsons says he sees his role as Youth Ministry Consultant as one of one of helping others to take their next step: helping the diocese take its next step in building its capacity for youth ministry; helping youth workers and youth ministers take their next step in growing in their vocation; and helping volunteer youth leaders in parishes to learn from youth ministers.

It was a “search for reality” that led him to Christianity as a teenager. He didn’t grow up in the church, but was invited by the religious education teacher at his school in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, to attend the youth group at the local Anglican church.

“My friends all went together to the youth group and enjoyed being there, and we gradually worked out our faith. I was working out what’s real and what’s not real, in my late teens.

“Then I found reality and I discovered that Christianity doesn’t work unless you put both feet in the boat, and I felt angry at Christians because they hadn’t told me that. But once I found the reality of God, it was natural to then help other people find the reality. Because I knew what life was like without God, and it doesn’t make sense.”

In his early twenties Revd Parsons trained with Church Army’s College of Evangelism. In the mid-1990s, his ministry with Church Army took him to the UK where he served as an assistant minister in a parish, which included working on a council housing estate in south-east London. It “wasn’t the worst” council housing estate, he says, but it had its challenges. “Essentially there was a big divide between the local people and the people who lived on the estate.”

Being Australian proved to be an advantage, because it made him “neutral”: “I didn’t have an English accent, so they couldn’t put me in a class. And so the people on the estate saw me as one of them and I met them, got to know them, listened to them and their concerns.”

One of the “natural leaders” on the estate, a mother of four, came to him and explained that one of the major concerns of residents was the smelly, polluted pond on its grounds: “so her priority was cleaning out the pond, bringing people together so it wasn’t us and them, rich people, poor people, and making the estate a better place for her children to grow up.

“I saw that as aligning with God’s agenda, and so I gave up my agenda and worked on hers. We cleaned out the pond and the whole estate changed.”

While in London he set up an international coaching ministry, finding evangelists around the world, training them and setting them up in a network.

His return to Australia saw him continue that ministry while also taking up various appointments, including as an urban evangelism consultant with the Uniting Church in New South Wales and the ACT, and as national director of Youth for Christ.

In 2013, he stepped down as national director of Youth for Christ to focus on the organisation’s work growing youth ministries in the Pacific. He spent 100 days a year in Pacific Island countries including Nauru, Samoa and Tonga, and the rest of the time coached youth leaders from Australia via Skype, email and phone.

He said the challenges confronting young people in Pacific societies were similar to those which had come to light recently in South Sudanese communities in Australia.

“The Pacific culture is about hospitality, family, tradition, hierarchy, interconnectedness,” he said. “And God’s a part of everything.”

“They have strong families and villages, but globalisation is challenging the way that families function and so the teenagers are exposed, through social media, to a bigger world,” he said. “The parents expect them to keep fitting in with the traditions of the family and the traditions of the church and when they don’t, they’re punished. So sometimes they feel they don’t have a voice, they’re not being heard, they’re powerless within those traditional structures, and sometimes they disconnect and find their identity in gangs... and then everything else starts breaking down.”

He said that just as he, as a teenager, had been looking for something real to engage with, so too were the young people he encountered in the Pacific.

“So what we noticed was that by focusing on the basics of following Jesus – opening the scriptures, looking at the stories, letting the stories speak to us, gathering together into a community, praying, meeting people on their ground – these are the things that young people are hungry for.”

He said he thought there was the same appetite among youth in Australia for connection.

“I think leaders are working that out, and there are good examples of people exploring how to do the basics. I think there’s less confidence in the buildings and the programs and the structures but at the end of the day, young people are social and they want to belong and be known and find something that’s real and purposeful and have a voice.”

He said his own experience had shown him the importance of relationships and connection.

“On a church camp I met a Christian man, now an Anglican priest, who had freedom and joy and this gave me a working model of how to follow Jesus. I saw the fun adventure of being a Christian. He dropped into my life periodically and challenged me to keep growing as a disciple, and he prayed for me. He still does this after 33 years. That fellowship, and his earthy faith in the midst of his life’s difficulties, set a pattern for me to support others in their spiritual walk. My church was great, my youth group was good fun and I made lifelong friends but it was the encouragement of one person who has made the biggest difference in my life.

“For me this means that every church has a youth ministry. They don’t need a group. They don’t need a program. What they need are real people who follow Jesus, who love others enough to share their lives and walk with them in daily living. I can grow excellent youth leaders but at the end of the day it will be normal Christian people who will show teenagers how to follow Jesus. For people like that I cannot adequately express how grateful I am. Please God let us help others in that way.”