why a book written in 1962 might be the most relevant resource for youth ministries TODAY.

based off an indirect recommendation from a friend of mine, i recently read David Wilkerson‘s The Cross and the Switchblade.  written in 1962, TCATSB is Rev. Wilkerson’s personal account of how he went from pastoring a small congregation in rural Pennsylvania to ministering to violent teenage gangs, drug addicts, and prostitutes in the slums of New York City.  reading this book reminded me of the book of Acts in the New Testament.  there are stories and God-moments that leave you scratching your head and secretly lamenting that such signs and wonders aren’t as visible today.   i am convinced that this is the one book every youth pastor must read for (at least) these three reasons:

1. incisive cultural commentary

speaking of the boys he was trying to reach with the love and message of Jesus Christ, Rev. Wilkerson noted:

The boys in this particular gang – were they all like this? – were bored, lonely and smolderingly angry.  They craved excitement, and they took it where they could find it.  They craved companionship, and they took that where they could find it. (sorry, i can’t cite page numbers b/c i read this on my kindle).

did you catch his simple, but accurate, description of these gang members?  bored, lonely and smolderingly angry.  that sounds like the typical description of a youth kid today.  in fact, it sounds like many adults i know as well.  in fact (#2), it sounds like many youth and adults i know in church.  ouch, somebody give me a band-aid cuz i just cut myself.

it seems that many of our precious youth today are misguided but more importantly, many of our ministry methods are painfully ineffective and foolish.  we spend so much time working on behavior modification but we do not address the heart issues of boredom, loneliness and angst.

outward change, unless it is accompanied by an inward transformation of the heart, is ultimately an inferior goal for any church or youth ministry.  in fact, such superficial discipleship might actually be anti-Christ.  Church, our vision and standards of youth ministry must rise to match the testimony of Scripture.  there is no curriculum or conference currently available that will remedy spiritually bankrupt ministries.  we must return to the Gospel message for the Gospel alone has the power to transform us and enable us to live godly, God-honoring lives.

2. don’t blame the TV, video games or Facebook

there is a lot of junk being piped into our youth who indiscriminately ingest any and all forms of entertainment.  there are a lot of hours being wasted on kids responding to the Call of Duty, adults flinging angry birds at disembodied pigs, and everyone and their moms updating their statuses on Facebook.

TV Execs Admit in Interviews (and forthcoming book) that Hollywood has pushed a liberal agenda (in other news, Captain Obvious strikes again.)

The flood of filth and the waste of time should trouble us, I admit.  however, could the moral outrage and protests being raised by evangelicals actually be a subtle cover-up to our own lukewarm discipleship?  i mean, somebody once taught that it’s easier to see the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye but fail to see the logjam in your own.

On how to reach people for Christ, David Wilkerson’s grandfather (also a pastor) developed this very contrarian view of reaching the lost.  He called it the Lamb Chop method.

“You win over people just like you win over a dog,” he used to say.  “You see a dog passing down the street with an old bone in his mouth.  You don’t just grab the bone from him and tell him it’s not good for him.  He’ll growl at you.  It’s the only thing he has.  But you throw a big fat lamb chop down in front of him, and he’s going to drop that bone and pick up the lamb chop, his tail wagging to beat the band.  And you’ve got a friend.  Instead of going around grabbing bones from people, or cutting feathers off them (he is referring to another method of bringing conviction to sinners – cutting ostentatious feathers off of lady’s hats as they walked down the aisle to the altar call) I’m going to throw them some lamb chops.  Something with real meat and life in it.  I’m going to tell them about New Beginnings.”

Today, most youth pastors are more likely to design and wear t-shirts that’ll say “Call of Discipleship” instead of Call of Duty….or “Face(His)Book” in Facebook font thinking that they are being cool, hip and relevant.  I think those t-shirt ideas are lame.  The Gospel isn’t about mimicking popular culture or tricking kids into buying a t-shirt because they think it’s from Abercrombie and Fitch, only to discover that it’s a knock-off.

this has lamesauce (and lawsuit) written all over it.
Christ came to give us a Spirit-filled, Abundant life.  He came to give us a new heart so that we would love God with all of our souls.  We must return to the place of heart & soulful God-centered loving and living, friends.

3. a ‘playa/worrier’ sounds awfully similar to prayer warrior, but me thinks there’s a slight difference.

what led Rev. Wilkerson to New York City in the first place was a gripping cover story in Life Magazine about the trial of seven New York teens on trial for murdering a handicapped person.  one night, he read this story and couldn’t take his eyes (or his heart) off of the seven teens depicted in a crude black and white court sketching.


what led Rev. Wilkerson to that news story was his surrender of his nightly TV watching.  roughly six months prior, Rev. Wilkerson had sold his TV and decided to dedicate 2 hours every night to pray instead.

prayer.  prayer opened this man’s heart and prayer opened this opportunity for Rev. Wilkerson to share the love of Christ to the “least of these.”
today, we pastors excel in the arena of playing yet simultaneously stressing.  in the name of being incarnational or to relieve stress, we load up on our xboxes, android touchscreens, fantasy sports, starbucks gold cards (whoa, how did that make the list?  maybe b/c i’m in pursuit of one but i’m feeling like a total loser for doing so).
hyper-active…..over-stimulated…..but we’re not any less anxious.  in fact, the turnover rate of youth pastors should compel us to re-think our strategy.  pastors and leaders speak of burn out, moral failure, loss of control, etc.
perhaps the answer is not found in more leisure but in more time spent on our knees.
this is a prayer bench. i liken it to training wheels on a bike - absolutely indispensable when learning a new craft.
here’s a crazy thought – what if seminaries taught on prayer and helped aspiring pastors practice this classic W.W.J.D. activity?  what if churches wrote prayer into the job description (literally: pray.  your job depends on it.)?
but that’s soooooo unauthentic.  to mandate prayer?  oh man, what are we, communists?  i should only pray when i feeeeeeeel like it.  yeah, imma use my bench right now and repent for my sarcasm.  brb.
a closing thought
while God certainly led him to New York City, Rev. Wilkerson soon realized that his experience (& even perhaps his faith) had left him ill-equipped to minister in such a hostile setting.  he sought the counsel of his grandfather.  since he was a young boy, his grandfather had taught him that the heart of the Gospel was transformation and a New Life in Christ.  that made sense in theory and he knew he believed it.  however, did he have faith enough to see such transformation occur in the lives of these wayward teens?  “The heart of Christ’s message is extremely simple,” his grandfather taught, “an encounter with God – a real one – means change.”

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