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At age 18, Jaci Velasquez is among the hottest young talents in Christian music. Hit records. Packed venues. Dove Awards. But in addition to being a gifted singer, she also possesses a keen understanding of what adolescents need … and what it takes to reach them. So we asked Jaci how churches and youth leaders can more effectively reach her peers:

When you talk with young people after your concerts, what are they saying to you?
I'm not sure if I look like the kind of person people can approach with their deepest, darkest secrets, but a lot of girls will come up to me after concerts and share stories ranging from, "I'm worried about my mom and dad; I think they're having problems" to "I've been raped and I don't know what to do." One of the most interesting parts of my life and ministry is that I am a young person that people around my age feel they can talk to. They think I'll be able to relate to them. I can reach some people pastors can't reach just because I'm a kid.

How can concerned adults have a similar impact on young people?
Take the time to listen to them. I think that's where a lot of people mess up. Instead of just listening, they feel they always have to give advice.

For youth pastors who really wish their teens would open up to them more, what can they do to draw young people into meaningful conversations?
Tell stories. That's what really draws people into a message. The best speakers in the world—Jesus included—have stories that help make their point. Relate what you've seen in your own life or in other people's lives. Also, kids are very, very wise when it comes to knowing whether somebody is just talking the talk or being real. Make sure what you're communicating is sincere.

Do you have any other suggestions for reaching the next generation?
Make sure that you befriend them before you preach to them. The youth pastors I remember most didn't just preach a message at youth service. They'd make the evening fun and interesting. They made kids feel comfortable, sometimes by not preaching at all, but by letting the youth stand up and talk about their views on certain issues. The kids felt like they were a part of the ministry, and had a real love for the youth pastor. That's when they'd really begin to trust and confide in their leader.

So it's not just "Come to my youth group so I can tell you all I know," but rather "I want to get a sense of what you think and who you are."
That's exactly what it comes down to. There's a Christian singer named Chris Rice who goes to a lot of different youth rallies. He's not interested in being "the artist." He's interested in just getting down on the ground with his guitar and singing with the kids, spending time on their level. And I respect him so much for that.

What sort of youth pastors have you grown up with?
When I was younger I had a youth pastor who spent most of his time preaching. I was into it, but it wasn't as fun. Then I went to a service with a friend of mine. Her youth service was so much fun! The pastor sat around with the kids. They'd get up and tell stories, just to make everybody feel comfortable, you know, as an icebreaker. Then he got up, did a ten-minute sermon, and when he was done they went into singing. All the kids would make requests. He knew what that group enjoyed. Kids go where it's fun or cool, and if the youth service isn't cool, they won't want to hang out there.

But you would agree that youth leaders also have to provide spiritual substance along the way.
Right.

You make a good point. If church is dry and uninteresting, teens could turn to harmful entertainment, drugs, sex, gangs … they'll get their "fun fix" someplace else.
I think the best advice I can give youth pastors about being the best they can be is to make sure every kid in that audience is having a good time. That may mean playing games or pranks … doing dumb stuff sometimes. But that kid will want to come back to the next service, just to see what you guys are going to do next. Always keep 'em on the edge of their seats. And have fun.

Published June 1998
For another perspective, read "Emphasis on Felt Needs Hurts Teens"