“I know what it is to be a lost kid walking into the back of a church youth room, not knowing anything of who God is or what life could be like. I was a gang member. It looked to me like life had spun out of control, and that if I took one more step in gang life, I would be swallowed. Prison waits for kids like me. I was going to jail or I was going to die.”
J.J. Ferrell was 16 years old when he reached this crisis point. Having received an invitation, he found himself walking into a youth service in Bakersfield, California. Though uncertain of exactly what the service was, he realized within the first few minutes that the other teenagers around him were actually connecting with God.
“It dawned on me — and I know that it was God speaking to me — that even though my life was as mess, God could somehow get me out of the situations I was in,” J.J. says. “I looked up and told Him, ‘Take my life. Do whatever You want with it, and make it worth living again.’”
A Golden Opportunity
God did not fail J.J. — his life was restored. Today, he and his wife, Nelia, are AGWM missionaries and ministers to teenagers in Bucharest, Romania, where they have served for 22 years.
As in many Eastern European nations, Romania experiences an extreme gap between the older and younger generation — one that grew up under communism’s iron fist and one that did not.
The Ferrells began their service in Romania working with children living on the streets, and quickly realized the serious absence of ministry to teenagers. It is estimated that 87 percent of Romanian adolescents do not have access to teen ministry.
J.J. explains that Romanian churches are not opposed to the idea of outreach to adolescents — they simply have no history of it and therefore can struggle to see the importance of ministry geared specifically toward teens.
Yet, studies have shown that 78 percent of Romanians who give their lives to Jesus are between 12 and 14 years old. Teenagers are the single most open demographic to Jesus Christ.
“If we as the church know that this openness among teenagers exists and yet do nothing, we are passing by a golden opportunity,” J.J. says. “Just think, 78 percent of new Romanian believers are young teens who found Christ without intentional witness. So what could happen if the church actually became intentional? What could happen across Europe, where the church is known to be dying, if we begin truly investing in this group that is so open to Christ? Every generation is a generation unreached by the gospel. If we are not handing off the baton to the rising generation of leaders, enabling them to be disciples and to make disciples, we will see this thing die in our lifetime.”
J.J. and Nelia are working closely with leaders of different Pentecostal groups to establish and grow teen ministry across Europe. They find that teen ministry is, for the most part, in a grassroots stage in Europe, so are involved in training, preaching, camps, conferences, and the like.
“When a country’s network is wanting to expand to include adolescents, we want to help them find a vision for that and put some muscle on the bones, even though that kind of training and conversation is very new and very rare,” says Nelia. “We want to see teen ministry become normal — every local church should have one.”
Starry Eyes and Epic Lives
Today’s teenagers are what the Ferrells describe as Romania’s first “globalized people.” In the past under communism, people were much more isolated. In recent years, many Romanians have left the country immediately after high school graduation, seeking better opportunities than they believed their post-communist nation could offer.
Today, J.J. and Nelia observe a much stronger sense of hope as young people are opting to stay in Romania while still accessing much of what the rest of Europe has to offer.
“Teenagers are a lot like big kids,” J.J. says. “When they think about the future, they have stars in their eyes. They want epic lives and to be part of a movement that’s worth something.”
Unlike younger children, J.J. continues, adolescents start “putting plans to their stars.” They are going out to find jobs, starting business endeavors, etc. They gravitate towards Jesus and the church, J.J. believes, because it meets the desire for deep meaning.
“When kids realize they can actually talk with the Creator of the universe,” Nelia says, “they have a lot more hope for what they can become. They can become leaders — we have a lot of student leaders across our ministries, and entrust them with responsibilities they’ve never had before.”
Those who commit to Christ and His church discover even more opportunities for personal growth as they learn and participate in music, media, and more.
So it was for David, who came to know Jesus in 2017, at the age of 17. After his salvation, David felt God call him into film-making, a skill he passionately pursues today.
For others seeking to know God, David advises, “Get your soul with Jesus. Get super close to Him, tell Him your sins and how much you love Him. Worship and pray at the same time.”
He says, “Relationship with God — not just going to church, but real relationship — makes you a better person in your ways of thinking and of loving others. One year ago I was angry and anxious, and would wake up in the morning feeling depressed. I was really praying to be able to get rid of this, and one morning God just did His work. I got rid of those things.”
As David continues to pray for greater creativity in his work and for continued healing of his emotions and mind, he also prays for his country.
“Pray against this struggle with hatred in Romania,” he says. “Pray for it to be turned into love.”
Struggles and Victories
In Bucharest — a city of nearly 2 million — teen ministry faces many challenges and can move slowly despite encouraging statistics. J.J. and Nelia explain that life in Romania can still be difficult, and ministry life is no different.
Many things vie for teenagers’ time and money, standing in direct competition with and contradiction of the gospel. Some teens who attend youth group will spend an hour or more on public transportation to get there, and J.J. is very aware that they need to be well-fed spiritually upon arrival.
The establishment of trust is also vital. In Romania and the rest of the Balkans, distrust can run deep.
“Everything rises and falls with relationship,” explains J.J. “I’m sure that’s true all over the world, but especially here. Only through relationship can distrust begin to be chipped away. It can take years to establish a ministry for teenagers in the city, because here the kids have other options. I tell leaders to be diligent, stay the course, and stay consistent.”
Outside Bucharest, in Romania’s countryside ministry moves much more quickly. Because agriculture rules and villages face very high unemployment, the Ferrells explain, it is very easy to assemble 100 people or more for an event with simple word-of-mouth.
Teen ministry is also spreading like wildfire among Roma (Gypsy) communities in Romania. Despite the prejudice they commonly face, Roma people across the continent have been experiencing dramatic and widespread revival for nearly a decade, and Romania’s Roma are no exception.
“Family is extremely important in Romanian culture,” says J.J., “and even more so in Roma culture. Spiritual things are very much a part of their culture and history, which makes them very open to Jesus. The idea of a young person walking away from Jesus hurts any Christian family, but I think it hurts the Roma even more. They are very open to reaching young people. Their churches are booming and growing, and they are planting churches on top of churches. They outgrow them before they can even finish building them.”
Of Great Price
J.J. and Nelia have learned that in Romania a higher level of politeness is expected. Relationships are often formal, and possessions are tended carefully, particularly by older adults who grew up with very little. What people possess often has come at a great price.
J.J. and Nelia understand. Many of their valued ministry tools, including their vehicle, have been provided by Speed the Light and BGMC (Boys’ and Girls’ Missionary Challenge). These are AG USA’s missions-giving programs for teens and kids, respectively, used to resource missionaries with needed equipment.
“Because of Speed the Light and BGMC, we are able to say ‘yes’ to almost every ministry request made of us,” says Nelia. “We thank God constantly for this, especially for our Speed the Light vehicle. Without it we would move much slower and have a lot less options.”
Being properly resourced with such tools is helping the Ferrells to more effectively pursue the spiritual welfare of Romania’s teenagers, who are in turn rising to reach the souls of others around them.
“I am very much a product of and passionate about teen ministry,” J.J. concludes. “We are in this for the long haul and can’t imagine a better thing to do with our lives than to help kids find Christ. Any kid should be able to walk into a church and find Jesus.”