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Jeremy Del Rio: By Any Means Necessary - Free Hot Dogs and Youth Evangelism: The Love Express, July 2001

"Cross the street," I thought. "This could get ugly."

The 95-degree heat and extreme humidity were bad enough, but when I got noticed, it got even hotter. Five teens about my age had been tossing a football near a stoop and teasing each other relentlessly until they saw me walking down their block. Almost instantly I felt their stares burn through me; it became painfully obvious that I was the funniest thing to happen to them in a while. I wanted nothing more than to get as far away as quickly as possible, and my new sneakers and the two borrowed cameras around my neck screamed at me to avoid a bad situation.

Sure, crossing the street would pander to fear and stereotypes, but God would understand. After all, I rationalized, "They're not my cameras!" But my heart knew better. Scared, yet trusting that someone far greater than I had my back, I prayed simply, "God, don't let me make a fool of myself."

To my own surprise, I found myself walking directly towards them with words stumbling out of my mouth. "Are you guys hungry?" What was I thinking? I swore that I must be completely insane, but to my relief, they appeared to feel the same way.

Their gaze softened, becoming curious, as I invited them to a church block party two blocks away and told them of hot dogs, games, and music. "Are the hot dogs free?" they asked. "Yes," I replied over my shoulder as my heart raced and my feet followed.

The "fellas" trailed about twenty paces behind me, still joking loudly and doing an all-around fine job of intimidating me. I fully expected the football to smack into the back of my head, but thankfully we arrived at the party without incident. They stayed the afternoon, devouring more hot dogs than we could count and playing hours of basketball with men from the church.

Six months later our church partnered with a local youth center to sponsor Bible studies on Friday nights. One night a distinctly familiar face attended, but despite my best efforts, I could not remember how I knew him. After the devotion he gave his heart to the Lord and began attending church regularly for four or five months.

He stopped coming to services once the summer arrived, distracted by short shorts and the lure of the beach, but we continued inviting him. Though he rarely accepted, he did manage to attend a Super Bowl party and a youth retreat the following March. At the retreat, he rededicated his life to Christ and upon returning to the City, resumed fellowship at the church.

Still bothered by his mysterious familiarity, and following a new hunch, I pulled out some old photos taken with a borrowed camera at the block party two summers earlier. Sure enough the familiar face popped up time and again. He was the most outspoken and obnoxious of the five teens I had nearly crossed the street to avoid! Over the next several months, Rollie brought many friends to church. That July, we looked at the pictures again and discovered that four of the five teens had become believers, and the fifth was an occasional visitor.

Nearly eight years after that initial meeting, two of the five are active leaders in various church ministries. Rollie will graduate from college this spring with a degree in Bible and business administration, and he presently works as a counselor for the Salvation Army and as a youth leader in our church. Luis has served for two years as the program director at Generation Xcel™, a youth center he and Rollie co-founded with ten other teens and me in 1996, seven blocks from where we first met. (See www.generationxcel.com.)

After I realized the connection to the block party, I asked Rollie if he remembered the first time he had ever visited the church. He did. Some nerdy white kid had invited him for free hot dogs.

My experiences with Rollie and Luis demonstrate that youth evangelism takes many forms and frequently looks little to nothing like traditional religious expressions. Rollie had no recollection of the songs he heard at the block party or the testimonies that were preached; he didn't remember the tracts that we distributed and probably hadn't read any of them anyway. He remembered free hot dogs, and a guy crazy enough to offer them.

That God uses non-traditional means to save teens should not be surprising. Among other unconventional methods, Jesus rubbed dirt mixed with spit on blind eyes, talked to tombs, and shouted at wind and waves to effect spiritual awakenings in people. Moreover, the Scriptures tell of waiters (Philip and Stephen), real estate developers (Nehemiah), beauty queens (Esther), soldiers (David), seamstresses (Dorcas), and tent makers (Priscilla and Aquilla) whose ordinary lives God used to transform the eternal destinies of countless individuals.

So too contemporary youth workers must understand that the essence of evangelism - fulfilling the Great Commission to "make disciples of all nations" - begins and ends with the Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. ... [And] love your neighbor as yourself."

Sometimes loving teenagers as ourselves requires remembering how we used to resist church jargon and in your face religiosity. For this reason, Jesus conceptualized evangelism as fishing and went so far as to call His disciples "fishers of men." He knew that they knew that fishermen, whether professionals or hobbyists, all employ the same basic strategy if they wish to be effective: they bait the fish they hope to catch.

Baiting a hook is rarely pretty, often unappealing, and, in youth ministry, sometimes rather ugly, but it's a calling we all share. For us to think otherwise demeans Christ. It was Jesus, after all, who baited you and me by forsaking the splendor of heaven to be born of an unmarried woman (at a time when unmarried pregnancies were crimes punishable by death, imagine the stigma He invited!) among donkey dung and sheep droppings, and sacrificing the glories of the right hand of God the Father in favor of a most gruesome and tortured death beside two crooks.

The other keys to successful fishing are going to the fish, waiting patiently for them to take the bait after it has been cast, and fighting to reel them in after they have bitten. Rollie and Luis didn't find Jesus just because some church had a neighborhood BBQ. They were found at a stoop where they liked to "chill," invited to play games, subject to prayer for two years, and discipled for six through many exhausting struggles after finally accepting Christ.

The Apostle Paul described the kind of evangelism youth ministries must employ when he wrote to the Corinthian church: "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. ... I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." (I Corinthians 9:19, 22) Slavery is somewhat out of vogue today, and for good reason, but it's the image Paul evoked to characterize our relationship with sinners whom God requires us to bait, clean, and prepare for the work of the ministry, even high school drop-outs, tattooed thugs, and teenage girls who make grown men uncomfortable.

By any means necessary, he says, we should strive to win as many as possible.

Even free hot dogs.