Atheist-Turned-Youth Minister Starts High School Bible Clubs Across California
As many Christian communities struggle to share faith with the next generation, youth minister Brian Barcelona offers a solution: go to them in their high schools.
Many view with alarm the emerging Generation Z, growing up in a post-Christian culture. Rising trends of teen drug use, suicide and sexual experimentation are undeniable.
For one minister, these searching students have become his mission field. “I see the next generation with such great faith,” says Brian Barcelona of One Voice Student Missions. “As people of faith who are supposed to be carrying God into a city, there is no way you can read the Bible and get discouraged.”
Since 2009, his group has spread the gospel through mass events and mobilizing students to lead Bible clubs in their schools. “As of last year, we were averaging around 10,000 students a week in the 70-plus schools that we’re in,” he says.
From their base near Los Angeles, One Voice reaches one of the most unchurched regions in America. Many in California are wary of faith. “Obviously, there are always going to be disagreements,” admits Barcelona. Yet they have also made allies.
“We’ve had principals and people who are not of any faith who absolutely love us,” he says. “It’s because of the way we honor them and represent Jesus, even beyond preaching.”
High School Bible Clubs
Barcelona grew up in a Christian home, but became cynical as his parents drifted from faith. By age 16, he no longer believed in God. He accepted a friend’s invitation to a worship service only with an incentive.
“He said if I went to church with him that he’d buy me Jamba Juice,” he recalls. “I ended up going to church that night and got saved in a radical encounter with God. One invite with a promise of a smoothie shifted my life forever.”
Two years later at an outdoor Christian event, a revelation hit him — along with a drive to reach today’s students. “Kids are in high schools across America five days a week, 35 hours a week, for four years,” he says. “Why not go to them during those formative years?”
Over 15 million students currently attend U.S. public high schools. Barcelona challenges believers to pursue them. “An older mindset says, Put all your resources, time and effort into what we’re doing inside of church,” states Barcelona. “Our ministry shows them Jesus and models the gospel where they live.”
He launched One Voice to equip and multiply Bible clubs in high schools. “Our heart was really to create a Jesus culture on campus,” he says. “Students who may not be able to go to church can experience and encounter God.”
The nonprofit ministry has made surprising inroads in a state known as hostile to public expression of faith.
Foundations and the Fabricated Wall
Barcelona and his team often navigate criticisms in California. “When people say there’s no place for faith in schools, it’s like saying there’s no place for air,” he says.
The youth minister readily brings up America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. “The first book used to teach young people back when America started was the Bible,” states Barcelona. “Historically, faith has had a key role in the foundation of our country.”
If critics mention the wall of separation, he points them to the letter where the phrase originated. “The ‘separation of church and state’ does not even exist within our Constitution,” he says. “It was a term used by Jefferson about protecting the church from the state.”
As most students today have a post-Christian mindset, local leaders embrace an open and caring approach. “Obviously, we live in a generation today where there are a lot of different opinions,” notes Barcelona. “We do our best to honor people.”
“If they don’t want to hear something, totally cool,” he continues. “We are not going to shove anything down anyone’s throat. You let your life speak for itself.”
This year, One Voice aims to establish Bible clubs on every one of 81 high schools in the Los Angeles school district. The clubs are also multiplying into other states. The team believes mutual respect is key to their success.
“Whether atheist, agnostic or a person of faith, anyone can honor someone who’s authentic and honors others,” he says.
Shattering Doubts — and Limited Views of God
The faith-based group also has openness to praying for the supernatural. “We’ve seen God heal people’s hearts and heal their bodies,” says Barcelona.
He cites Mark 16:17, which states: Miraculous signs will accompany those who believe. “So people who are sick, we pray for them,” he says. “Our thing is: we don’t follow signs and wonders. They come with the faith. It’s a way we’re able to demonstrate God and show him to people.”
In 2015, Barcelona met Nick Vujicic — an author and speaker who was born without arms or legs. After many events together, he now counts the evangelist as a mentor.
“A lot of people don’t understand Nick,” says Barcelona. He repeats one of Vujicic’s favorite lines: If you put a G-O in front of disabled, it spells God is able. “The way Nick takes his situation and flips it in his story gives him such influence with young people. It opens up doors.”
Their friendship has shaped Barcelona’s own outlook on faith and life. “Many people with their arms and legs are more disabled than Nick Vujicic,” he says. “In his mind, there is no disability. His heart and soul is actually more healed and whole than people with all their limbs. It’s all in the way we look at life.”
“Sometimes we look at God through this narrow little hole, when there’s such a larger picture to what He is doing on the earth,” says Barcelona. “We have to form theology from the truth, which is the word of God.”
“Truth is beyond one situation in our lives.”
Students Finding Their Voice
In July, One Voice will convene their annual conference in Pasadena. Over a thousand teens, young adults and pastors pack out the venue for worship and teaching.
“We long to see young people trained, equipped and carry massive faith into their schools,” says Brian Barcelona. Others scheduled to address students include Vujicic, Banning Liebscher of Jesus Culture, Shawn Bolz, Lou Engle of TheCall and Brian Welch, lead guitarist with the award-winning rock band Korn.
“Our event is not about Friday or Saturday sessions,” states the One Voice founder. “It’s about Monday. What are you going to do when you walk out the door? That’s where the real event starts. You take everything you learn and live it out.”
Barcelona knows the trends affecting students, yet believes faith changes lives. “To me, someone who looks at the future and thinks it’s negative is one who can’t see,” he says. “Sometimes the only way you can see is with your eyes closed.”
“We can be encouraged even as the world gets darker,” concludes Barcelona. “Because the light Jesus put in our hearts gets brighter.”
Brian Barcelona’s book The Jesus Club: Incredible True Stories of How God Is Moving in Our High Schools is available online. Watch below for a preview of their ministry: