Being a teenager is tough these days. You feel so new to life and yet so seasoned. Adults say you aren’t grown up enough to know anything, yet they toss you the keys to a vehicle that can take you anywhere and pay for a phone that can show you anything.
Well-meaning youth workers don’t make it any easier by telling teenagers God has a huge purpose for their life. To young ears, it must sound as if we’re saying Jesus came only to give them something responsible to do.
It’s important to clarify God’s will, which is actually pretty clear. Jesus says, “For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life” (John 6:40) and “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:10). That sounds less like a to-do list or rite of passage and more like a playground full of opportunity.
>>This week on Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus Podcast: What if your life is wasted?
A metaphor on the Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus podcast inspired me: Connecting with Jesus is like playing on a playground. Remember how you’d try some things as a kid during recess just to be able to hang out with a friend? Then eventually you’d try something else together to stay engaged?
Our youth ministry team created a monthly sermon series called The Playground. Each week we watched a 30-minute clip from “The Stranger” video series. Each clip focuses on a person who’s having a conversation with Jesus without knowing it. We tied that into moments from Jesus’ life and teachings to discover how he interacts with us. Themes we noticed include:
Admiration vs. Invitation
As a child, I watched classmates play football and basketball during recess while I was more into Tag. Because I wasn’t as athletic as the other guys, I felt as if I didn’t measure up. Likewise, some teenagers may look at their Christian peers and think, “I can’t sing or lead a small group like my friends, so Jesus probably doesn’t have anything significant for me to do.” What if we start emphasizing that many things in life are worth pursuing and that teenagers may feel called or invited into a range of different areas?
It’s easy to unconsciously tell teenagers there’s a “right way” to live out God’s will for their lives. I once celebrated a freshman who quit playing football when his coach wouldn’t give him time off practice to go on our mission trip. When I told a mentor about the teenager’s decision, he asked, “So what about the football team as a mission field? Who’s going to reach those athletes for Jesus if you keep clapping when your church kids quit a sport?” It was a great point, especially because I hated how sports schedules were “stealing” kids away from our ministry. After all, youth group attendance is the bigger priority, right?
During our Playground study, we noticed how Jesus invites 12 people to be his primary disciples yet still calls others his “disciples” (such as the 72 mentioned in Luke 10:1 or Matthias, who had been with the 12 disciples “the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus,” according to Acts 1:21). Then there are people such as the woman at the well and those who receive healing from Jesus and then tell others about him. Sometimes Jesus calls a person to do a specific thing; for example, he tells the rich young ruler to sell everything because that’s the one thing the man lacks.
Personalize this: Are all your teenagers called to attend a Christian college? Should they all have the spiritual gift of evangelism? Maybe we need to drop our own stereotypes and help teenagers discover how they’re wired.
Peace vs. Disruption
In Christian circles, we often turn peace into a kind of idolatry. Think about all the times you’ve seen someone make a really bad decision and claim, “I just had a peace about it.” Perhaps that was God’s will; perhaps not. Consider all the times Jesus puts people into a place of disruption so they can grow.
Using the playground metaphor, remember all the scary slides and equipment you played on that eventually became not so scary? Usually, someone else had to explain that what you feared was full of more adventure than you could imagine.
How can you help teenagers see disruption as an invitation onto the playground with Jesus? One simple idea is to let them share stories about their victories and struggles. You can even ask, “Who here is trying to do something that requires courage in some way?”
Guarantees vs. Spontaneity
On the playground, children must deal with someone else grabbing the ball or swing they’d planned to use. “Go play with something else,” a well-meaning adult intones. “It’s not good to do the same thing every day anyway.”
That’s solid advice. In Jesus’ ministry, he often encounters people who want a guarantee about how things will turn out for them if they trust him. Jesus masterfully leads them into conversations or spaces where they must be spontaneous.
What if our ministry events nurture this? It might be time to stop doing the same thing every year and undertake a new mission trip or camp experience. Although it’s easy to return to what’s familiar, Jesus may be inviting us into something new. Share with teenagers why you’re switching gears so they can gain this important life skill themselves.
What if we paint a picture for teenagers that finding God’s will is like playing with Jesus on the playground? How can you play more and work less in your ministry?