In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, we step into one of our most important ministry skills—mirroring back to teenagers the truth about their identity. Becky and I explore the practical ways we can pay ridiculous attention to kids, looking for the details about their identity and depending on the Spirit of Jesus to help us reflect back to them their Kingdom of God purpose.
It’s a really big moment. Some might call it HUGE. Jesus has just asked His closest friends what they think of Him—it’s a scene loaded with awkward tension for everyone. Just before He asks this question, He’s discovered that the hoards following Him around because of His miracles and His healings and His extraordinary teachings have marked Him as just another prophet in a long line of them. But then Simon does something stunning in this electric moment—without missing a beat, he replies: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It’s a lightning-bolt answer, and Jesus tells Simon that he’s “blessed,” because only His “Father in heaven” could have revealed it to him. And then Jesus does something that is life-changing for Simon—He re-names His first disciple “Peter,” and then reveals the meaning and purpose behind the name: “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven” (Matthew 15:18-19).
Wow. Jesus is not just giving Simon a fun nickname. He’s conveying meaning and purpose to his life. He’s not conjuring a deeper identity for Simon; He’s revealing his essence. He’s naming what he is capable of doing, and He’s backing up His assessment by trusting this uneducated fisherman with “the keys to the Kingdom.” This encounter changes Peter’s life and fuels his trajectory. He will go on to live into the identity Jesus has described—He is operating here like a supernatural mirror, reflecting back to Peter who he really is, and what he was born to do.
And here’s why this interchange is such a big deal for those of us called to youth ministry.
Most teenagers, on most days, don’t have anyone paying close attention to what they say or who they are or what’s most enjoyable about them. They don’t know their greater purpose in life, or their role in the Kingdom that Jesus rules, because no one in their life is slowing down long enough to call out their essence. Often, when someone actually does pay close attention to them, it’s to criticize or marginalize or downsize who they are. The mirror that Jesus offers Simon reflects the glorious truth about him, and he will go on to live into that identity. What identity is each of your students waiting to live into? Since beauty is always in the details, we’ll have to notice their details to draw out their beauty.
Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus Podcast: Partnering with Jesus to Set Kids Free
Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, authors of the bestselling business book Now Discover Your Strengths, popularized a profound truth that fuels our missional engagement with young people. It’s a truth that Jesus buried in a strange little story called the “Parable of the Weeds,” recorded in Matthew 13:24-30 (NIV).
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
One way to interpret this parable is to see it through the filter of strengths and weaknesses. What if Jesus is essentially saying: “Don’t pay attention to the bad stuff—the weeds; instead, concentrate on nurturing the good stuff. I’ll take care of the bad stuff later on.” Buckingham and Clifton make the case that the best way to profoundly influence people is to discover their strengths and fuel them, not look for their weaknesses and try to remove or improve them. Translated for everyday life, this mindset means we look for evidence of the kingdom of God in the teenagers we’re pursuing, then speak it out to them, habitually and regularly. We recognize their “weeds,” but we concentrate on growing their “wheat” instead. Put another way, we offer them a mirror to help them discover who they are, not harp on who they aren’t.
In practice, this means we trust the Spirit of Jesus within us to recognize and celebrate his character qualities when they surface in others. Here’s what this might look like…
- When you’re relating with teenagers, use stronger language than you normally would to describe what you notice. We don’t merely applaud their performance or offer them affirmation; we recognize the character qualities of Jesus in them, and use strong language to celebrate what we see. For example: “You know, the people around you relax when you’re in the room, because they can sense your integrity.” Or: “You always notice others in the room who are isolated or lonely, and you go after them—that’s so much like Jesus.”
- Ask Jesus to give you a word of “inexplicable belief” for them, and then make a point to share that word face-to-face—or use a text or email or handwritten card to communicate it. We simply mull over our interactions with teenagers, asking the Spirit to describe for us their “wheat.” Then we follow up by taking 30 seconds to communicate what we discover about them. The other day one of the kids in my small group made a big deal out of “identifying” himself as a communist and a fan of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. In the moment, I asked the Spirit to help me see behind the bravado to this guy’s essence, and then I “mirrored” back to him that behind that kind of proclamation is a guy who is awake to his own life, and deeply thoughtful about what he believes. I could see his whole body relax a little, and since that moment he has noticeably opened himself to our pursuit of Jesus.
- Celebrations (birthday, graduation, or awards, for example) give us opportunities for more “formal” reflections. Big moments cry out for us to step into the gap and formally mark how that teenager has reflected their “fearfully and wonderfully made” reality. When one of your kids has a big moment, respond with a big reflection that marks what makes them unique and enjoyable.
- Pay attention to “group” moments, when the “target” of your inexplicable belief is around others, and say something specific about how that person reflects the Spirit of Jesus. These are “cloud of witnesses” moments, and even a small observation is magnified because of the setting and context. If you have ever experienced such a moment yourself, you know they are unforgettable and even transforming. My daughter Emma is a middle schooler, and her parent-teacher conferences are purposely structured to include the student as well. So we go to the school’s gym where all of the teachers are sitting at “stations” around a huge horseshoe configuration of narrow tables. The strategy is called “Arena Conferences.” My wife and I wait with Emma to meet with each teacher. Some of them understand how packed with transformative power these short interactions are, and they take full advantage of their opportunity. When Emma heard two successive teachers tell her parents, while she sat next to us, that she is one of the most delightful, hard-working, funny, and engaging students they’ve ever had, we could see healing and transformation happen right before our eyes. Look for your own “cloud of witnesses” opportunities, and take full advantage of them when the Spirit nudges you.