The teenage years are filled to the brim with a wide range of decisions—everything from who to hang out with to which career path to take. Peer pressure, which has been intensified by social media, doesn’t help matters. Neither does the fact that kids’ brains are still developing, leaving them literally judgment-impaired.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, teenagers, based on their brain-development stage, are more likely to:
- act on impulse,
- misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions,
- get into all types of accidents,
- get involved in fights, and
- engage in dangerous or risky behavior.
Meanwhile, research shows that adolescents are less likely to:
- think before they act,
- pause to consider the potential consequences of their actions, and
- modify any dangerous or inappropriate behaviors.
As the AACAP points out, “These brain differences don’t mean that young people can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions.” But they can help parents and youth workers understand teenage decision-making so they can steer kids in the right direction.
Research also shows that involvement in a church and youth group makes a big difference for young people and their choices. Your youth ministry efforts make a tangible difference in teenagers’ development and decisions.
Although WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) was a passing fad, the question is still worth asking when decisions loom. As we interact with students, it’s crucial to emphasize the importance of making Jesus-based choices every day.
Luke 9:20 features an important choice Jesus asked his disciples to make: “Who do you say I am?” Jesus was committed to bringing them to a deeper understanding of his true identity—and he seeks the same for his followers today. Study this crucial choice that Jesus poses to his disciples a few verses later:
Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” Luke 9:23-24
Because this choice has big-time consequences, young people need to understand what’s involved. Following Jesus and honoring him with our lives can be challenging, but the rewards are eternal.
The National Study of Youth and Religion, a groundbreaking study into the religious lives of young people, offers encouraging insights about the impact of religion and youth group. Involvement is having a direct effect on young people’s choices and decision, when compared to their non-religious peers.
Patricia Snell, assistant director for the Center for the Study of Religion & Society at Notre Dame University, summarizes three findings from the world of social research:
1. Religion creates positive life outcomes. Compared to their non-religious peers, religious teenagers enjoy…
- increased physical health,
- a longer lifespan,
- more life satisfaction,
- better problem-solving skills,
- greater friendship support,
- an increased ability to cope with life’s problems,
- healthier family relationships, and
- reduced depression.
2. Religion creates valuable social support systems. According to Dr. Christian Smith, pioneering lead researcher for the National Study of Youth and Religion, churches offer teenagers many advantages that lead to better life outcomes. For example, attending church can help young people establish more and better social connections, and we already know that more social support leads to a better life.
3. Religion helps people learn right and wrong. Smith also tracked the influence of religion in the crucial forming of a moral foundation in young people; it offers them guidance and order as they make moral decisions. Because churches have agreed-upon standards for what good behavior looks like, their faith guides kids’ behavior toward more socially acceptable choices. And people who experience greater degrees of social acceptance are less stressed-out, resulting in positive physical and psychological health.
Based on these truths about religion’s influence, Snell set out to discover how youth groups could be a catalyst for better life outcomes. She analyzed NSYR data from when the participating teenagers were ages 16-20. Findings include:
- Teenagers in youth groups experience greater levels of adult support. Kids in youth groups are more comfortable talking to adults and have more supportive adults available than their non-involved peers. Youth group members also have more supportive adults within their church than those who’ve attended services but not youth group. (However, they may have joined youth group in the first place because they already felt supported by adults or already attended religious services.)
- Teenagers in youth groups have more connections to church.
- Teenagers in youth groups show a stronger moral backbone. Members of youth groups are less likely to lie to their parents and to do things they hoped their parents wouldn’t find out about than their non-youth-group peers. They’re also more likely to agree that…
- • morality is not relative,
- • what is morally right or wrong should be based on God’s law,
- • it’s not okay to break moral rules if it works to your advantage, and
- • religion is important in shaping their daily life.
Snell concludes that youth groups do help teenagers believe in moral values. But those beliefs don’t always translate to their behavior. In other words, youth group is good at producing some positive outcomes but not others. Youth groups excel in teaching kids moral beliefs and in “hooking” them into long-term churchgoing habits, but the congregation as a whole has a crucial role to play in helping them navigate their adolescence and all the decisions they face during those years.
Even the most faith-filled, determined Jesus followers make bad decisions from time to time. Exploring the choices of King Solomon (in 1 Kings) can help students consider the wisdom of their decisions.
Solomon was a mixed bag. He was a positive example of faith because he expressed a desire to love God. In turn, God’s blessing was related to Solomon’s faith. But then Solomon neglected his commitment to God. Though Solomon was wise concerning the affairs of God’s people, he ironically became very unwise about his own spiritual life. The king’s poor choices ultimately resulted in the split of the empire.
Like Solomon, we also struggle with living inconsistent lives. We may love God and desire to follow him, but we can also be lured away by power and popularity, sexual desire, materialism, idolatry, or pride. That can lead to choices that don’t honor God.
Despite Solomon’s disobedience and unfaithfulness, God remained faithful. God’s plan of salvation wasn’t deterred by Solomon’s screw-ups. God stays true to his promises even when we mess things up. We aren’t perfect and won’t always make great choices, but God will remain faithful and will continue to work in our lives.
Teenagers can’t learn to make good decisions if they aren’t given lots of practice. One way to offer plenty of practice is by developing students’ leadership skills in a youth ministry setting. Keep these things in mind as you nurture young leaders and decision-makers:
- Young leaders lack experience, not capacity. A little formal training can unlock a deep well of capacity for leadership in young people. Their leadership capacity is not less than adults’ capacity, but their leadership opportunities are far fewer. Responsibility without authority results in frustration, though, so be sure to include power in the opportunity. Start small. As leaders prove themselves, let them lead bigger projects, giving them a chance to gain experience in a safe environment.
- Young leaders must understand these three roles. Leadership is a social process; leaders help people accomplish together what they can’t pull off as individuals. Purely speaking, leaders are the catalysts for getting the leadership process going—and that process is influenced by three primary roles.
- Participant—A participant is filling an active role, not a passive one. Participants can make or break a leader because they can choose to follow, or not. If they don’t follow, the leader can’t lead. That’s why “participant” is a better word to use than the more passive “follower.”
- Influencer—Not all participants are created equally. Influencers are participants who simply exercise more influence than most. Influencers must understand how they can help or hinder a leader who’s trying to lead. And leaders need to understand the powerful role influencers play, for good or ill, and tap into their momentum to help the team be more effective.
- Leader—Teenagers who are wired to lead need to know how to be “mere” participants as well, or they’ll always try to take over the leadership role. I call that “hijacking.” Hijackers try to control too much, too often, and frequently alienate themselves from others. Plus, their inability to function as participants cuts off the development process for other leaders.
- Young leaders must overcome their lack of positional power. Even without positional influence, teenagers can gain power from resources (money, time, physical strength), talent (skill, ability), referential (people they know), knowledge (access to information), and God. Throughout Scripture, young people make big impacts by tapping into God’s strength. Even Jesus at 12, hanging back in Jerusalem for animated discussions with Rabbis who were old enough to be his parents, said he must be about his father’s business. Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a young teenager when she was visited by an angel of the Lord. Leadership is about gaining and using power effectively. Young leaders can obtain power from sources other than positions; using it wisely must be their impetus during adolescence.
- Young leaders need opportunities to truly lead. Set kids up for success with these four G’s:
- Goal: Give leaders a clear objective of what you want, but don’t necessarily tell them how to do it. Give them outcomes, timelines, resources, and basic parameters.
- Group: You can’t lead alone, so be sure your projects are set up for teams to lead. This will help them develop effective social skills—for example, motivation, communication, conflict management, role assignment, and improvement.
- Gasp: It’s weak alliteration, but the idea is to give your leaders power to make decisions. Responsibility without authority equals frustration. Let them take wise risks, including not always doing it your way.
- Gauge: Provide regular feedback and input. Be available. Check in with kids so they’re operating from a base of accountability. Ask key questions at the start, in the middle, and at the end. This makes leading a learning experience: “How’d we do? How could we do better next time? What went well and what didn’t, and why?”
The Bible shares many instances of God’s followers making decisions that honor him and other people. Many of the standard “Sunday school” stories are perfect examples. Daniel refused to pray to King Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, earning a trip to a den of lions. But God was faithful, protecting Daniel throughout the ordeal. When Jesus visited two sisters, Mary chose the “one thing” that was needed: spending time with Jesus. Zacchaeus chose to reform his lifestyle, paying back four times the amount to people he’d cheated.
When an earthquake struck the prison they were in, Paul and Silas didn’t escape. Instead, they selflessly ministered to the jailer, leading to many changed lives. Read the account from Acts 16:25-34:
Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open. He assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted to him, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!”
The jailer called for lights and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. Even at that hour of the night, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his house and set a meal before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.
Like so many of our everyday choices, this wasn’t some sort of planned out, premeditated decision for Paul and Silas. They responded to the situation instinctually. It was a natural, automatic response for them to put their ministry to others in front of their own self-interest.
Even if tough circumstances, we can stand firm and share our faith through our choices.