For faith to become active and lasting, it must first be real. Young people must recognize the value of their relationship with Jesus and value it above all else.
GROUP magazine surveyed 23,000 Christian teenagers and asked, “How is God ‘real’ to you?” Responses included:
- He’s there for me when I need him, and I see him “there for” others around me.
- I see God all around me (in people, nature, and circumstances).
- He’s given me blessings in life.
- The Bible has revealed him to me.
- He forgives me.
- I feel him in me.
- I’ve seen his power displayed in miracles.
More than two-thirds of survey respondents say they have a set-aside time with God (often called a “quiet time”) at least once a week. And slightly more than tenth of them (12.4%) say they set aside time to be alone with God every single day. At the same time, only a third (35.7%) of kids who take time to be alone with God say, as a result, that they “know who God is and what he does better than I did before.” And only a quarter (24.8%) say they “have a greater urgency to tell others about God’s love for them.”
Youth ministers play a crucial role in not only helping teenagers’ faith take root but in nurturing its growth so it can branch out to reach others. Throughout the process, young people must be encouraged to stay attached to Jesus, the true Vine.
We’d like kids’ faith growth to be a straight trajectory into Christlikeness, but it’s more like a jagged dash through a mine field. And that’s the crux of the problem—we typically expect the spiritual growth of our roller-coaster kids to look like the measured, cause-and-effect growth of adults. Every time we try to frame their growing relationship with Christ using our adult parameters, they confound and confuse us.
So what exactly is going on in the spiritual lives of young people? We all know teenagers aren’t undergrown adults. They’re in a critical stage of development, trying to navigate their way toward independence. If we understand the spiritual development of young people and the issues they face as they grow in their faith, we’ll be better equipped to help them grow spiritually through the explosive changes of adolescence.
In Stages of Faith, author James Fowler uses the work of psychologists Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg to build a definition of faith development. This definition includes six stages, beginning in infancy and stretching through adulthood.
According to Fowler, most adolescents are in Stage #3—“synthetic-conventional faith.” In this stage, their world—along with their faith—is expanding beyond their family. Their faith is now an issue in friendships, sports, and the media. It also comes into play at school, work, and youth group. In this stage, young people are highly sensitive to others’ opinions and expectations. And they must wrestle with big challenges to their faith.
- They’re learning to think abstractly. Teenagers can—and want to—understand and experience faith on a deeper level than they have before. They’re ready to go beyond talking about their own experiences to understanding others’ experiences. And they’re beginning to see God as more than just a personal guide and friend.
- They’re feeling the tension between their own beliefs and those of others. Teenagers struggle to reconcile their beliefs to others’ opinions and expectations. As their world expands, their childhood beliefs bump into opposition, producing lots of questions. They want to understand what others believe, how those beliefs differ from their own, and why various belief systems have developed. At times they may feel desperate to make sure their faith can coexist with others’ experiences.
- They’re trying to fit faith into their emerging identities. As young people test boundaries of who they are, they often “try on” various belief systems. They may seem to bounce between different states of spiritual enthusiasm—disinterested one day, reveling in spiritual commitment the next, cynically accusing others of hypocrisy the next. This outward inconsistency is evidence of a positive internal process that’s working to form a committed, personal faith. As young people go through this process, Fowler says they look to others to act as “mirrors,” reflecting who they are so they can “see the image of person-ality emerging and get a hearing for the new feelings, insights, anxieties, and commitments that are forming and seeking expression.” For ideas on how to create a Jesus-centered “mirroring” environment in your ministry that will help students embrace their true identity in Christ, check out Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry and The Jesus-Centered Life, both by Rick Lawrence.
- Their struggle’s chief export is doubt. As teenagers face the challenges of other belief systems and struggle to form a new spiritual identity, doubts about their faith start popping to the surface. And these doubts fuel questions targeted at the beliefs of their parents, teachers, mentors, pastors, and others they’ve relied upon for spiritual direction. Again, this is positive. As teenagers successfully struggle through doubt, they grow strong and secure in their faith.
So how is a teenager’s faith development different from an adult’s? Most adults have progressed at least to Fowler’s Stage #4—”individuative-reflective faith.” They’ve learned to take personal responsibility for their own beliefs, actions, attitudes, and values. They have a strong sense of personal identity. They have highly developed abilities to think abstractly, and they view God as a spirit who embodies truth and is personally present to them.
Some adults progress beyond Stage #4 to Stage #5 or Stage #6—basically, that means they have increasing levels of commitment, confidence, acceptance of “gray areas,” and self-sacrifice. So repeat this like a mantra: “Teenagers can’t experience or consistently express their faith the way adults do.” It’s clichéd, but the more often we filter our expectations through our own memories of adolescence, the more likely we are to give our group members the grace they need to grow. For more thought-provoking guidance on what it looks like to progress students into a deeper level of commitment to Jesus, check out Kurt Johnston’s post “Un-Fully Devoted.”
What Teens Crave
When GROUP magazine asked Christian teenagers, “What’s the single-most important thing a youth pastor can do to help you grow deeper in your relationship with Jesus?” here were the top answers:
- Lead by example. Nothing is more magnetic to a teenager than an adult who is congruent in her faith—someone whose life speaks louder than her words. They are hungering for role models who are “all in” with Jesus.
- Connect with me. Teenagers live in an “alone in a crowd” culture that offers a surface version of connectedness, but very few “I see you well” connections. They’re longing for relationships that are characterized by purposeful engagement.
- Help me understand. The crying need of this generation of young people is an ability to “articulate their faith”—one of the major findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion. And teenagers themselves sense their own poverty in this arena.
- Make it relevant. There is a clear need to build a bridge between biblical truth and the person of Jesus and the everyday conversations and behaviors of teenagers. They’re looking for bridge-builders.
- Pray for me. Perhaps the most profound form of support kids are craving is also our most intimate intrusion into their story—prayer that tangibly expresses our advocacy.
When GROUP magazine asked Christian teenagers, “What’s the single-most important thing that has already helped you grow deeper in your relationship with Jesus?” the top answers were:
- Community and authentic relationships.
- Hardship and woe.
- Mission trips and retreats.
- Systematic Bible study and training.
- Giving what I have to give.
- A family affair.
When GROUP magazine asked Christian teenagers, “What’s one thing that distracts you the most from your relationship with Jesus?” the top answers were:
- Busyness and hyper-activity.
- Technology—For a primer on the smart use of technology in ministry, check out Brandon Early’s post “Is Technology Too Distracting in My Youth Ministry?”
- My sin and vices.
Help teenagers navigate their faith journey with these tips and ideas:
- Challenge them. Ask difficult, open-ended questions. Use this question test: If it can be answered yes or no, throw out the question and craft a new one. Challenge them to apply God’s Word to their everyday lives, and expect them to put their faith into action. People who profess faith in Christ are either fans or followers. Fans are with Jesus as long as he’s not headed to the cross. Followers go where Jesus goes.
- Forgive them. When teenagers fail to live up to their commitments, make sure they experience the natural consequences of their failures within an environment of grace. Help them process and learn from their mistakes, then move on. And be sure to give them another chance. “Parents tend to focus more on what people should be doing,” says teenager Meredith Payne, “teenagers focus more on, ‘It’s okay if I screw up.’ They focus more on God’s forgiveness.”
- Expose them to the experiences of others. Give kids many opportunities to hear how God is working in others’ lives.
- Ask them to share their stories. When kids must talk about God’s influence on their life stories, it helps them make sense of God’s presence in their lives. When his youth leader asked Danny Jones to share his story at a youth-led meeting, the experience helped him connect more deeply to God. “It was hard to say it, but once I got done, I felt good because I knew God wanted me to tell my story,” says Jones. “And other people could learn from my experiences. It helped me understand how God works in my life.”
- Offer them meaningful and varied worship experiences. Instead of seeing your worship time as an opportunity for kids to sing, see it as an opportunity for them to hear God and respond. Worship songs should give teenagers a vocabulary for an intimate conversation with God. For more great insight on this, check out “Here I Am to (Not) Worship” by Jason Carson.
- Teach them who God is. As they gain independence from adults, your young people will need to know who God is so they can trust him for themselves.
- Teach the basics. As kids question what they were given as children, they’ll need to build a new foundation for their faith. That’s why it’s a mistake to assume kids raised by Christian parents already know all the basics of the faith. “I want to learn more about the basis for Christianity—factual events no one can deny happened,” says teenager Katie Rose. “I’m growing in my desire to understand the basic doctrines so I can witness to others not just in an emotional sense but with solid information.”
- Invite questions. The church has nothing to fear from life’s big questions. So welcome kids’ questions by asking them a few tough questions of your own: “How can the Apostle Paul say ______________?” “If God says________________, how do you explain _________?” “How do we know ____________ really happened?”
- Teach about other belief systems. The only way to help teenagers understand how Christian truth is distinctive is to honestly compare it to other religions and beliefs. As long as kids think faith in Christ meshes well with Hindu meditation, they’ll feel free to sit on the fence rather than follow Jesus.
- Involve them in the church. Kids need the opportunity to fill important, relevant roles in the church, including ushers, greeters, worship leaders, Sunday school teachers, small-group leaders, child-care providers, and parking lot attendants.
- Help them come to their own conclusions. Be a guide, not a director. Present truth and confront false beliefs, but allow kids to decide for themselves. If they discover truth, they’re much more likely to hold onto it. For example, when kids doubt or question something about the gospel, show them how and where to find the answers instead of simply telling them. Teenager Tim Stahlnecker says, “Right now I’m learning to believe for myself instead of just taking whatever people tell me to believe.”
- Encourage youth leadership. Help young people discover their gifts and exercise them. They’ll need plenty of support to build their confidence. For more on this, check out Brandon Kennard’s “How to Morph Into Student-led Youth Ministry.”
- Be patient. Expect growth and change to be a long, slow process. Translation: Do everything you can to stick around long enough at one church to help see your kids through their forward/back growth. Teenager Josh Briggs says, “We’re still learning about our faith. Obviously, we have fewer years behind us. And that means we experience our faith differently.”
- Stay off the roller coaster. As kids experience the ups and downs of adolescence, don’t go up and down with them. Be a steady, stable presence in their lives.
- Be honest and straightforward. Help teenagers understand themselves by letting them know when they hurt you, make you proud, or cross your boundaries. They need to know how their choices impact others before they get a clear picture of themselves.
- Affirm the positive. So many kids are desperate for someone to see and celebrate who they are. So find excuses to tell them they’re getting it right.
- Be an example. Think of the person who’s most influenced your growth in Christ. Was it his or her words or actions that made the impact? Now you know why your own relationship with Jesus is your most potent ministry tool.
- Encourage them to express their faith in ways that fit them. Don’t try to mold young people in the image of their parents or other adults. When teenager Jeni Blaylock is by herself, she loves to worship God by lifting her hands and dancing to praise music. But she didn’t feel comfortable doing it in public until she talked to her youth pastor. “My youth pastor and I talked about how different people express themselves differently through music,” she says. “He encouraged me to go for it and express my worship in ways that really help me experience God. That’s been really powerful for me to feel like I can be real when I worship God in public.” Tim Stahlnecker says, “Adults tend to express their faith individually. Teenagers express their faith more socially, with other people their age.”
- Help them make intergenerational connections. Teenagers need to see people of all ages putting their faith into action. They also need relationships with people outside their own subculture. So whenever you’re planning a youth event, ask yourself: “How can I transform this into an intergenerational event?”
- Communicate unconditional love. Kids should sense that you’ll never give up on them, no matter what.
- Resist acting shocked by their doubts. If God isn’t stunned by our unbelief, we can reflect his strength by taking kids’ doubts in stride. Don’t live in their doubts; live in the truth.
- Admit you don’t know everything. This is just being real. Be sure they know you’re still growing in your faith.
- Affirm the sovereignty of God. Always point them to Christ for the truth. When kids come to you with a need, do you answer first or pray first?
- Stand up for them. Be an advocate for teenagers. Challenge other adults to respect young people and look for opportunities to publicly celebrate their victories.
- Educate adults about kids. Help other adults understand the forces that are shaping your group members. Teach them about Fowler’s faith development stages, and help them remember the challenges they faced when they were young people.
- Build a safe community. Don’t tolerate cruelty, sarcasm, exclusion, fighting, or other hurtful behaviors. Encourage teenagers to hold each other accountable for the way they treat each other.
- Pray for them. You can’t overemphasize the role of prayer in spiritual growth. As teenagers face the battles of everyday life, they need the prayers of you, their parents, church leaders, other adults, and their peers. Tell them you’re praying for them. It will encourage them and build confidence.
How do we more effectively partner with the Lord to create long-term spiritual change? Insights gleaned from neuroscience and psychology offer some surprising answers. John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of The Heart of Change, says:
“Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings. This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”
What a powerful insight for those of us attempting to impact teenagers’ spiritual formation. We certainly aren’t making a case for playing primarily to teenagers’ emotions, but perhaps we need to give more focused attention to how well we’re connecting with their hearts when we’re communicating spiritual truth.
So how do we make strategic efforts to connect with teenagers both mentally and emotionally? Here are some simple suggestions for presenting:
- Never underestimate the importance of including a well-told story. As I prepare for my weekly youth service, I always use at least one strong illustration. Through the years, I’ve carefully filed these stories by categories. Now, nearly four decades into full-time youth ministry, I find them to be an invaluable resource.
- As you teach biblical truths, mentally ask yourself the two-word question of the century: “So what?” One of your most powerful emotional connecting points is authentic relevance. So at the risk of sounding trite, make sure that you’re communicating biblical truth in a manner that easily relates to kids’ everyday lives.
- Don’t always steer away from emotionally charged situations. Some of them can provide unforgettable teaching platforms for you. For instance, when a teenage girl in our youth ministry died suddenly, I changed that evening’s message and sensitively used portions of her amazing life to challenge the students to examine their own lifestyles.
- Realize that nothing communicates heart-to-heart more than students sharing transparently with each other. Arrange to have students tell stories from their own life-experiences in connection with your messages. Coach students beforehand so they have the courage to go beyond the superficial and deal honestly with the areas you’re asking them to talk about.
- Use drama, even if it’s only a brief monologue, to capture the “inside feelings” of a situation. Have students pretend that they’re in a room alone, either talking to themselves, talking to the Lord, or a combination of both. Encourage them to express some of the thoughts and feelings that go through a person’s mind in dealing with the topic you’re addressing. Play soft music, turn down the lights, and watch how strongly even the simplest words impact students.
Granted, the use of emotional connections can be overdone or used inappropriately. But we have enough common sense to avoid anything close to hype. We’re also very aware that only God has the power to create life-change. But as you’re preparing each message, ask yourself, “Where and how am I being intentional about connecting with my students’ hearts?”