In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus, an old man, is confused, wondering how he can enter his mother’s womb again. But Jesus is talking about a spiritual rebirth—one brought about by the Holy Spirit.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul sums up that rebirth this way:
[Jesus] died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
Being made new in Christ changes everything—your heart, your day-to-day life, your relationships, your future. Young people need to hear that Jesus washes away their sins, makes them new and whole, and promises to always be with them as they live a full life in him.
Stories of changed lives resonate throughout Scripture and history. One of the most familiar—and drastic—examples is the man who became the Apostle Paul. Before that, as Saul, he hated Christians and persecuted them. But then Jesus met him on the Road to Damascus, in the form of a bright light and a voice that asked, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
Saul, now blind, is led to Damascus, where he meets a Christ-follower named Ananias. Through the power of God, Ananias restores Saul’s sight and pronounces that he’s filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul then heads out to preach in Jesus’ name, becomes known as Paul, and journeys to faraway lands to spread the good news of the gospel. When Saul met Jesus, the trajectory of his life completely changed—he became a new creation.
A similar transformation occurred to Englishman John Newton (1725-1807). Once a captain of slave ships, he converted to Christianity, became a prominent abolitionist, and wrote the lyrics to the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Young people may not experience such radical life transformations, but the Holy Spirit effects great change in the lives of all Christians. Just as Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit, when we begin a faith relationship with Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts too. The very presence of God lives in us!
In 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Paul writes:
It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us.”
Why does Jesus make us new creations and give us new life through his Spirit? The answer is found in John 10:10, where Jesus says, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” Other Bible versions use the word “full” life.
In the next verse, Jesus describes himself as our Good Shepherd, who sacrifices his life for us, his sheep. Jesus is the great shepherd who offers us new life. And those who enter through his “gate” find abundant pasture. His sheep have provision, rest, protection, and pasture—ultimate fulfillment. Sheep are simple; in Jesus’ analogy, a full life for sheep isn’t complex. But what about for humans? (For a deeper exploration into our “sheep” identity as followers of Jesus, read the chapter “Living a Sheep’s Life” in the book The Jesus-Centered Life, by Rick Lawrence.)
In our society, people seek fulfillment in many ways, only to end up disappointed and empty. The Old Testament offers an analogy for obtaining a full and abundant life, spoken to an agrarian culture. Amos 9:11-15 is a promise of restoration:
In that day I will restore the fallen house of David. I will repair its damaged walls. From the ruins I will rebuild it and restore its former glory. And Israel will possess what is left of Edom and all the nations I have called to be mine. The Lord has spoken, and he will do these things. “The time will come,” says the Lord, “when the grain and grapes will grow faster than they can be harvested. Then the terraced vineyards on the hills of Israel will drip with sweet wine! I will bring my exiled people of Israel back from distant lands, and they will rebuild their ruined cities and live in them again. They will plant vineyards and gardens; they will eat their crops and drink their wine. I will firmly plant them there in their own land. They will never again be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the Lord your God.
God is saying, rather emphatically, “I know things seem bleak now, but one day you will possess the land. Not only that, but the land will effortlessly produce crop. And, not only that, but it will be as if you were still harvesting up to the point of sowing. There will be so much that you won’t know what to do with it! It will be a time of bounty, rest, peace, and pleasure.”
As Jesus’ sheep, we’re called to live the full life. This doesn’t mean we’ll be happy all the time or that we won’t face hardship. But it does mean we can daily find ultimate and true satisfaction in Jesus instead of focusing on the meaningless, unsatisfying, and superficial pursuits of our culture.
Counselor Steve Merritt describes the pain—and miracle—that becoming a new creation entails:
My surgeon chatted and laughed with me in the pre-op room, probably trying to ease my apprehension. We’d had many friendly conversations before, because our sons are buddies and played soccer together. But now we were no longer standing on the sidelines. My friend was about to cut a nine-inch incision in my hip, leaving a permanent scar.
He cut through layers of muscle, ligament, and tendon before dislocating that largest bone in my body with fierce determination. He sawed off the top of my 56-year-old femur and threw it away. With an orbital sander, he ground the misshapen socket into a perfect orb. Then he pounded a titanium spear deep into my marrow, slid the new hip in place, and gyrated my leg in every direction.
Later, sitting in a hospital bed unable to feel or move my legs, I thought about the biblical metaphor of people as clay and God as the master Potter. I realized I like the idea of that reshaping much better than what I’d actually just experienced. After all, clay being molded doesn’t feel any pain.
My surgeon is good. Every ounce of pain was for my highest benefit. But now I know he isn’t safe.
Jesus is good, but we must remember: He’s more committed to changing us into his likeness and accomplishing his will than to making our lives work the way we want. We often go to God hoping he’ll make things play out how we think they should, not so he’ll chisel our misshapen souls into something resembling Jesus’ character.
No wonder Jesus asks repeatedly in Scripture, “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s like he’s asking: “Do you want me to reform your misshapen soul?” or “Do you want your life turned upside down?”
Ponder those questions carefully, because once you answer in the affirmative, your life and heart will be changed—but not always in the way you would’ve guessed. Jesus certainly isn’t safe, but he’s always good.
My surgeon is still my friend; in fact, I now trust him more than I’d ever dreamed. Rebirth is seldom painless, but being remade is truly a miracle.
You don’t have to be Peter Pan to know that growing up is hard to do. Kids must navigate their way through a cultural hurricane. And along the way, the church hasn’t planted many beacons in the water to help them steer their way to shore.
We label the time trap between the onset of sexual maturity and the beginning of economic and social independence as adolescence. But often teenagers don’t know when they’ve entered it, and they’re hard-pressed to find their way out. They’re caught…stuck in a confusing, barren limbo with no real compass.
Author Ronald Koteskey writes, “Two thousand years ago under Roman law, women could marry at 12 and men at 14. A thousand years ago under English law it was the same. And 200 years ago under common law in the United States it was still the same-women could marry at 12 and men at 14. For 3,000 years, the minimum legal age for marriage did not change…
“Then, just as the age of puberty was decreasing, laws increasing the minimum legal age for marriage were passed in the United States and Europe…Although they were adults and had been treated as adults for thousands of years, teenagers were redefined as “children.”…This was the creation of adolescence.”
Rites of Passage
Most non-Western cultures direct young people through rites of passage that point them into adulthood. At the Jewish bar mitzvah service, 13-year-old boys are “recognized as adult Jews.” And through the kisungu rite, Basanga girls of Zaire are initiated into the adult world through the symbolic death of their childhood.
But in Western society, we generally ignore rites of passage. In fact, just when teenagers need adult influence and stability the most, our culture leaves them empty handed, with cries of “I just don’t understand you!” echoing in their ears.
Young people desperately need adults with enough love and courage to believe in their future. To take them by the hand and lead them into faith maturity and adulthood. But before we can direct teenagers through faith passages that endure as they grow older, we must know what we intend. Rites of passage must include:
- Separation—Taking teenagers away from the familiar and separating them from the props (music, friends, family, television, and so on) that define them. This could mean a retreat, a trip, or an unusual environment for an activity.
- Transition—Crafting activities, even liturgies, that place kids in limbo between their old faith status and their new one. They’re not really “in” one or the other yet. Expect kids to feel uncomfortable in this phase. Teenagers have a strong internal need to leave childhood behind and move into adulthood. But if the church doesn’t provide them opportunities to do this, they’ll find other, often more destructive, rites of passage (for example, gang initiation, drugs and drinking, sex, and so on).
- Rebirth—Returning teenagers, through ritual, into the church or society, but now as more mature believers-adult Christians. Confirmation rituals that involve the church body are good examples of the “rebirth” phase.
Effective faith passages are embraced and honored by everyone in the church, including older teenagers who’ve moved through them already. A legitimate rite of passage will spur younger kids to eagerly look forward to “their” day and older church members to treat “new initiates” more like peers than children.
Parents play a key role in all this, but not through active participation. For young people to move into faith maturity and adulthood, they must move away from their parents (with the hope that they’ll move back into relationship with their parents as adults, not children). This means that adult volunteers and mentors will play a key role in your group members’ faith passages.
So when you set about crafting faith passages for your young people, remember to:
- Target teenagers who are nearing sexual maturity. This may mean including guys who are older than participating girls.
- Involve parents peripherally, not as principal players. A rite of separation should include a significant separation from parents. Years of experience proves that senior highers who move through a rite of passage without their parents have a more powerful long-term experience than those who do it with their parents. Parents can support their kids best by giving them freedom to grow.
- Involve as much of the worshipping community as possible. You need caring, committed adults to help your young people navigate through the separation phase and into the rebirth phase.
- Prepare the church body to support each faith passage. Make sure adults in the church are eagerly anticipating each rite, then celebrating with those who’ve completed the rite.
The more the church embraces and supports faith passages in kids’ lives, the more kids themselves will feel embraced and supported by the church. They’ll have something solid and memorable to point to when the hurricane of life gets fierce. And it will get fierce for them. We can’t save them from that. But we can help them weather the storm.
One way we’re made new in Christ is through holy baptism. The water symbolizes a passage from death to life, from sinful to forgiven. Lead young people through this meaningful exercise to remind them they’re a new creation through baptism. Have them close their eyes and use their imagination as you speak:
Imagine you’re standing in the middle of the Jordan River with John the Baptist by your side. You’ve asked to be washed clean of your sin. He smiles and then knocks you back into the water. It takes you by surprise and you gasp, but then you feel a hand behind your head and another hand pulling you up. You’re dripping with water—the chill of it against your skin was shocking, but now you’re beginning to sense the warmth of the sun above. Suddenly you hear something like thunder. You tilt your head to listen. It’s a voice. It says: “This is my beloved child. I knew him before birth, and I claim her as mine. I love him. She is the apple of my eye. I have gladly laid down my life for him, and I’d do it again. In her I am well pleased. I believe in him. She’s made for great things. She’s a magnificent creation.”
If we hope to build a foundation for future Christian growth in young people, we ourselves must find a place to stand. I believe these four building blocks are crucial:
- Confirmation must mirror real life through active and interactive experiences. Deuteronomy 6:1-9 is an important blueprint for building spiritual maturity in kids. It reminds us that faith is taught (really, caught) when it infiltrates every aspect of human life. Young people will grow into their relationship with Jesus through daily life experiences (“walking on the road”), family and community leisure time (“lying down”), work tasks (“rising up”) and fellowshipping (“talking when sitting”). The paradigm for confirmation must embrace each of these imperatives.
The content of the gospel is inseparable from the experience of the gospel. The “facts” (church history, theological legacy, ethics, Bible content, and so on) will emerge naturally as kids experience truth in common experiences. Proactive adult leaders will place that truth in the wider context of the gospel.
- Confirmation must be multigenerational. After Jesus’ birth, an elderly Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-40) were the first to publicly confirm to Mary and Joseph that their baby was the Lord’s Christ. God clearly intended that one generation would bless another, and vice versa. For kids to grow into balanced Christians, they need loving contact with adults from both their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. (For more on this wholistic approach to youth ministry, check out The Family Friendly Church, by Ben Freudenburg and Rick Lawrence).
- Confirmation must include activities and structures that are metaphors for the Christian life. George is now in seminary, but he once attended a youth camp I led. Recently he called to talk about his experiences at that camp: “I remember there were several hundred of us from different states in the Northwest. None of us knew each other. You randomly formed us into ‘tribes.’ You told us we were in the Garden of Eden and could use no known language. You gave us three hours to get to know one another and build an identity for our tribe. That experience changed my life. That was the weekend I felt God’s call to the ministry. Just thought you’d want to know.”
Jesus gives us metaphors (“a banquet”), similes (“like a mustard seed”), and parables (“there was a certain man”) to help us to discover and grow in his kingdom. He used these techniques to translate God’s truth into a “language” the people could understand (sometimes). Confirmation and discipleship must be shaped by small groups that are based on spiritual metaphors.
- Confirmation must draw kids into covenant commitments that are burned into their memories. Joshua gathered the tribes at Shechem and made a covenant with God: “…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). He placed a stone at the place of the covenant as “a witness against us.” Joshua, his family, and all the tribes made a commitment that day that was hard to forget. So also we must expect teenagers moving through confirmation or discipleship training to make significant commitments. The kind of covenant commitment kids long to make is the kind that says, “I’m in this with you.”
A Confirmation Faith Passage
Following a confirmation class, our junior highers celebrate with a combination pizza party and closing service. The next Sunday we present them to the church body during morning worship. This is a brief sketch of the closing service:
- Invite parents to participate in the pizza party/closing service. When your kids finish ravaging the pizza, have them form a small circle in the center of the room facing out. Have the parents form a larger outer circle facing in. Parents should be facing their own kids.
- Young people in unison: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. Now that I’m maturing into an adult, I am putting childish ways behind me.” (Adapted from 1 Corinthians 13:11.)
- Have the kids now move into the adult circle with their parents.
- Parents in unison: “We admit it! We’ve thought of you as children instead of ‘adults in the making.’ We celebrate your growth and maturity and the responsible decisions you’ve made. We commit you to the Lord of life and to the wise choices you’ve made to follow him. We know that ‘there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to keep and a time to let go.’ (Adapted from Ecclesiastes 3:1-6.)
“You have changed. You have matured. You will never be the same in our eyes again. In a wonderful way we are beginning to see you, not as children, but as our peers. And we are extremely happy.”
- Have the young people move out to form a wider, looser circle around their parents. Have the parents turn out to see their kids, and have kids look in to see their parents.
- Youth leader to senior pastor (standing outside both circles): “They know who they are and where they’re going. They’ve made smart choices and responsible decisions. They’ll certainly experience pain as they choose for good in years to come. But even in that, they’re ready. I place them now in the care of the Lord Jesus Christ and this church. What will you say to them? How will you bless them? What gift do you bring them?”
- Senior pastor to everyone: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and on behalf of this church, I willingly accept each of these young people. Today they are swinging between childhood and adulthood, between who their parents are and who they are, between heaven and hell. But I can see wisdom written on their faces and I stand with the angels and call them blessed!
The gift I bring them is assurance that wherever they are in life, whoever they become, whatever questions, doubts, and suspicions they may have, they can always bring them to the church. We are big enough to bless their questions and to honor their honest searching. And we stand with them and among them as people who have brought our lives and our sexuality and our relationships to the Lord. We have not always succeeded, but God has never failed us! And we won’t fail you, either.” (Here the pastor may pray a blessing on each young person by name, laying hands on his or her shoulders or head.)
Significant “non-church” events also mark important steps in our development as adults. What’s the church doing to help teenagers recognize and celebrate their milestones? Not a lot, usually. Here’s a handful of creative activities that tie into four of the biggest milestones in adolescence:
- The 13er Milestone—A parent once told me, “Something happened to my daughter when she turned 13.” There’s no magical age when children cross into adolescence, but turning 13 is special. In many churches, confirmation classes begin at age 12 and culminate at age 13. This is a significant recognition, but there’s more the church could do to make 13th birthdays memorable.
Why not recognize 13ers with a gift that will fuel their faith maturity—consider a Jesus-Centered Bible or subscription to Relevant Magazine? Or you could send an audio birthday card that plays your message when opened. Or bake a giant birthday cookie and have all your group members sign it in icing, then deliver it to the young person’s home.
- Hello High School—High school holds so many promises and challenges for your group members. Why not give them a helping hand by putting together a “High School Survival Kit”? You could include appropriate books, devotional guides, notebooks, and an equal number of gag gifts. Be sure to include your own warped “Top 10” list on ways to get through the high school years. (When they head off to college, consider signing them up for one year of Soul Feed, a fun, nutritious, and faith-growing monthly box that will encourage them as they face new challenges.)
One year we asked our juniors and seniors to sponsor a new freshman in the youth group. Sponsors’ responsibilities included meeting their new student on the first day of high school, pointing the way to classes, eating lunch together, and generally supporting him or her.
- My First Set of Wheels—The driver’s license is a North American rite of passage. A car represents freedom, responsibility, and greater mobility for teenagers. I’ve helped teenagers get a better grip on the ethical responsibilities of driving by sponsoring a Christian Driver’s School—a one-day training event for new drivers. The event can include workshops by law enforcement officials, judges, and driving instructors. We also ask teenagers to pledge to their parents and peers to buckle up, driver sober, and obey speed limits.
- Prom-o-Rama—The junior/senior prom is significant for many teenagers. For some, it’s their first date. For others, it’s an opportunity to deepen a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Others just like to be with their friends. And for still others the prom reinforces lonely feelings.
Several churches in our area have organized a post‑prom event that’s drug and alcohol-free. They play contemporary Christian music and give away prizes at the event. The churches provide bus transportation from the prom site. And all young people may attend, not just those with prom dates. Other churches plan lock‑ins for those who opt not to attend other post‑prom events.