catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 19 :: 2009.10.02 — 2009.10.15


Embracing teenagers

Technically, youth pastors should not exist.  The youth pastor I worked with this summer in Fresno, California, pointed this out to me.  And he’s right.  Where in the Bible do we see any hint or instruction for a specialized outreach to youth?  Nowhere.  The youth pastor held that parents have developed an unfortunate trend of largely, if not entirely, depending on the church to develop their children’s faith.  He believes, and rightly in my opinion, that more emphasis and focus is needed on teaching parents how to be strong spiritual leaders.  After all, it makes sense that the individuals most influential on kids’ lives are the people they live, vacation and eat with for 18 years or more.  For those people to be the primary source of spiritual development would unarguably be powerful.

To increase parents’ spiritual maturity so that they might successfully nurture their own children’s faith is a worthy goal.  Perhaps the goal is attainable in the near future for some communities.  Yet reality is that the church will always have some teenagers who will need a “spiritual home.”  So the question still begs to be asked, what should the teaching of teenagers look like?  As a maximally involved semi-recent graduate of a youth group myself, having just returned from a summer internship as a youth group leader and as I prepare to embark on a nine-month internship as a youth leader intern in New Jersey, I am eager to explore my thoughts on this issue.

So if Scripture makes no mention about youth groups, what does it say about teens?  It tells stories about them.  About David killing Goliath when he was too young to fit into a full man’s armor.  About Mary, a girl commonly believed to be somewhere around 15 years of age, giving birth to our Savior Jesus.  About the disciples, Jesus’ closest companions during his time in this world and the ones trusted to carry on the gospel’s message after the Resurrection.  Scripture is clear that teens are capable members in the body of Christ.  Do our teens in the church reflect this?  Perhaps some, but I know not all.  By living out this model of Scripture, by expecting maturity, leadership and even authority from our youth, we will be doing our teens justice.  We will begin tapping into resources that have been made dusty from lack of use. 

To succeed in this will require the expectation of maturity from our teens, encouraging them to exercise their spiritual voices and teaching them how to truly walk and live uniquely, even while young. 

I have two suggestions on how to begin maturing teens that stem from my own experience: service and discipleship. As a youth group poster-child — I was the rarest face at drinking parties, one of the most regular at church events and was voted in my high school senior class as ‘Friendliest’ — I never fit in with kids at school.  And yet, I didn’t fit in with the “Clique for Christ” either (the name my brother and I gave to the group of church kids who hung out every Friday and Saturday night).  Perhaps due to my parents’ influence, I was hypersensitive about the fact that the Clique acted like any other group of teens except for the lack of booze, minimal cursing and zero hooking up. Looking back, perhaps those in the Clique for Christ were doing the best they could to live for God.  Sadly, the result was often simply toning down what every other kid on the block was doing.  Perhaps they might have been more radical had they been given more outlets to serve and had individual accountability. 

But wait, there WERE instances when some in the Clique for Christ were revolutionary.  For many of them, the highlight of each year was the one-week mission trip to a far-away place.  Tears were always shed due to a new deep realization of the brokenness of the world and God’s sovereignty.  The lessons were genuine, but I believe the disconnect between that week and the rest of life was largely due to lack of reinforcement.  If the lessons learned are not reinforced in the students’ own immediate communities, aren’t we missing the point?  We seem to be teaching a separation between spiritual life and the rest of life.  Christ is for Sundays, mission work is for one week of the year. I see a need to teach the youth how to live in service.  We can begin teaching by providing an outlet to consistently serve in the immediate neighborhoods of the youth. 

The second way they stood out was in discipleship.  My own eyes were opened to the preciousness of one-on-one discipleship during my first year out of high school.  I now believe that discipleship is one of the best tools to nurture one’s faith maturity.  More often than not, even hormonal teenagers are open to sitting down and talking about themselves with one who asks questions, listens attentively and shows a genuine desire to be their friend.  Case in point: during my first one-on-one with a girl, within half an hour she began telling me things that she never shares with her parents because “they wouldn’t get it.”  Another girl, during our first sit-down at a coffee shop, shared about her parents’ intolerance for organized religion and the struggles she faced in regularly coming to church.  Yet another, after a few meetings, shared the struggles of home, of her parents fighting and how her mom was preoccupied with her sick grandmother.  All of these stories are representative of the stories of teenagers all around us, yet many of them never get told, not even in the church.  Just imagine the difference if each one had a more spiritually mature friend in the church to glean guidance from and with whom to share, build strong relationships, have individual accountability and pray.  Discipleship is so important I would argue it should become the primary goal of youth programs, though I do not mean to discount communal, large group activities. 

Perhaps a generation with such individual attention will be the first that will capably raise their kids in Christ, and not hand over all responsibilities to the church youth program. Consistent opportunities for service and discipleship have changed my life, and taught me how to live more fully for Christ, and how to navigate a little better through the fog that this fallen world creates.  The examples in Scripture reveal the immense capabilities of teenagers.  Though living in a different context, we can remember the involvement of teens in Scripture shows them on par with adults, fully engaged and leading others.  Let us begin to embrace of this unique group of people in our midst.

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