Calling Teenagers to a Developmentally Appropriate Faith

teenagers2[averageym Note: Andy Blanks is becoming a good friend, and in fact a good enough friend that we found ourselves disagreeing on some ministry philosophy.  I love when we be come good enough friends and that there is already a foundation of humility and grace that we can actually wrestle through issues, sharpen each other, and learn from one another.  Thanks for inviting further conversation.  The post below was featured yesterday on the youthministry360.com blog.] [ym360 Note: This thoughtful and thought provoking post is born out of a discussion Ben and I had based on a post I wrote entitled, "Stop Telling Students To Invite Their Friends To Church." (You can see Ben's comment at the bottom of the page.) I was reminded once again of the great truth that there's room for different opinions and approaches as we all seek to lead students closer to Christ. I'm deeply thankful for Ben and his devotion to Christ, his family, and his ministry. Even if I don't always agree with him. :) --Andy]

This last spring we signed up my 5-year-old for his first season of T-ball. It’s quite entertaining to watch 5-year-olds learning the game of baseball. By the end of the season, the goal is that these kids will (almost) know their positions, the direction to run around the bases, how to hit a ball off a T, and, well, that’s about it. But the foundation has been laid.

While I’d love for my son to live out my his dream of playing in the big leagues one day, my ultimate dream is for him to be a godly man who loves Jesus, and who lives a life that reflects that love. My dream is that he would live “within the culture as a missionary who is as faithful to the Father and his gospel as Jesus was in his own time and place.” In essence, my dream is that my son would live a life that is missional.

I’ll come back to this baseball analogy. But first, I want to talk about this concept of missional living as it relates to the students in our ministries.

I believe missional living is advanced Christianity because it assumes the foundations of the faith are firmly established within an individual. It assumes we know our identity in Christ. It assumes we have a biblical worldview, among other things. With this foundation of faith set, we can then differentiate ourselves from our culture, wrestling with the task of being faithful to the gospel message in our time and place, just like Jesus was in His time and place. This is missional living. And being effective at it depends on having certain foundations in place.

So how does this relate to youth ministry? While I agree that this missional living is the needed direction for our churches, the issue is how much of this our students are ready to embrace.

Everyone from Chap Clark to Time Magazine is pointing out that adolescence is lasting years longer in the current generation of teenagers and young adults than in preceding generations. The excellent book Starting Right provides one take on why this is the case, namely the ability (or inability) of young people to answer three significant questions regarding their identity: Who am I? Do I matter? How do I relate to others?

How do we as youth workers lead students in embracing this advanced form of Christianity when they can’t even answer with much certainty who they are, let alone even begin to answer the final question about how they relate to others? We need to be engaging students with these conversations, helping them work through them. But in doing so, it’s vital that those of us who work with students don’t project a spiritual journey that is developmentally too far ahead of them.

In other words, what we’re teaching students has to be different than what we’re learning.Our current “location” on the path of spiritual growth is (hopefully) different than that of the 15-year-old boy in our student ministry.

In Hebrews the author lays into the congregation for still drinking milk. But this admonition was about expectations. The expectation was that the Hebrews were no longer babies in their faith. Yet many of our students really are spiritual babies, and rightfully so. “Milk” is the expected drink for babies, right? The rub only comes when they should be eating solid food and are still drinking milk.

In my experience, high school and certainly middle school students aren’t at all ready for the "steak" of missional living. This isn’t a put down. If we’re honest about the average students in our ministry, isn’t there a healthy number who aren’t ready for this advanced form of Christianity? They have little idea who they are, whether or not their lives matter, or how to relate to others because of their identity. They’re still working out the fundamentals of their identity and faith. It’s only after this is done that they’re ready to engage their culture in any sort of meaningfully missional way.

And so my son’s T-ball season is more similar to student ministry then I thought. T-ball teaches fundamentals. It paints the picture of what real baseball is like. My son’s coaches don’t just give them the age appropriate version of baseball mechanics; they give them the age appropriate version of baseball. The difference is significant.

This is the delicate balance we need to strike in leading our students. We don’t force-feed them a faith they aren’t ready for. And we don’t baby them by painting a picture of a faith for “just where they are.” We give them an age appropriate faith that points to what a mature faith should look like.

In seeking to lead our students in a developmentally appropriate spiritual growth, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:

We should model a “steak-eating” Christianity This means that, as adult leaders, we live lives of purpose. We model spiritual habits and practices that are foundational to spiritual growth. We live lives where we seek holiness in our personal and public lives, where we love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God . . . Missional lives firmly planted in our cultural context.

We communicate the basics of missional living in our words and deeds My son’s proficiency at running the bases and throwing the ball to first base doesn’t really matter in T-ball. But it’s vital in baseball. In the same way we demonstrate missional fundamentals to our students. We take them on mission trips, we do acts of service and compassion, and we partner with organizations who work for justice. Even though our students aren’t developmentally ready to embrace missional living, we help them develop the foundational habits of missional living.

We model missional living in an age-appropriate manner Because we work with teenagers, our focus should be on identity formation, not identity application. We have to help students figure out who they are and how they matter before we put them to work. If they’re just doing the motions without a clear identity, they’ll struggle with how their faith is any different than the Lions Club or Rotary or Habitat for Humanity. We live missionaly because we’ve been redeemed and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. This is the hope that is the foundation for any sort of missional living.

We need to be missional, we need to push our churches to be missional, but our students need to understand who they are and who they are in Christ before we push them to missional living.

What about you? How do you approach challenging and leading your students to live out their faith in their unique contexts (both cultural and developmental)?

My prayer for all of us is that Jesus, who is so faithful and uses all our feeble attempts, continue to woo, redeem, and transform our students so that He may use them to be missionaries in their context.