Moving Beyond Behavior Modification

This post was featured at youthmin.org.behavior modification

While I am sure that most of us want our students to become followers of Christ and to put their unique gifts and talents to work in the expansion of His Kingdom, what we end up valuing and celebrating falls pathetically far from this aspiration. We’ve encouraged behavior modification.

By the time our students are firmly in mid-adolescence we have communicated a very clear, a very boring, and a very hypocritical version of Christianity. You may already disagree with me because I have no idea how much passion and hard work you have put into your gospel centered messages, your exegetical sermons, and 5 point leadership development program.

But the awful thing that I have found to be true is that students could care less with what we say. In fact we truly are the adults in the Peanuts cartoons. It is our lives and actions, our decisions and interactions that communicate what sort of Christianity we are peddling. So good theology and passion aside, I would like to gently push back and invite you and me to examine our actions and wrestle with the heretical version of the gospel we unintentionally sell to our students.

Answer the following questions, and then ask why you answered the way you did.

Who are your leaders? Who are the most celebrated students? Who are your favorite kids? Who’s stories get celebrated?

If your answers are anything like mine, then you would probably say the kids who are actually pursuing Christ, who are putting their faith into practice, who are leaders and tone setters, and the beautiful kids who are making good choices.

Don’t get me wrong, these kids need to be celebrated. Students who are making good choices, who actually know scripture and just happen have good singing voices do deserve some upfront time. But the scary thing is that our take on these amazing leader kids are simply our take. We really have little to no idea who they are at home, at school or at work. And the worst part is that their peers do.

We unintentionally celebrate a dualistic life.

We don’t really consider who they really are as long as they play ball by our terms with our ethics and our language while they are on our turf. Others realize that if they want to gain access to us and esteem from us, they too must play ball and modify their language and behavior while they are in our presence.

If we think back over the years we can see how much damage we have caused on this generation by allowing students to shmooze us and impress us while they are with us. We have allowed them to live quite comfortably in two worlds, and when they head off to college and no long care about our approval they simply die to the behavior modified side of their dualistic life and live most fully into their true and worldly selves.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

But it will take some work and self control if we are going to change the gospel we communicate through our actions. What we need to focus on and celebrate is the root system of our students faith and not the fruit.

This means that our teaching and discipleship is 100% focused on who they are in real life and wrestling through who they are becoming, not the church face the put on for us. We can not believe their lies or their lack of telling us the truth. We must assume that our kids are totally immersed in the world and worldly values. When this is our starting point then we can begin to reclaim their hearts for Jesus.

Just because a kids doesn’t drink or sleep around says absolutely nothing about their heart’s condition. I have known plenty of kids who just happen to be honest about their sexual sins or their partying mayhem who have roots who are slowly and surely being transformed into the image of Christ, as well as Awana Champions, worship leaders, and modestly dressed kids who’s roots could not be more diseased and corroded.

The recipe for healthy roots:

In order to move past behavior modification we must kill our celebration of fruit. Fruit in student ministry is fickle and short lived. It is their roots that need to be healed and transformed. And it is the matters of the heart, that get worked out in their values that ultimately transform their behavior. We no longer shame poor choices, reward inauthentic “right” answers. Rather, we celebrate authenticity, humility, mercy, inclusion, hospitality, care for the least of these. When we celebrate values and not behaviors actually create an environment where the Christianity we preach with our mouths can be proven true by the Christianity preached with our actions.

QUESTIONS: What are some ways that you can celebrate good root health instead of correct behaviors within your ministry? Is there a way to pursue holiness and celebrate holiness without giving more fuel for the dualistic life worldview? I don't really know, I just know we must wrestle with these questions.