I think baseball is an amazing sport. On the surface, it is a simple game, hitting and fielding. But the more you dive into the game, the more you see the deep strategy, pitch selection, and the never ending statistics. Since my dream of becoming a professional baseball player didn’t pan out, I am now putting that pressure on my son. So, this last spring we signed him up for his first season of T-ball. It is quite an entertaining sight to watch a group of 5 year olds learning the game of baseball. The first season of T-ball is just that, learning the very basics. By the end of the season, this kids mostly know their positions, the direction to run around the bases, how to hit a ball off a T, and that is about it. But the foundation has been laid and a trajectory set for these kids to become legitimate baseball players and for my son to fulfill my dream of playing in the Bigs! But, even more than my son playing professional baseball, my dream for him is to be a godly man who loves Jesus. And as he loves Jesus, to live a life that reflects that love in his personal life. As his personal life reflects his love for Jesus to live “within the culture as a missionary who is as faithful to the Father an his gospel as Jesus was in his own time and place.”
My dream is that my son would mature in his faith and live a life that is missional.
Missional living is truly advanced Christianity. It is advanced because it assumes the foundations of the faith are firmly established. It assumes that we have our identity firmly set in Christ. It assumes a biblical world view, which means that we have a base understanding of scripture. It assumes that our lives reflect the hope and transformation that happens when we grow in Christ. With this foundation of faith firmly set, we can then differentiate ourselves from our culture, we can think abstractly and wrestle with issues of contextualization so we can be faithful to the gospel message in our time and place, just like Jesus was in his time and place. With this abstract thinking we are ready to take our personal faith and our cultural understanding and live as missionaries to our context where we can communicate the good news of Jesus with both our words and deeds.
This advanced form of Christianity is a needed direction for the Church to go. I have been so encouraged by the books and blogs that I have read, the conversations I have had with my colleagues, and even by the conversations among our church’s leadership. Living a missional life, getting outside ourselves and the walls of the church, is exactly what we need to be doing to reach our communities for Christ. While I agree with that this is the trajectory of the church, and the needed direction for our churches, the issue is how much of this our students can digest.
Everyone from Chap Clark to Time Magazine has been saying with a unified voice that adolescents is taking decades longer then the generations that preceded them. What is taking so long is the ability to answer three significant questions regarding their identity. In the book Starting Right, the author says that these key questions are; Who am I? Do I matter? How do I relate to others?
At the very same time that it is taking longer and longer for students to mature, many youth workers are wrestling with how to give this advanced form of Christianity to people who can’t even answer with any certainty question one about who they are, let alone even begin to answer the final question about how they relate to others. While the church needs to have these conversations, it is vital that those of us who work with students don’t put our spiritual journey onto our students. What we are learning and they ways we are working out our faith has to be different than that of the 15 year old boy in our student ministry.
In the student ministry world “milk” has gotten a bad rap. It is true that in Hebrews the author lays into the congregation for still drinking milk. But for real babies, that is what they need to drink. The rub comes when they should be eating solid food and are still drinking milk. I think high school, and certainly middle school students, are not at all ready for steak. This isn’t a put down. If we are honest and take a look at our average student in our ministry we would also agree that our students are not ready for this advanced form of Christianity. They have no idea who they are, or if they matter, or even how to relate to others because of their identity.
Our students are fragmented in their thinking and in their living. At church and with their church friends they live one way, and at school with their school friends they live another. And for some of our students who are blessed to have overlap with these worlds, it appears that they are ready for more, but really they just have a great community while they continue to work out their identity. Working out their identity is the key. And their identity has to be differentiated from their parents’ identity, their peers’ identity, and even their youth group’s identity. This means that who they are and the faith they have and are going to live out is all formed and worked out during this middle season of adolescents.
This brings us back to the original point that students, mid-adolescents, are not ready to live missionaly. They need to work out the fundamentals of their identity and faith by differentiating it from others. It is only after this is done that they are ready to engage their culture in any sort of meaningfully missional way.
My son’s T-ball season is more similar to student ministry then I thought. You see, T-ball is teaching the fundamentals, it is painting the picture of what real baseball will be like. His coaches don’t just give them the age appropriate version of baseball mechanics, they give them age appropriate version of baseball. And this is the delicate balance we need to give our students. We don’t make them have a faith they aren’t ready for, and we don’t baby them with giving them a faith for just where they are at. We give them an age appropriate faith that points to what a mature faith should look like.
Here are a couple of thoughts as we move forward to allowing space for our students to be where they are developmentally, while painting a picture of what healthy mature faith looks like:
We model steak eating Christianity in our own lives. This means that, as adult leaders, we live lives of purpose. Lives where we have a personal and social righteousness, lives where we love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God. And these lives are lived out missionaly, firmly planted in our cultural context.
We communicate a Christianity that is missional in our words and deeds. This means that even though our students aren’t developmentally ready to do this, we help them develop the habits of missional living. Just like my son practicing running bases and throwing the ball to first base doesn’t fully matter in T-ball, but it is vital in baseball. In the same way we do these fundamentals with our students. We take them on mission trips, we do acts of service and compassion, and we partner with organizations who work for justice.
We do this in an age appropriate manner. And for this age, 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 are just doing the motions without a clear identity, they will struggle with how their faith is any different than the Lions Club or Rotary or Habitat for Humanity. We live missionaly because we have been redeemed and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ, and this is the hope that is the foundation for any sort of missional living.
Let us not put our developmental issues on our students. 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 be missinal. May 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 missionaries in their context.
This article was featured on shrinkthechurch.com.