If your students are anything like mine, then they are all over the spiritual map. I have kids who love Jesus, kids who want to know more about Jesus, and kids who could care less. I also have kids who are apathetic spiritually, but they love our community. And they are the engaged kids who will play ball. I also have kids who are forced to be there by their parents. These kids are totally opposed to all things Christian, and kids who simply want to find a way to make out with their crush.
Within this broad spectrum of our student ministry, two questions arise: “How do we speak in a way that challenges our students to grow spiritually? How do we speak in a way that doesn’t alienate the other students on the opposite end of the spectrum without watering down the message?
Great Question! The answer might be easier than you imagined.
It can not be about behavior modification:
For many of us, we unintentionally mistake behavior management for spiritual formation. If a student displays the following behaviors; if they don’t drink, don’t have sex, come to youth group, and even have a devotional once in a while, then we would say they are growing spiritually. If they memorize scripture, and bring kids to youth group, then they are killing it.
While all these habits are good, I would argue that these versions point to behavior modification. Let’s say that these benchmarks an A on our youth group report card. I am then forced to either find additional work for the A students, such as volunteering for missions, justice, compassion ministries with some added Bible memorization. But if I focus on these students, then the D and C students will get left behind. And the F students don’t have a chance.
If I “dumb down” my curriculum and expectations and cater to the C students, then the A students get bored, and the F students still don’t have a chance. But like all bell curves, I will at least have a larger ministry. :)
We need a new paradigm:
In a behavior modification paradigm, we are challenged with how to care for the entire spectrum. But in a spiritual formation paradigm, students need to reflect on their inner life and discover next steps to move towards Christ.
A spiritual formation paradigm is also about helping students own their faith. When they do, their behaviors will come from their own convictions, rather than the expressed and acceptable behaviors of the group.
For our group, we accomplish this by keeping these three questions before us as often as possible. Every small group, every Bible study, every way we communicate with our students, we compel them to consider variations on these three questions:
How can I be reflective? Based on what I just read or heard, what does Jesus have to say to me about that? What did Jesus rise to the surface in my life? What is Jesus asking me to do, who is Jesus inviting me to be? It doesn’t matter how strong you are spiritually, this question allows space for everyone on the journey and invites everyone to move forward.
How can I be a blessing? Based on what I just read or heard, how can I put this into practice where it will bless others? We don’t grow in knowledge in order to hold that over people’s heads. Rather we bless others at every turn. Everyone from our strongest Christians to our most apathetic students can be challenged on this.
Who will go with me? The Christian life is one that is done in community. So this question compels students to include others in their faith development. The more we can encourage our students to see their spiritual development dependant on being connected to others, the better chance we have for them to have faith for the long haul. And like the other two questions, this question can be a challenge for any student, anywhere on the spiritual spectrum.
Our student ministries are diverse and complex. And because of this, we must make some significant paradigm shifts. We don't have to dumb down our curriculum or give up on our convictions. We don't have to leave some students behind in order to run with the A students. Rather, let us create a paradigm where we invite our students into spiritual formation and trust the Holy Spirit to transform their hearts and even their behavior.