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.

A new rhythm for summer

35336603_6139606fbc_z This week marks the end of our formal student ministry calendar. From here on out we switch gears to our summer rhythm, full of pool parties, bbqs, and exciting trips. For me, a change in season marks an opportunity for reflection, evaluation, and course correction.

I have spent the last few weeks wrestling with what God has for me personally. This is a fun and needed change from being single-minded in my pursuite of student ministry. While I do think I have a good plan for those guys for the summer and upcoming year, I do need to make some important course corrections for near, and possibly the not so near future, in my personal life.

Maybe we should follow our dreams:

The story of Joseph in scripture is a powerful story for me. I believe that God has put a unique dream in each of our hearts, and as we grow and mature in the Lord, God clarifies that dream. Not all of us have dreams of our family bowing down to us, but we do all have glimpses of the full and whole person that we were created to be.

Some of that dream revolves around relationships and family, and some of that dream revolves around calling and vocation. For me, God is clarifying some of the dreams that he has put in my heart years and years ago. Instead of just thinking that they are silly dreams, I am going to actually develop a course of action that puruses this dream with all of who I am.

As I have grown in my relationship with Jesus, his voice is growing clearer and clearer. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to have spiritual direction for a couple years that God has used in a mighty way to clarify his voice. And I am humbled by the community of people around me who walk through the peaks and valleys of life and who help me discern the voice of God and to clarify the dreams that God has given me.

I am switching to summer hours

All of this to say, I am going to spend this summer changing course. I am going to be intentional with what consumes my free time so that I can take a hold of all that God might have in store for me and my family. To acomplish this, I need to put my blog further back on my to do list.

I have loved the challenge of trying to crank out 3 blogs a week that are thoughtful and relevent. I have definately hit more foul tips more than home runs, but it has been an incredible learning experience all the same. For this summer, I will be changing my pace of writing for this blog to once a week or so. From Memorial Day to Labor Day this blog will switch to summer hours. Plus, you as a reader shouldn't waste too much of the summer indoors reading blogs. This is the season for rest and restoration, soaking up the sun, and temping skin cancer with a deepning tan.

By Labor Day I will be jumping back in to the blogosphere, hopefully with a renewed passion and call to the art of student ministry and the opportunity to walk alongside other youth workers as we collectivly love on students and help them love God.

But until then, I pray that God clarifies my dreams, gives me the guts to live into them, and uses my little place in the body of Christ to the fullest extent. And my prayer for you is the same!

Have a great summer! Keep in touch! Don't ever change! Stay sweet! Class of '93 represent!