A few years ago, I met a student named Drew. He was brilliant but incredibly lazy and quite possibly a professional skeptic. He had this signature way of sitting at his desk that told a greater story than even his words could. Slumped over, head resting comfortably in his hand, doodling on his paper; there was no one more disinterested in my discussions about Jesus. But Drew wasn’t the only one. In fact, most of my students wanted little to do with learning about Jesus, God, theology, the Bible—you name it; if it had something to do with their faith, they couldn’t have cared less. Needless to say, they didn’t have much of an intellectual faith. But put that same group of students in chapel or at a retreat and you would see them hands held high, worshipping with everything they have.
I pressed on. I continued to challenge Drew and his fellow students. Some of the parents caught wind of what I was trying to do. Initially, I was relieved, hoping that if I could gain the support of parents, perhaps I could reach the students a little faster and with greater success. Nope. Parents were losing their minds. For most of them, faith was not something that ought to be driven by intellect but by emotion. They were convinced that challenging students to think about their faith would create unnecessary doubt and frustration. Intellectual engagement was much too risky. “What if God is too difficult to understand and they walk away from their faith?” These parents were following Christ and raising their sons and daughters to be disciples from a place of fear. They thought if their students’ faith would be allowed to enter and influence their secular sphere of life, it might not stand a chance.
Nearly every youth group faces the same challenge—fear that too great a challenge will drive them from Jesus rather than to Him. It comes as no surprise that there is an increasing number of students who lack even a simple understanding of the Bible. We can no longer assume students know who Moses, Abraham, Peter, and Paul are. The more post-Christian we become, the more we can’t assume students can locate Bible books, chapters, and verses. Verse memorization is a thing of the past; the character of God, forgotten; critical thinking about matters of faith, ignored. It won’t be long before youth ministry is working to reach students who have grown up in a home having never stepped into a church with very little or even no knowledge of Jesus. The solution has largely become the perpetual feeding of spiritual milk to our students. Teaching to the lowest common denominator comes with less risk—or so we have allowed ourselves to believe.
Finding an Intelligent Faith
How can we expect students to enter a post-Christian culture without a full and mature knowledge of Jesus? How will they make mature decisions without a Christ-like mind?
I’m all for emotionally charged worship and that overwhelming feeling of the Spirit of God moving through a room; the kind that gives you goose bumps, tears in your eyes, and the undeniable need to create spiritual movement. I love being at youth conferences and witnessing firsthand Spirit-filled worship, students coming to the front to give their lives to Jesus, and tears of joy flooding a room. Worship has a way of capturing our imagination and transporting us to the throne room of God. It’s a sight that I never get tired of. But what informs that emotion? What informs the love that our students so boldly proclaim? It’s their mind and the depth of their knowledge of God. It’s easy to forget in our emotionally driven culture that there is an intellectual core to our Christian faith. It’s impossible to love God without a desire to understand more about Him. Remember that the greatest command is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37, author’s emphasis).
Think about the movies your students watch, the music they listen to, their searches on the Internet, conduct at school, or even their perception of events around the world. Do they filter those things through a Christian worldview? Or do they allow them to shape their worldview? Now, think about how you approach these with your students.
As leaders of youth, we have an important decision to make. Either we ignore the cultural influences surrounding our youth and hope the emotional highs and Sunday school lessons are enough, or we stand with our students and guide them through events, music, movies, politics, and social pressures so they can meet these challenges head-on with a Christian worldview, thereby actually strengthening their faith for the continued journey ahead. The reality is our students need more than just an intelligent faith; they need a mature faith. Our students are up against secularism, skepticism, and alternative forms of spirituality, and they lack the context for how to infiltrate and transform their world with the gospel.
Adding An Emotional Faith
I didn’t give up on Drew, the class, or their parents. I’m pretty stubborn, so I dug my heels in deeper. I was convinced if I could just reach my goal, drag them through the rest of the year, they would see what I was at least trying to do. A year went by; they were still quite skeptical. Two years passed; they loosened their grip a little bit. By year three, my efforts to infuse a more intellectual faith into their already vibrant, emotionally-driven experience of Jesus began to pay off. They were getting it because they were witnessing the benefits and exponential growth in their students. The fear of what might happen to their students’ faith was overshadowed by the anticipation of what could happen through their students’ faith.
A strong intellectual faith, coupled with parents’ and students’ desire for emotional moments, became the beginning of a formula that I soon required anywhere I taught. I had four specific goals I was after to make my students more mature Christians who think “Christianly”:
- Create a greater excitement for God and a deeper appreciation for their salvation.
- Help students successfully deal with doubt and questions.
- Make worship more intense and emotional.
- Prepare students to be able to not only engage culture but transform it.
There are many ways to make this happen. But I have three that can work at dinner, in youth group, or with a small group meeting.
Learn from Experiences
The first practice after a Friday night football game was Saturday morning practice. The goal wasn’t to run, or hit, or go over plays. The day after practice was designed for two specific things: to lick our wounds and watch game film. We needed to rest, but more than that, we needed to see as soon as possible what we did right and what we did wrong. We learn by doing, making mistakes, and correcting those mistakes—our brains are wired that way. So when you think of experiences to grow your students into mature thinking Christians, they need the space to try, to succeed, to fail, to review how it unfolded, and learn from the experience.
There is genuine excitement that comes from wrestling with God. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from a faith driven by an intense desire to understand Him. Such depth comes only from the discipline of theological study. But I can almost hear what you’re thinking. You don’t need to be a professional theologian to be a disciple. You don’t need a seminary degree or to read old, dusty books on exegetical fallacies or multi-volume commentaries—although the theology nerd in me would suggest that you do. Certainly, we cannot expect our students to dive that deep—although some will. Can they really handle such complex ideas? Yes, and they want to, because we are all theologians—because we all think about God and live accordingly. No matter what level our students enter the journey, it begins when they desire to seek a deeper understanding of who God is and what it means to put their trust in Jesus. What we think about Jesus informs how we feel about Him and how we live out that belief.
About ten years ago, we sounded the alarm because the Millennial generation was leaving the church in droves with no sign of return. The church tried being more relevant, created big events and the superstar youth pastor. Maybe better music would work, we thought. Or perhaps better games, and exchanging exegetical sermons for motivational speeches would do the trick. Over the last decade, none of these things has made a positive impact on discipling our students. Instead, what we discovered was that in our efforts to create specific spaces for teens—to accomplish these new-fangled goals—we siloed our youth off from the rest of the church. But what does youth leaving the church have to do with creativity?
God has gifted each of us—students included—with the ability to create. The church ought to be a place where that creativity is birthed and nurtured. But that can’t happen for students who have no place in the wide sphere of the church community because they have been separated since birth.
While it certainly is not a guaranteed fix or some kind of secret formula to highly effective disciples, helping students think in Christian categories helps them to create a framework of how both sides of their brain can work in concert to best represent God and His kingdom. It helps join together creativity and logic and puts it into action. In our final chapter, we will dissect specifically how our students’ creativity can make an immediate impact in the church as well as how they interact with the world in the years to come.