Today’s guest post is written John Song of Columbia, MD who serves as the Pastor of Youth Ministries at Columbia Presbyterian Church, where he also leads and coordinates worship services. He has served for over 16 years as a youth volunteer, intern, and pastor in a variety of different contexts. A former teacher, John is passionate about education and the local community to see how the Gospel changes everything.
Remember your first day of middle school? No longer were you expected to stand in organized lines and walk hallways throwing a peace sign in the air; suddenly you were given the freedom to roam the halls alone, expected to handle the responsibilities of memorizing your locker numbers and where your next classroom was located. Mistakes were expected as you navigated how to find your next classroom, how not to overload your backpack with heavy math textbooks, and learning how to read a school map.
And just when you got a handle on things, suddenly you were thrown into high school. For the first time, classes were chosen by you, a flood of extracurricular activities entered into your life, and test scores began to define the trajectory of your future. Again, mistakes were expected as you navigated through the expanding of your personal freedoms of learning how to drive, choose a career path, and diving into the scary world of (possibly) dating.
Throughout all this time, counselors, family members, career planners, coaches, and mentors were all placed for your success to make sure that you were pulled across the finish line; so that your mistakes could turn into life lessons. Mistakes happen, but for those of us blessed to work in the field of mentoring youth, mistakes are an opportunity to understand who we really are and grow.
As a volunteer, intern, and full time youth pastor for 16 years, these are the four most common mistakes I see in the youth students that I serve. I’ve grown to expect them from our students, just like the growing pains that students face on their first day of middle and high school. But it’s not enough to expect mistakes, which is why I’ve also included some remedies that hopefully can be beneficial to you and your students in helping them to see who they really are in Christ and grow in Him.
Mistaking A Genuine Relationship With God with the Act of Spiritual Discipline
Want to see how a student views their relationship with God? Ask “How’s your relationship with Christ?” It’s a great diagnostic to see how students understand what Jesus Christ means to them. For the first time, youth students are asked to self assess the status of their walk with Christ, and for most of them, it’s usually in the form of believing that spiritual activity = genuine relationship. “Oh, I read my Bible every day and pray three times a week, I’m involved in the service of the church, and I go to Sunday school. My relationship with the Lord is great!”
This is an unhealthy conflation, and let me explain why. Put in the context of any other human relationship, we would never equate the strength of our relationships with them simply by the activities we participate in. “How’s your relationship with Geoff going these days?” “Well, I talked to him three times this week and I retweeted his post about food, so I guess it’s pretty strong!” We would never say things like this, so why allow youth to get away with this when talking about Jesus?
Think about how we would really answer the question. “Geoff? He’s an amazing guy. I love his heart for people and he’s just a joy to be around. I can’t wait to spend time with him again.” We would speak about matters of affection, love, gratitude, memories, blessings, and even trials and hope, not mere activity. True relationships are true not because there is a scoreboard of points to be earned, but because a desire for a real relationship exists.
How do we change this mindset? Scripture provides for us an answer. Jesus sets up the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18:18-22 by asking him whether he’s kept the second half of the Ten Commandments rather than the first; he knows that the Young Ruler has replaced a real relationship with God with mere duty. Jesus challenges him to surrender a transactional view of relationship for a sacrificial one by telling him to give up everything to follow Him. Likewise, when I see a youth student talking about mere spiritual activity, I try and lead the discussion to other areas. “Who is Jesus Christ to you?” “What goes through your mind when I tell you that Christ loves you unconditionally?” This usually leads the conversation in new, exciting ways that helps frame what we mean when we ask, “How is your relationship with Christ?”
Now I am not suggesting spiritual disciplines don’t play any sort of role in relationship with Christ (indeed, Youth Ministry can be a great time to teach them how to read and study the Scriptures), but rather that spiritual disciplines are an outpouring of true relationship, not a prerequisite. If they learn that distinction now, it will set them up to see Christ as a person to love, not a spiritual being to appease.
Mistaking Doubt with Unbelief
Closely tied with number #1, teens assume that any sense of doubt in their faith is a sure sign that they aren’t a real believer. Students for the first time are asking hard questions that the church often doesn’t give great answers to. “Why would a loving God allow people to suffer?” or, “How do we know that the Bible is trustworthy?”
This unfortunately leads a student to think that unresolved questions, or any shred of doubt, must be a sign of unbelief. But what’s even more dangerous is often how we treat the kids when revelations of doubt begin. Adults who are assessing this kind of behavior in Sunday School or in Youth Group give a “heart in the right place” comment in recommending a student to NOT profess faith in Christ if there is any doubt, which leads a youth to question whether or not they could even reach such a place of absolute certainty.
I understand that we do not wish to give our students a sense that they belong to Christ’s family if they truly don’t believe, but we must be careful to address doubt in the same manner that Scripture does. Abraham (Genesis 17:17), Moses (Exodus 3:11), the Psalms (Psalm 13), the disciples (Matthew 28:16-17), and generations of believers all have had healthy doubts that did not eradicate saving faith. We cannot set a higher standard of faith than the Word of God does, and we should continue to encourage them that exploring doubts is actually an avenue to grow in one’s faith and maturity.
My church’s confessional document puts it in a great way; “This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it:” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 28, Paragraph 3). Its resting in the truth that we may struggle with life’s challenges that may make us doubt, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t hold onto the object of our faith in Jesus Christ.
How can we help and aide students? By leaning into apologetics with our youth. Pretend you’re an atheist and help them to see and picture the opposition’s argument in a fair and reasoned manner. Share with them your own doubts that you’ve conquered and even those you are still struggling with. It’s important however, that you do not allow the presence of doubt in these formative years to have them believe that doubt is unbelief. Both Scripture and story of true belief throughout Christian history tell us otherwise.
Mistaking Ministry Programming with Discipleship
Youth Ministry is an incredibly well developed machine in American evangelicalism. We are blessed to have a rich amount of resources, games, curriculums, and conferences dedicated to reaching out to the next generation of students and beyond. However, many youth (and parents and churches) assume that the programs and events and activities are the act of discipleship themselves. If left unchecked, this will lead a child’s expectation that true discipleship is a sectioned off hour of the week in a building, compartmentalized in a time, space, and place.
Now again, don’t get me wrong. Large group events are great ministry program tools. They are easily repeatable, predictable, and great on ramps for other members of the church to find practical ways to serve and get involved. However, large group events by nature make it all too easy to be emotionally distant, guarded, and disengaged in the real lives of others around us.
This is the opposite of discipleship and the form of discipleship that we see Jesus model. Discipleship is messy, unpredictable, and often sporadic. And this is the type of discipleship that asks us to be intentional about connecting with young people and asking difficult questions, carrying them through life’s greatest challenges, and often leaving the ninety-nine sheep to shepherd the lost one. Jesus carried his disciple’s burdens, often rebuked them, continually spent days with them teaching them the word, and dealing with their immaturities and mistakes of what the Gospel truly meant. Discipleship must do the same.
Brian Cosby in his book Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture, puts it this way: “The drive to elevate experience over truth within a youth-group worship time has caused youth pastors to spend through the roof on fog machines, circulating lights, and artistic backgrounds. In the end, the show has left the teenager with some teary eyes and perhaps a newfound commitment that he or she will never sin again. But the next morning it’s all over, and they are left wanting something deeper, richer, and more satisfying. The numbers are staggering for those leaving the church after high school, yet youth ministries across the nation continue to pack in more and more pizza parties and video games to keep youth coming back—thinking that somehow their lives will be changed.”
How can we reclaim a biblical view of discipleship? Meet outside of the church building and take a student out to coffee or a meal to open up the Scriptures or to ask how you can pray for them. Check in with them on their social media and be involved in their lives as a mentor and rebuke when necessary. Get other youth volunteers involved and make discipleship a group effort amongst your volunteer leaders. Discipleship requires a life with life connection, and one that leads them to places outside of a weekly programmatic meeting.
Mistaking Growing Knowledge with Gospel Maturity
“I know that story already” or “I know what the Gospel is” is a common phrase that we let our youth get away with too often. Just because a student is able to give a comprehensive view of biblical categories and the who what, when, and where, isn’t a sufficient enough category to assume that the Holy Spirit is working transformation in their hearts.
In children’s ministry often a lot of attention is given to helping our kids grasp the facts and figures of the biblical stories, and with good reason. However, it is not enough to assume that our bible studies and catechisms are sufficient to determine whether or not our child is mature and growing in the faith.
We need to snuff out pride in our youth in what they know, and turn it into a humble reliance on the Christ they know so much about. True understanding of the Scripture leads us to greater reliance on His grace, not in the satisfaction that we have understood the passages correctly.
How? One way is a commitment to a grace-driven, Christ-centered view on Scriptures. In helping our students revisit familiar passages and seeing that the point of the story is Christ, not themselves, reverses the death of the pride of knowledge to a posture of humility. Teach your students to avoid Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and seek after Christ in their knowledge.
I would be remiss if we didn’t have one corrective swing in defense of biblical knowledge: We often underestimate our student’s ability in youth ministry to process and understand deeper doctrines of the faith. Students in middle and high school are expected by the end of their education to have read Shakespeare, understand calculus, and simple biology. We do a disservice to them when we think that deeper spiritual truths are “beyond them” or “unimportant to their spiritual faith.” This is simply not true and pits knowledge against faith in unhelpful ways as well. Yes, make sure your youth know their bibles, but don’t be satisfied until their knowledge leads to heartfelt, true worship.
Mistakes as Corrective Medicine
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, and certainly you could add your own. As adults we can struggle with these same things too. But these four are just as common as forgetting your locker code or learning to bring your homework on your first week of school, and ones that will fall into the life of every teen at one point or another. And I hope that you can see that there are no easy fixes; no pills that could be swallowed to address these problems simplistically. The hard work of ministering to our youth requires us to be like doctors, applying corrective medicine to the soul, sometimes continually and over and over again, to ensure that our younger brothers and sisters in Christ receive the care they need as they move onto maturity and beyond. May all of us learn how to give the right medicine as leaders, mentors and youth workers to be a joyful heart to the students we serve (Proverbs 17:22).