It’s a battle for their allegiance
Teens struggle to be holy against a culture that is overwhelmingly ungodly. Such intensity produces spiritual battle fatigue and can discourage the most faithful student. Here are six essential action steps a youth pastor or leader can take to resource teens in the battle over their faith.
1 Focus talks on God’s sovereignty and grace as the essence of the gospel
Many youth workers think that youth ministry is all about leading teens to Christ. It’s broader than that. It’s about bringing the gospel to bear on all aspects of a student’s life. It’s about training a teen so they develop the life-skill of knowing how to apply the gospel to every situation they face.
In its essence the gospel includes two elements, 1) that the Creator God is sovereign and 2) that Jesus Christ graciously redeems all of life. By faith, we trust in God’s sovereignty and grace. These two elements, when applied to the person of Jesus, provide the broad unifying categories for fully explaining the essence of the gospel found in the person and work of Jesus in both the Old and New Testaments.
A focus on Jesus being the sovereign and gracious Creator God provides youth ministry teachers with the ability to teach all of Scripture from a gospel-oriented and Christ-centered perspective. It also means youth teachers can present various aspects of the gospel with every message they give. The gospel is not limited to a conversion message. Every application of a message doesn’t necessarily require a call to profess initial faith. When properly taught, gospel applications impact every aspect of a teen’s life– from pre-conversions through to mature faith.
2 Teach the difference between righteousness and uprightness
According to Ephesians 2:8-10 salvation and all its aspects are by grace. Paul taught conversion is by grace through faith and also that God’s workmanship in making us like Christ Jesus is something he prepared in advance for us. In other words, becoming more like Christ is a gracious act God does. From the beginning of the Christian’s life salvation is by grace alone and its moral development (sanctification) is also by grace alone. All of redemption is a sovereign act of God. From a teen’s salvation to their sanctification, God is the agent changing them to become more like Christ.
One of the more important life lessons students need to understand is the unity between being righteous in Christ and living an upright life for Christ. Two extreme views of this often paralyze the growth of young Christians. If they think to leave the development of their spiritual lives all up to God or think God requires good deeds in order for them to remain in a forgiven state before God they are sadly mistaken. These two errors will lead to despair. If students are honest with themselves, they know they are not good to earn God’s favor and never will be. Yet, they feel responsible to obey. They know that somehow obedience is related to spiritual transformation. There is a third, a more biblical option, for equipping students in the battle for their faith.
The solution is to help youth distinguish between the righteousness given at conversion that saves and the power that righteousness provides to live an upright life by God’s Spirit. Paul taught that God prepared those good works long before a teen was saved. This implies the ability to morally transform is as divinely sovereign and grace-oriented as is conversion. Paul later wrote to the Colossians, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him” (Col 2:6 NIV). A student is converted by grace through faith and they are transformed by grace through faith. Problems arise when we don’t live in him as we received him: by grace through faith.
Grasping the unity of Christ’s graciously given righteousness at conversion and uprightness empowered by Christ’s righteousness that produces proper behavior is a life-critical truth youth need to comprehend before they enter adulthood. It will take repeated explanations before it fully registers with a teen that Jesus was both sovereign and gracious when they confessed their faith and remains sovereign and gracious in the maturing of their faith.
3 Explain the relationship between redemption (favor with God) and good works (moral behavior)
Sometimes adults confuse the relationship between God’s grace and human effort because they were never clearly taught during their teen years how faith grows. Students don’t need more facts and figures as much as they need categories of thought to organize the information they already have and are learning. The organizing principles most helpful to the growth of a student’s faith are sovereignty and grace. Spiritual sub-categories vary and take years to fully present, but these two concepts are the essential ones for a teen to organize their understanding of how God works.
Youth leaders can provide biblically based categories for students who are accumulating data about life and culture. This is why youth pastor must be trained in systematic and biblical theology. It’s essential for directing youth in developing a godly philosophy. Fundamental theological skills teens need to develop are an understanding that 1) every aspect of salvation is grace oriented, that 2) good works are the fruit or by-products of God working in and through a person’s life, and that 3) biblical categories of thought are necessary to organize the content they learn in mental file that glorifies God.
4 Develop a teen’s life skills for making good choices
Ministry to children progresses as their ability to think abstractly develops. Teens are at the stage of learning how to discern. How will they spend their time? What priorities should they follow? Who should they choose as close friends? What is God saying to them? They want to know who God is, his will, who they are, what their calling is, how to organize life around universal principles, and how to develop life-skills that will take them to the place in life they want to be.
Learning how to make good choices is essential for a teen to live a God-pleasing lifestyle. It’s more important that a teen learn how to figure out what pleases God than simply to tell him or her what they should do. They are searching for resources that will help them make the best choices for their future. Since they lack the foresight to discern long-term effects of current decisions, youth leaders are essential to their spiritual development.
As they learn to make God-honoring choices their character and interests will conform to the person and work of Christ. Their leisure activities, relationship choices, and interests in employment will grow out of influences, experiences, and friendships that were established during the teen years and early twenties.
5 Provide them with examples of obedient godly people they can relate to
Through exposure to godly, sympathetic, and understanding adults, students see what it looks like to obey God. Teens are visual creatures. They constantly watch others as they discover how they should relate to one another. Unfortunately, television and film offer some of the worst and most unrealistic examples to follow. Teens are smart. They observe youth leaders interacting with each other and use that information to conclude that is how Christians are supposed to act toward each others. Teens need images of godliness. They mimic what they see. Let them see Jesus in you.
Teens need concrete (visual) examples of godliness. Being spiritual to a teen is an invisible and intangible activity. They need tangible handles to climb the mountain of holy character. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a godly example is worth a thousand trial-and-error moments in a teen’s life.
One example of teaching teens through visuals is to allow students to see and hear you pray aloud. Some of the first images of being spiritual for a child is when they witness parents together praying audibly. This makes faith visible. Pray aloud with students. Give them opportunities to practice praying with you. Provide teens occasions where they can make their faith visible to their peers, thus allowing them to socially identify with Jesus and influence their friends to trust Christ.
6 Be a stabilizing resource person in the lives of students
The teen years are transitional and chaotic. Biologically, intellectually, and socially, changes are taking place so quickly it’s hard for them to understand what’s happening to them and what God expects of them. Every day their emotions are changing and this makes clear thinking difficult. Consistency becomes a foreign word to them. Having a person close to their age or who understands what they are going through can be a welcomed stabilizing force.
A youth director/ minister is often a relational rock in a student’s life. They provide a consistent friendship that makes them feel confident and secure. The youth worker who is assured as to who they are in Christ and knows what God has called them to do is gold to a teen. God places youth leaders in students’ lives so they can discover and experience God’s forgiveness and hope, and find meaning and purpose in their lives.
The Church needs youth ministry grounded in these six essentials. Students don’t need a know-it-all leader. They need principled leaders who can introduce them a powerful and loving God.