It’s always interesting when you realize that you just took a step deeper into someone’s life.
I found myself surrounded by stainless steel in a hot hotel kitchen. One of my youth was waiting to talk to his boss in order to grab a paycheck he had been promised weeks earlier. I wanted to see Rob (not his real name) off before he went to college. I took a moment to breathe and thank God that I could be so close to one of His children.
We finally made it out to my car and at that point I felt pressure to say all the things I wanted to say. I wanted to ask Rob where he saw himself in the next five years. I wanted to ask him if he was still struggling with his faith. I wanted to ask him if he was okay with his last breakup. So of course I started talking about everything other than what I wanted to talk about. I asked the cookie cutter questions he’d been answering for the last few weeks: “Are you excited about school?” “Are you all packed up?” “Where will you be staying?”
I started to get bored listening to myself talk. I think Rob was, too, because after humoring me with my rote dialogue he talked to me about what he wanted to talk about. He asked me about sex. He talked to me about his struggles with faith. He told me where he saw himself in the next few years. What I had been too fearful to bring up, Rob had no qualms putting on the table for discussion.
I wanted so badly to make that last night with Rob a great experience so that when he went to college, he would know that God loved him. He would know what His Savior did for Him and that He works in him and through him everyday. I wanted him to not be overwhelmed by all the other beliefs he would run up against. I wanted him to be able to defend his faith with confidence. Isnt this what we all want for our youth?
A Harvard law professor (now you have to listen), Mary Ann Glendon, spoke to this at an address to the Catholic Church’s 8th International Youth Forum:
If religious formation does not come up to the general level of secular education, we are going to run into trouble defending our beliefs even to ourselves. We are going to feel helpless when we come up against the secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in our culture and in the university. We are going to be tongue-tied when our faith comes under unjust attack. (Glendon, 2004 as cited in Lawrence, 2007, p. 77)
Now this is a great thing for youth workers to ponder. What does it mean to raise religious formation to the level of secular education? What tools should we be giving our youth to defend their faith, even for themselves?
The book Soul Searching reports on the findings of the National Study on Youth and Religion to elucidate what a youth grounded in his or her faith looks like. The strongest correlation that presented itself was that students who were considered “devoted” to their faith had parents who were also “devoted” to their faith. Those who were considered “devoted” and didn’t have parents who had high levels of religious participation had some other adult in their lives who were in the “devoted” category. The study also brought to light the importance of faith discussions in the home. Devoted youth are more likely to have discussions with their parents about faith.
So what do we do with this research? How do we facilitate faith discussions? What can we do to help parents be bold enough to talk to their children about faith?
Part of my research for this article was done at a theological pub in Austin. (No, the youth ministry office didn’t pay for my beer.) I wanted to get over my personal struggles with talking about faith issues outside of church and wanted to see how I could pass on what I gleaned to others.
As I arrived with a recent college grad from my church I was hit in the face with a bad first impression. We walked through the front entrance of the bar to find a large empty room. The waitress then guided us to the back porch. The group was a small seven bodies around a couple picnic tables. As we sat down, it was necessary to lean up against the table top in order to hear due to a large fan humming behind us. After ordering a pitcher (I shared) and listening into the discussion, I finally figured out the current topic was on sacrificial practices in the Old Testament.
I was expecting to walk into a bustling pub with smoke and a theological champion who, (he looked a lot like C.S. Lewis in my head) legs crossed, waved a cigarette as he guided all who cared to participate in an enlightening theological discussion. What I had stumbled upon wasn’t what I romanticized a theological pub to be, but it was beautiful all the same.
Though we couldn’t hear well, it forced me to intently listen to what people had to say. The discussion wasn’t really led at all by a theological champion though the pastor facilitating the gathering knew his stuff. Instead, people were able to bring up their biggest questions about faith in a safe environment. I wasn’t in a bustling pub; I was in a safe place to talk about faith. What an amazing place to be!
At one point the topic of atheism came up and the leader pointed out that a member of the group present used to be an atheist just a few years earlier. I saw my opportunity. I stepped out in boldness. I asked this guy I had known for forty minutes about people who were influential in bringing him to faith. He spoke of the evident power of the Spirit in working through a youth minister who remembered his name and birthday. He spoke of how God worked through his Christian girlfriend at the time and even through their break up.
I learned that night that a safe place to talk about faith takes some work to facilitate, but the fruit it bears is well worth the effort.
I used to think it was a copout to say that the Spirit will work in His own way and in His own time. The more I hear people’s stories of faith and see how youth go through times of being deeply convicted and of being deeply passionate, it’s even more evident to me that the work of faith is God’s. There’s a book out right now called Spiritual Birthline. The author labels our role of nurturing faith as a “spiritual midwife.” We point to the Spirit’s work and we make safe places for faith to be challenged and built up. We aren’t the ones who change lives. Let me repeat that: We aren’t the ones who change lives.
So what can we do for our youth who are going to be quickly exiting our ministries to take the next step in their lives? What do we do for those who have already left? What can we do right now?
Pray, Pray, Pray
Pray that God will work through you as you build up students. Pray that the Spirit will work through your mistakes and your successes. Pray that you can be there when your students are convicted of their sin or when they’re confident in their Savior. Pray that God will continue to change lives.
Embrace the Hard Questions
Design lessons around asking hard questions from God’s Word. Listen to what your youth are struggling with. Find out what faith questions your youth are holding onto because they don’t feel like anyone will listen or be able to help. Design times that you are able to go places with your talks that arent necessarily in your lesson plan in order to respond to a question.
Equip Your Youth
Give your youth information on what other people believe. Try to avoid presenting Christianity as clean-cut and easy. Make them aware of struggles they will have when they go to college. Give your youth books, articles, websites, your own experiences, anything you can to help them be grounded in their faith. Youth will be very responsive to learning more when theyre struggling or when they perceive they are going through a transition.
Build Up Adults Who Care About Youth
Put people in the lives of your youth who will engage them in faith discussions. Put people in their lives who can be close enough to pick up on the spiritual state of the youth in your ministry. Train these adults to be able to listen and respond with Law and Gospel.
Give Adults a Shot of Confidence
Let parents know that they have the biggest impact on their children’s faith. Let them know what you are talking about at youth group so that they are better prepared to listen and ask questions. Give parents resources to help them talk about their faith with their children. Ask parents about their faith experiences. Consider every parent a member of your youth ministry team.
Now, let’s go back to Rob. That night I was challenged to answer some tough questions and I admittedly didn’t have all the answers. Rob seemed to be fine with that. He was able to ask his questions and I was able to listen and respond with the Spirit’s guidance. No matter what your ministry to youth looks like, my prayer for you is the same. May God bless you with the assurance that He is at work in the lives of your youth. May you recognize His presence daily and be empowered by His Spirit share His love with others. Now go have a beer and talk about faith.
Rick Lawrence. (2007). Jesus Centered Youth Ministry (Group Publishing, Inc, 2007).
Stephen E. Smallman, Spiritual Birthline: Understanding How We Experience The New Birth (Crossway Books, 2006).
Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teens (Oxford University Press, 2005).