“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 1:4)
I have spent over 20 years serving as a volunteer youth worker, youth pastor, and parent. Whether we think of our own biological, adopted or foster children when we read the words of the apostle John, or those spiritual children that (like John) we’ve had the opportunity to invest in, this verse should bring great encouragement to those of us who love young people. Let’s be honest. Parenting and serving as significant adults in a young person’s life is not for the faint of heart. They can really try our patience sometimes. Often, we feel as if there is a cultural divide between their generation and ours that is too wide to cross. We wonder if they are listening to anything we have to say, especially when it comes to the really important matters. Relax. The statistics are actually in our favor. While the increased influence of peers and peer groups is well-noted, studies continue to show that parents and other significant adults (like children’s ministry and student ministry workers) have more influence over major decisions and spiritual formation. A recent Barna study found significant long-term correlation between spiritual engagement in their childhood and teen years and active faith as adults. They are watching and listening. We are a significant influence at a significant time in their lives. Let’s take advantage of the unique opportunity the Lord has given us to impart great joy to them and to ourselves by modeling truth, teaching truth and helping them to apply truth in their lives.
Model an authentic faith.
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 11:1
Most kids and young adults become bored with church and disenchanted with Christianity because they know too many spiritually dead adults sitting in churches. They can see right through it. And they say, “No thanks! If this is Christianity, I want no part of it.” But they will gravitate to anything that is real. Before we can teach them anything at all with our words, we must be prepared to live it out in our lives. Modeling a truth-filled life requires some transparency. For those of us in full-time or volunteer ministry, this means that they need to see us outside of the church setting, individually and in small groups. How this will flesh out will depend on the particular ministry setting. When I was a youth pastor, I would regularly take 2-3 guys away from their video games on a day when there was no school and get them to help me with whatever I was doing that day (preferably when I was doing something outside of the church office). Their parents were, frankly, glad for the free “babysitting” and happy that their kids weren’t glued to the TV all day. I got a chance to bond with the guys, and they got a chance to see me outside of the normal setting. For us parents, this means that our kids need to see us seeking the Lord’s help in our own struggles. Don’t pretend you don’t have any! They need to see us pressing into the Lord ourselves in deeper and deeper ways. Do your kids hear you pray – other than thanking the Lord before meals or praying with them before bed? Are they aware of the spiritual needs that you and your spouse are praying for? Do they know your personal testimony of how you came to faith in Christ? Do they know what you’re reading? Recently, I was reading Counterfeit Gods, by Tim Keller (a book I highly recommend, by the way), while my six-year-old daughter was reading one of the Chronicles of Narnia books. (We read together a lot in our family.) Sara asked me what I was reading, and then asked me if I would read some of it out loud to her. It was a great spontaneous opportunity to discuss with her the idols that we all have that keep us from enjoying more of the Lord. Such “spontaneous opportunities” (think “quality time”) only emerge out of a large quantity of time spent visibly seeking more of the Lord in front of our kids.
Kids (particularly teens) question everything, even their faith. We must let that be okay. This is a normal task of development. It is the God-ordained process through which they take ownership of their faith. The Christian faith is a faith that holds up well under close scrutiny. You and I do not have a blind faith. We need to let them see that we are not afraid to ask God the hard questions of life – even when His answer seems elusive. We must be willing to explore some of those hard questions openly with them. If we wear a mask to show them that adults have it all together, we’re teaching them that they can’t follow Christ until they have it all together.
Jesus understood the importance of modeling spiritual truth. Look at his strategy. He spent most of his ministry discipling 12 men. Of the 12, he spent even more time with just three of them. These men ate with him, traveled with him, and watched him teach, preach, and heal. They asked questions. He answered. He asked questions. They learned. He showed a genuine interest in them and gave them (and us) an example to follow. They didn’t all graduate from his school of discipleship. But 11 of the 12 did. And those 11 men changed the world, not because of what they heard or read (most of them weren’t even literate), but because of the example that they witnessed. The legacy Jesus left them – and us – is his life. I pray that our kids will see His life reflected in us. When they do, He will be glorified and will draw them unto Himself.
I will discuss teaching spiritual truth to young people and helping them to apply it in parts 2 and 3. Please let me know your thoughts.