Preparing Young People to Launch Out in Faith
I have often heard a lament over the number of teenagers who graduate from high school and seemingly graduate from their faith. For over 22 years I have worked in student ministry. I have been a full-time pastor for students and families at one church for over 16 years. Reports on the percentage of teens and young adults who leave the church for a long period of time or permanently vary between 40 and 65 percent. Whatever the number, we are always grieved to see any person leave the faith.
For many years there was an assumption, reflected both in parents and in student ministry, that the place for spiritual growth for middle and high school students was solely at the church. Teenagers came to have a reputation for not listening or wanting to hear from their parents. Youth pastors sometimes catered to this mindset. While we don’t have time to dive deeply into the reasons behind that viewpoint, we can say that for teenagers to receive spiritual nurture only at church will increase the risk of them leaving the church and perhaps the faith once they’re out of high school.
On average, a teenager will be involved in church activities about 40 hours per year. This comes out to about 47 minutes per week, which isn’t a significant period of time to make any substantial impact on the growth of a young person’s life.
Even if that average were doubled, just over an hour and a half would still be far less time than the spiritual growth of children and teenagers requires. If our children and teenagers only received 47 minutes of math instruction per week at school we’d be outraged! Something more momentous for our youth than 47 minutes of time spent at church is imperative for their faith to stick.
I’m not saying that what happens at church, in children’s ministries, and student ministries isn’t important. It is! But to rely solely on the church and its age-appropriate ministries to do the work of spiritual nurture in our children and teens won’t result in the mature disciples we hope our children will become.
There is good news! The church was never intended for to be the only place children are mentored in the faith. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9 we read “4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
God gave this command to all the adults in Israel expecting them to obey through practice. Clearly this command is for parents. Children were to receive the commands of the Lord. They were to be “impressed” upon the children by the parents. Having kids who know the commands of the Lord, who know the Lord, begins with parents. It was true for the Israelites, and it’s true for us as well.
We can easily feel overwhelmed by such a weighty command. The spiritual nurture and growth of our children is not something we take lightly. We don’t want to mess up. Thankfully, God gives his people ways they can impress his commands upon their children.
The first way God says parents can impress his commands upon their children is to talk about them while they sit at home. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021, many of us were living very busy, hectic lives, driving ourselves and our kids to numerous commitments. Sitting with our kids to talk about God’s commands didn’t seem realistic. But even if such a hectic lifestyle describes the way your family now lives, there is still time to talk about God’s commands. One simple question such as “What do you think God’s word says about that?” in response to something a child says, can be an opening for spiritual conversation that allows for God’s commands to work their impression on a child. Parents, you don’t need to have a sermon prepared when you talk to your children about God’s commands. You can share a simple thought or Bible verse to spur on a conversation in order to impress God’s commands on your kids. You can do this around the dinner table, at bed time, or while watching TV or a movie together.
Along with talking about God’s commands at home, we parents are commanded to talk about them with our children “when you walk along the road.” Most of us don’t walk much, but we do spend a lot of time in vehicles with our kids, driving them here and there. When a child is in the car, we have a captive audience! We can ask spiritual questions, talk about what we’ve read in the Bible that week. We can ask our children their thoughts about the last Sunday’s sermon or a recent Sunday school lesson. These are simple questions but they can lead to deep conversations about faith. Whether it’s morning or evening God’s commands relate to all aspects of life, not just the things we do through church. They are to be impressed upon us and our children at all times and in any place.
In my years of ministry I have, sadly, seen teenagers who after graduating from high school, immediately go on to graduate from their faith. But I have also seen teenagers graduate from high school, head off to college, and continue to grow and flourish in their faith. While I’d love to take the credit for that as their student ministry pastor, I know that many of those students had families around them who discipled them in the faith. More than a few have returned to their home church and have volunteered in student ministry. Others have gone on to be missionaries in other continents or in their home city. In most cases these students were mentored well at church as well as discipled at home by parents or guardians. They grew spiritually because of what God was doing in and through the church, just as well as by what God was doing through the home.
Church leaders desire to see the spiritual growth of children. We want to walk with parents as you nurture your children in the faith. The church, as the gathered body of Christ exerts itself to bring children to spiritual maturity by the work of the Holy Spirit, but for there to be life-long, lasting faith, there is a great need for parents to impress God’s word upon their children.
If this seems overwhelming, know that you are not alone. At its best, church leaders like myself are called and gifted by God to be partners with parents in this adventure of leading young people to faith in Jesus. We can be much more effective when we do this together with parents. We cannot take over the family’s essential role and purpose. You can take confidence in the fact that it is God who is at work in you. Trust God that through you he is doing the same in your child. As the apostle Paul told the Philippians, God will bring about the good work he began in you and your children on the day of Christ Jesus.
May God bless you on this wonderful journey!
The Rev. Rick Hutton
Pastor for Student and Family Ministry
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