A week later and I am still recovering from dancing, screaming, competing and celebrating. I welcomed 2015 the same way I welcomed 2013 and 2014-off the beaten path at a rural north east Michigan youth camp with some 50 energetic teenagers. I nearly lost my voice twice, lost my temper at least once in an intense game of Kemps and no doubt lost hours of sleep. It was loud, intense and a blast.
In the midst of all the activity students had opportunities to connect with God and moments to be honest with leaders about the burdens they had carried on their shoulders in the last year. The theme this year was ‘Thrive’ and it was based in a simple concept: Knowing who you are (Identity) will result in doing the right things (Obedience) which will produce right results (Power).
Sadly, through the conversations I had with these kids, I learned many of them are not thriving at all.
In fact, only a few were being obedient in their walk with Christ. I won’t share any specific names or conversations and I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not flawlessly obedient myself, but I think it’s important for youth workers to understand what the stories of these teens are telling us.
This isn’t about placing blame on any youth program, worker or family. I simply want to talk about how we can move forward. The words of these teens point to a deep sense of personal insecurity that if allowed to continue could be detrimental to the Great Commission set forth by Jesus to ‘go and make disciples.’ After all, the blind cannot lead the blind- nor can they heal them.
In Matthew 17, Mark 9 and Luke 9 Jesus’ disciples are presented with a boy who is demon possessed. They try and try but are unable to help the boy. This must have been especially humbling to the disciples who we are told in Luke’s gospel were just commissioned by Jesus to go and heal the sick and cast out demons (Luke 9:1-2)
Finally Jesus comes along and without difficulty drives the demon out of the boy. Puzzled, the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to help the boy. Jesus provides some insights as to why the disciples were unsuccessful.
- The disciples have very little faith (apparently less than the size of a mustard seed Matthew 17:20-21).
- The disciples were not being dependent on God (lack of prayer Mark 9:28-29).
Their faith was dead and without works.
They had yet to fully understand their identity (and subsequent potential) in Christ.
A previous conversation shows us the lack of understanding among them-
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? (Matthew 16:5-11)
How could the disciples miss the point of what Jesus was talking about? How could they not fully understand Him, who He was or what He meant after having witnessed His miracles or the transfiguration?
How can our teenagers not fully understand who they are in Christ after going to church every Wednesday and Sunday, memorizing Bible Verses and knowing every answer to every Sunday school question there is?
Paul in the book of Philippians chapter 4 writes “Only let us live up to what we have already attained”.
As a youth worker, I have the responsibility to act as a mandated reported. This means that if I know of or suspect the abuse of a minor, I am obligated to report it to the appropriate people. I can’t know this information and do nothing about it. If I did there would be some serious consequences.
But that’s exactly what so many of our teenagers are doing (knowing all of the information but not acting on it) and there are some considerable consequences.
James reminds us that faith without works is dead (James 2). This particular passage has been the center focus of the works vs grace debate for centuries. The faith of our teenagers (or lack thereof) is showing us just how one can be saved by grace but dead without works. It’s showing us how if branches don’t remain a part of the vine they die and never thrive. It’s the same problem the disciples encountered when they approached a big problem (demon possessed boy) with little faith (smaller than a mustard seed) and no works (lack of prayer).
There is a certain amount of practicing what you know that helps to develop a sense of identity. What our students have is book knowledge. This kind of knowledge is factual not practical. This kind of knowledge is a foundation not the structure itself. Instead of confidently knowing who they are through what they do, our teenagers know who they are because of what they’ve been told.
And most of the time, they’re told their not good enough.
Zero tolerance policies without a second chance, a Christianity that only promotes rule after rule and photo-shopped impossible to obtain images on the cover of magazines are just some of the sources that send a ‘not good enough’ message to our teenagers and I believe it is causing a culture of personal insecurity and jealousy. Many of them looked at each other and wanted what the other had. Most of them thought that others were better than them, smarter than them, less sinful than them.
The disciples provide another example for us of what is happening. This time in the book of Luke Just after the same incident where the disciples couldn’t heal the demon possessed boy Jesus is a little harsher with the disciples. “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “How long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9:41)
In Luke’s account of the story just after Jesus calls out the disciples on their lack of belief we see this-
“An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” (Luke 9:46)
The identity crisis of our teenagers not only encompasses a lack of practicing what they already know, it also includes a lack of understanding how vital of a role they play and how they uniquely play it. No, not how great they are but yes how important they are.
Paul tells us that the body of Christ is made up of many parts. (1 Corinthians 12) The eyes aren’t any more important than the ears, the arms are no more important than the legs. The teenager who can exceed in sports is no more important than the one with a physical disability, despite our culture’s tendency to glorify one over the other. Each has a role in the body of Christ, each has a calling in the great commission.
So at the end of the day (or at least at the end of camp) how can youth workers make a difference?
- Accountability. In the same Philippians passage, Paul tells us “Take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Philippians 3:17). When we take the small group of youth we led discussion with at camp and extend it into monthly meetings, students will have the opportunity to view us in day to day settings and you can be sure they’ll be taking note. At the same time, we will have the opportunity to view them and take note of the progress they’re making in their camp commitments. It’s easy to make a commitment at camp, it’s another thing to thrive when school starts again. Teenagers who have gone to church all their life and know all about Jesus need to be called out on how they are acting as a result because faith without works is dead and a dead faith can’t heal anyone.
- Value. When we make it a point to hang out with teenagers outside of the camp setting, they’ll know that we value their presence, ideas and spiritual walk. When the world around them and even sometimes the church is telling them ‘not good enough’ we can be there to see the progress they’re making and say ‘getting better’. I truly believe the more we value our teenagers the more they will value themselves which will in turn create more confident, less jealous teenagers.
Can you imagine? With a little valuing and a little accountability the great commission could be greater than ever as it is steered at the helm by confident, obedient and powerful young people doing miracles in the name of Jesus. That’s thriving.