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 northeast Michigan youth camp with some fifty 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 on 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. I will also be the first to tell you I’m not flawlessly obedient myself. I just want to share some thoughts with you because 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.”
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 writes “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 4)
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.
That’s the diagnosis for many of our teenagers: Contentment with 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). (See
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, outside of the church, 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. I believe it is causing a culture of personal insecurity and jealousy.
From our conversations I learned that 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.
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.
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. 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.
- 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.