During a Sunday morning lesson, I asked a group of teenagers to name one (just one) parable of Jesus. With blank stares they sat in silence, so I had them open their Bibles to the book of Matthew and told them to keep looking through the gospels until they found a parable. “I guess I will have to read every word from the beginning” one student said, proceeding to read Matthew 1:1 aloud.
As they sat flipping through their tissue paper thin bible pages I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on. How could they not name one single parable of Jesus? Many of the teens in this group went to Christian schools. Many of them came from Christian families and have gone to church their whole lives. Doubtless they have heard parable after parable, Sunday after Sunday.
When one student pointed out to me that they don’t go to a Christian school, trying to use this to excuse themselves, I reminded them that we are suppose to have a personal and daily relationship with Jesus which hopefully involved reading the Bible. The student’s response was “Oh, right” as if it was something they had forgotten.
So here are the possible conclusions I came to as I reflect back on this moment:
Maybe they were nervous about speaking in front of their friends. This is a common phenomenon with any group of teenagers. It takes a little while for them to warm up to each other. This is especially true if not very many of them interact with each other outside of church. An hour or so a week isn’t much time dedicated to relationship building. Couple this with the “everyone is looking at me” feeling you get during your teenage years and we might have an explanation.
On the other hand, maybe they truly and genuinely did not know. But how can this be? These were church kids. The only other answer I can think of is simple but saddening. For the most part I would propose that the average teenager doesn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus inside or outside of the church. As harsh and difficult as it is to say, for many teenagers in general, church and youth group are social activities. They come more for fun and small talk than they do to learn the bible and during the week, their faith probably doesn’t look much more active.
We have two problems and potentially two solutions. First, we can keep shouting Bible verses and stories until we are blue in the face. I can write sermons, provide entertainment and snacks (aka the usual) OR we can start to get more relational and let them be active participants.
I have to be honest. This doesn’t come naturally to me. I am pretty opposite from your typical twenty-something youth pastor profile, in that I am an introvert, a planner and an organizer. The Myers-Briggs personality assessment correctly pegged me twice as an ISTJ and has this to say about them:
ISTJs believe that things work best with clearly defined rules, but this makes them reluctant to bend those rules or try new things, even when the downside is minimal. Truly unstructured environments leave ISTJs all but paralyzed.
Putting together entertainment and a sermon comes easy to me. Give me an hour and I will plan out every minute of it, OBSESSIVELY. Yet while planning is a strength, it can also be a weakness, as seen in the way I plan every detail and leave little if any room for flexibility. When it comes to perpetuating the classic church model of come once a week and hear a sermon, I could be the master of ceremonies.
But I’m starting to think that maybe what we need isn’t a perfectly planned weekly routine. As youth pastors, we have one or two hours a week in the church with our teens. Over the years it has started to seem to me that we need to spend less time sharpening our abilities to entertain and instead focus on facilitating relationships.
Practically, this looks like less of us teaching three point lessons and more of the students teaching themselves in small groups, with a little direction and a lot of Bible and discussion. Outside of service it means one on one mentoring, but in a way that is more purposeful than just eating lunch together.
Once I was spending some time hanging out and mentoring two young men. Like boys do, they picked on each other quite a bit. I let it go on for a little while until “shut up” and “you suck” among other harsh words started to take over. When we finished walking the trail we were on and found a bench, I pulled out my Bible app and read Ephesians 4:29 which says this:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
It was a moment where normal everyday life met scripture and that is probably a fairly uncommon experience for them. Teenagers (all teenagers) need more of these moments where the language we use in church isn’t just spoken in church, but in the context of the frustrations with homework and disagreements with their friends. Only then will Christianity be seen as more than a once a week social event.
In the end, there needs to be a shift within the very hearts of our students. The shift is to go from thinking Christianity is something we do, to following Jesus at the very center of our being.
The hard part is that we youth pastors can’t make that happen for them. We cannot force teenagers to embody their faith.We are not the agent of change between our students and God. That is a from the inside out work of the Holy Spirit. We are simply a servant pointing the way.
Even when I relentlessly fight for control, as us ISTJ’s will do, I must realize that I am not and in fact never have been. At best, I can point the way and at worst I am just in the way. Therein lies a need for my own personal shift; to understand where the Spirit would lead and to not be afraid to follow.