Helping Teenagers Integrate the Gospel Into Their Everyday Lives
If you’ve watched the 2018 Bo Burnham film Eighth Grade, you may recall the scene in which protagonist Kayla Day arrives at a popular classmate’s home, having been awkwardly invited to a pool party by the girl’s mother. As she musters the will to walk into the party, a voiceover of Kayla filming a video for her vlog reveals her trying to make sense of the conflict she experiences between her different selves—the image she seeks to project of a confident, cool kid, worthy of being accepted by the popular set, versus the wallflower persona by which she’s marginally known at school.
In the vlog voiceover Kayla explains, “People might not know, like, the real you. Like if you only ever see, you know, some people at like, school or something, then those people are only going to know the school you, but if you put yourself out there and, you know, go to places you wouldn’t usually go, people can know the movie you or the pool you or the party you or the weekend you—all the ‘yous’ that make up the real you.”
The implication of Kayla’s reasoning is that we have many different selves that are difficult to integrate. At the end of the film, Kayla acknowledges that she cannot reconcile the self who walks around in the world and the image she reveals to others on a screen. This is a common struggle of adolescence, and perhaps most of all for teenagers who are trying to figure out how to integrate faith in Jesus with the rest of their lives.
As youth pastors, we often find ourselves discouraged when we learn that our students who appear to be growing in Jesus are behaving one way in our presence and another at school or parties or on their sports teams. Although we recognize something normative in this struggle as it relates to teenage development, our calling as ministers of the gospel compels us to help teenagers grow into people for whom every part of their lives is transformed by knowing Jesus.
Here are several resources that can help us access the sometimes mismatched “yous” of our students with the good news of God’s grace:
Youth Ethics by Chris Wagner (Center for Parent-Youth Understanding)
In this article, Chris Wagner exposes the disintegration between ethics and behavior many teenagers express. Although this post and the survey that informed it is now several years old, the findings are nevertheless relevant to teenagers today. Wagner offers meaningful suggestions for parents, youth workers, and teachers for helping teenagers seek integration of what they believe and how they act.
Teens Where Is Cognitive Dissonance Playing a Role In Your Life? (Paradigm Treatment)
This blog post comes from the website of an adolescent counseling practice and instructs teenagers how to begin working through cognitive dissonance, or the reality of holding two or more inconsistent beliefs or behaviors. The general insights shared are useful to youth ministers as we seek to help students integrate their faith in Jesus and to increasingly have their conflicting beliefs and behaviors transformed into his likeness.
Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture by Walt Mueller
The subtitle of Walt Mueller’s volume on youth culture is “Bridging Teen Worldviews and Christian Truth,” which points to his goal of helping students connect the gospel to real life. Published in 2006, the book focuses on Millennials rather than iGen, but it’s an insightful primer on how to winsomely engage culture and respond to the messages teenagers have absorbed from it. This would be a good book to read and discuss with your leader team, as you think together about how to help students align their lives with the gospel.
The Gospel-Centered Life for Teens by Robert H. Thune and Will Walker
Not only does this 9-week study help teenagers better understand what the gospel is—Christ’s finished work for sinners through his own life, death, and resurrection in our place—it also helps them envision how the gospel transforms all of life. Using an effective visual called the “gospel grid,” Thune and Walker help students and adults to see how our pretending (acting like our sin is not a big deal) and performing (trying really hard not to sin) reveal that we have a small view of Jesus and his cross. When we begin to see how big Christ’s work for us really is, our lives can be transformed to look more like his. This powerful teaching tool makes for great small group curriculum, but youth ministers can easily adapt it for a large group setting as well. Try learning the “gospel grid” and sharing it in a one-on-one discipleship context the next time a student shares this struggle.
As we acknowledge the struggle our students face to integrate their lives more consistently with the gospel they have come to believe, we have Good News to share: Trusting in Jesus means that they have “taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:6, 9-10)!
Ultimately this process is not something they—or we—get to control; rather, as they learn to rest in the finished work of Jesus, He promises to complete His good work in them (Phil. 1:6). What a privilege to be partners in that good work as we trust in Him.
For more on this topic: