Helping Teenagers Run the Race Through Theological Depth

Our students inhabit a culture that values success and achievement to the extreme. We see how students pursue academic rigor, excellence on the athletic fields, and unwavering commitments to extracurriculars and clubs. As a youth minister, witnessing such passion and commitment can feel disheartening when students do not seem to have comparable commitment to Christian discipleship. Most students just don’t seem to apply the same diligence, effort, and discipline to their spiritual growth or biblical and theological literacy. This disparity can take its toll as we serve in youth ministry. If you’re anything like me, you’ve often wondered: “What’s the point in all my efforts?”

As a fellow youth minister, I want to instill confidence in my co-laborers that there is indeed a point. Although they might not always produce tangible results in the here and now, our weekly youth gatherings, Bible studies, retreats, discipleship meetings, and fellowship events serve a greater kingdom purpose. These efforts form the essential building blocks for our teenagers to rightly know God. Christian maturity takes time and exposure to the grace of the gospel. The knowledge of God builds throughout the years, and sometimes we most clearly see God’s activity and presence in hindsight. The apostle Paul likens the spiritual journey to a race to be endured or a fight that goes the distance (2 Tim. 4:7). 

Youth ministers can apply the concept of disciplined pursuit to our students’ journeys toward discipleship. While we cannot possibly determine the faith outcomes of our students, we can help create a pathway for discipleship that champions both theological rigor and spiritual growth. Here are two significant opportunities for youth ministers to consider as we endeavor to help form teenagers in the faith: First, we must show students how to connect head, heart, and hands. And second, we must help them redefine their paradigm of “success” in terms of following Jesus.

Head, Heart, and Hands 

Teenagers experience significant gaps between what they know about God and the Bible, how they feel about what they know, and what they should do about it. In other words, there are disconnects between the head, heart, and hands. What our students are able to apprehend intellectually leads to mere head knowledge. Meanwhile, teenagers’ more emotive spiritual experiences are often short-lived (i.e the Parable of the Sower from Matthew 13). Likewise, simply going through the motions of Christian piety leads to moralism or burnout rather than to transformation. If we want our students to bear lasting fruit beyond their teenage years, we must till the grounds of students’ hearts, minds, and lives in hopes that the gospel takes hold of every facet of who they are becoming. This means that we work theological truths into what they hear, of course—but we should also seek to reach their emotions, and then help students practically live out their faith.  

With this in mind, simply reading a passage of Scripture and discussing it may not be sufficient for most teenagers to experience significant growth. They might understand the passage, but has it really taken hold of their hearts and lives? God’s living and active Word (Heb. 4:12) can take on new dimensions for students when we ask them to memorize portions of Scripture and really chew on the truth, for example—or to draw images in response to certain Scriptural themes, or to journal in response to a key question raised for reflection. When we teach to the whole person, we invite students to actively engage. We help them to work out their faith with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

We have tried out different “workouts” recently in my own church’s ministry to teenagers. During this past season of Lent, we dedicated times to pray through psalms of lament from the Psalter, encouraging students to bring their own laments in prayer before God as an act of worship. We experimented with dedicating times when our youth group collectively fasted from social media (and for some, their phones) in order to experience the sufficiency of God together. This practice brought together heart and hands, helping us to resist the influences of a phone-based culture while participating in the graces of community and prayer. During a recent praise and prayer night, when students’ engagement is typified by singing and listening, we added visualizing and smelling to the mix. As we taught from Matthew 26:6-13, we asked students to receive essential oil on their hands. Their sense of smell transported them to the home of Simon the Leper, helping them experience more fully this beautiful act that preceded Jesus’ journey to the cross.

Youth ministry provides an ideal setting to integrate rigorous theological teaching (head) with creative means of prayer, testimony, and reflection (heart) as we practice these together in the context of building disciplines (hands). As we teach to the head, heart, and hands, we pray our students experience a more robust and integrated faith that builds both depth and breadth into every area of their lives.  

A New Definition of “Success” 

Our students face so many messages from our culture about what constitutes success. For some, to be successful at school might mean getting straight A’s, making all-state orchestra, and getting into the college of their dreams. For others, success is defined largely by their friendship ties and whether they are considered popular at school. Others define success by their social media followers or their Snapchat streaks.

As youth ministers, we must define what it means to thrive in Christian discipleship—and it looks different than our students might imagine. To grow as a flourishing Christian means laying down one’s life and definition of success, so that he might be raised to new life in and with Jesus Christ. To follow after Jesus entails letting go: to confess that the life I live is not my own. As Christians, we humbly submit to God because we belong to him and we are his. This also means that we do not have to be overly concerned about self-image. Our identities are secure as those growing into the likeness of Christ the Son. Christian discipleship and worldly success are on two very different planes. We should help our teenagers to think critically and theologically about not simply applying our culture’s value system toward discipleship.

There is a word of caution for youth ministers as well: “Success” in ministry cannot be measured by the standards we often hold to in other areas of our own lives. For example, we might be tempted to build a student leadership team composed of those students who excel at school with larger-than-life, outgoing personalities. If so, we may be buying into a value-system that says being visible and vocal are more important than humility and service unto others. Or, if we preach more out of a desire to relate well to our teenagers rather than being faithful to God’s Word, we have fallen prey to the pitfalls of cultural relevance. Friends, we are called to preach the crucified Jesus. We teach the gospel truth of how Jesus laid down his own life for broken and sinful people like you and me. We teach that the kingdom of God is not the kingdom of this world. We instill gospel truths and values into the lives of our students praying they will grow to choose the way of Jesus.  

Final Exhortations

As youth ministers, we plant seeds. The repetition of this grueling work can take a toll. We may see some seedlings break through the surface of the soil as we gently water with care. This is often the task of youth ministers. But, having faith that Jesus knows the exact time and place when our students will grow and mature should give us comfort. We are not called to make the growth happen, but we are called to be faithful in creating the best conditions possible for our students’ maturity towards discipleship. This calling asks us to reflect deeply and theologically about how we do ministry and what we desire to impart to our teenagers in our care.

When the growth and readiness that youth ministers hope to see in their students are not very evident, let us remember that the ministry we are called to is, first and foremost, Jesus’ ministry.  Knowing that we are running a marathon and not a sprint should help us take longer and deeper breaths. With patience and perseverance, we continue to remind ourselves and each other that our spiritual growth is a lifelong endeavor mirroring the coming and going of seasons. But, as the seasons come and go, may our youth ministries be characterized by a kind of teaching that is theologically rigorous and enduring. May we build up a culture in our youth ministries that welcomes theological rigor, nurtures spiritual growth, and invites healthy discipleship to flourish.

If you’re looking for gospel-centered youth ministry training and fellowship, make plans to join us for the Rooted Conference, October 24-26, 2024 in Dallas, Texas.

Brian Ryu serves as the Youth Pastor at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, MD. He and his wife, Esther, parent two wonderful children, Manny and Zoe. He is also a chicken dad, outdoor enthusiast, reader, conversationalist, thrifter, foodie, and budding DIY tinkerer. He has a passion to see students grow in their love for God and his Church as they lean into discovering who they are called to be in Christ.

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