The Long, Slow Work of Gospel Formation

As a child, all my days ended the same. After tucking me into bed, my mom would sit down on the corner of my mattress and lead me in the same evening prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep …” 

For many years, I wouldn’t even make it through the first line before falling asleep. Then, as I got older, it was not sleep that stole me away, but my attention span. Having the prayer memorized, I would muddle through the words faithfully, yet all the while thinking about barbie dolls and ice cream. 

As a teen — more evenings than not — the words just felt trite. Most often, I was merely reciting them like a script than I was actually offering them as an act of worship from a broken and contrite heart. Then, after leaving home, that prayer simply became a fond memory, lost to the recesses of adulthood. 

That was until I faced what I would consider the first real trial of my adult life. At the age of 23, after receiving life-altering news, I laid my head down on a tear-soaked pillow. I remember being so overcome with grief that I did not know what to do. I did not have any words. I wanted God; I needed Him. I knew what I need to do was to pray, but I did not know what to pray.

Then, without even thinking, as if exercising a muscle from memory, I began saying these words: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep …” In the dark of night — in my own dark night of the soul — I found refuge in the prayer of my childhood. In was in these old, familiar words that I found the courage to pray.

This is the power of gospel formation. 

One of the most challenging questions for parents to ask is what it looks like for them to “train” our children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6). It is a challenging question because the training referenced here is not for performance, but for formation. Where performance is easily measurable, formation is not. Formation is a process. It takes time and patience. It requires vision and hope. And, often, the fruit of formation is slow-grown, not evidenced until —as the second half of that proverbs notes — the children are adults.

Yet, while the fruit of gospel formation may not been seen until a child is grown, it is in the soil of childhood that the seeds are planted. This is why it matters that, as we labor to bring the gospel to bear in the lives of our teenagers, we also acknowledge the other formative voices that are speaking to them. 

Every generation is formed by what informs it. Whatever teenagers give their time away to will be the very thing they give their lives away to. According to recent studies, based on time alone, the most consistent and continual source of formation in our students’ lives is actually the technology they carry around in their pockets. 

On the high end, teenagers spend four hours per week at church. Yet, on average, teenagers spend eight hours per day on their phones. This means that when it comes down to time spent together, we are actually losing the formation battle in our students’ lives. 

This is why we can not afford to simply ignore the impact of technology on our students. Instead, we must begin asking in what ways technology is forming our students. How does the gospel speak life and truth in those places? For example, one way technology is forming this generation is in the loss of waiting. Tish Harrison Warren summarizes this idea in her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, “Without realizing it, I had slowly built a habit: a steady resistance to and dread of boredom.” 

Technology has trained our students to desire only that which instantly gratifies — instant answers to their questions, instant help for their needs, instant platform for their thoughts, or instant friends in their times of loneliness. Yet, in the economy of God, there is a high value in waiting. 

I remember a friend once asking my mom why she did nightly prayers with her kids; didn’t she fear it would just become “routine” and lose its impact? She simply replied:

“Of course I do. But the good news of the gospel is that God’s grace is never changed by the state of our hearts, but it can change the state of our hearts.”

So even if we are losing the battle for time, we are not without hope. While the world wants to tell them how to think and who to be, only the grace of God has real, lasting power. As a farmer waits through many seasons full of drought and storms to see the fruit of his labor, so is the work of gospel formation in the lives of our teenagers. 

Purchase the audio from Kendal’s workshop, as well as all the other audio content from Rooted 2021 here.

After spending 10 years working in youth ministry, Kendal currently serves as a Groups Minister at Redeemer Fellowship in Kansas City, MO. Originally from Memphis, Tenn. Kendal received her BA from Union University. After graduation, she served 2 years overseas working with youth in Central Asia. After returning to America, she spent several years working for a parachurch youth ministry before moving to Oklahoma to serve as a Girls Minister in a local church. Kendal loves to travel, and dreams of one day being able to say she has enjoyed coffee in every country.

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