Why Our Teens Don’t Know They Need Jesus

This week on the Rooted blog we are sharing some of our favorites from the archives, because the truth of God’s Word and his gospel never changes. Enjoy, and happy summer!

For seven years, I have led a small group Bible study for teens. For seven years before that, I ministered alongside my husband to college students on the campus of a prestigious Christian university. In both contexts, I encountered students who were predominately church and youth group-going kids from “good” Christian homes. By all appearances, these kids talked the talk and walked the walk of Christianity. Yet the more I’ve come to know this type of student, the more glaring the lack of true gospel impact in their lives becomes.

Believe it or not, I am often even met by blank stares and hesitant responses when I ask teens what the gospel is.

A generation of kids are being raised in a Christianity devoid of Christ. They lack the very foundation to which their faith should be built upon. They don’t know the most critical story of the Bible: who Christ is for them, and who they are in Christ. And sadly, without being rooted in the centrality of the gospel, our teens don’t have the gospel glasses to rightly interpret life; they are ill-equipped to deal honestly with sin, and don’t understand how desperately they need Jesus.

Youth ministries too often exert more energy trying to be trendy and fun than faithfully teaching Christ. The teaching that does take place is usually topically-driven and moralistic in content. From my observation, teaching that encourages our teens to live rightly is satisfactory for many parents, who seem to care more about their children liking the program and having friends there – so they stay on a “good path” – than what is actually being taught.

What we as parents often fail to recognize is how the very teaching we believe is necessary for shaping “good” kids actually drives them away from Jesus. Law-driven content actually leads teens to view their own morality as the basis for their right standing with God. By following the rules, trying to love others, going to church, reading their Bibles and avoiding “bad behavior,” students view themselves as “good.”

The more they adhere to the list of do’s and don’ts the better and better, and stronger and stronger a Christian they think they become. So instead of teens growing in awareness of their need for a Savior, and seeing His strength where they are weak, they boast in their own performance.

These students seem to have the attitude that Jesus is lucky to have them on His team. But what these Pharisaical teens don’t see is that living the Christian life is not about getting better and better, but rather becoming more and more dependent on Christ.

To live dependently comes from intimately knowing our sin and need – and that is a message our kids seldom hear.

In the minds of most kids, sin is a bad thing and their comprehension of it stops at that. In reality, truly seeing the ugliness of our sin makes what Jesus has done for us through His life and death even more amazing; it leads us into profound worship and deeper relationship with Him.

We need to give our teens the eyes to see their sin rightly.

They need to understand the depth of their depravity. They need to be confronted with the reality that every time they turn to anything other than God, to give what only He can give, they become idol-worshippers. Idolatry – as in boyfriends, academics, body image, popularity, etc. – is at the core of all sin because it exchanges the truth about God for a lie. Students think, “If I were just ____________, I’d be enough.”

We all do this all the time and in so many different ways, including finding security and identity in our own merit, or “goodness.”

Because our teens lack the awareness of the nuances of their internal sin – the idolatry, pride, wrong motives, jealousy, coveting and the like – they don’t realize that what they need is Jesus’ perfect obedience for them. At the same time, these students who feel self-righteous about their “good” performance also live under fear of God’s disappointment and others’ judgment when they slip up.

They experience no freedom to honestly share their struggles and sin, because of the weight of shame that living under the law produces (thus the need to wear the mask of perfection, so no one else can see the discrepancy of what is actually true about them). While one could assume this behavior might actually lead students to see their need for Jesus, in reality it drives them deeper into self-penance and trying harder by their own works.

Our teenagers truly don’t know that what Jesus has done for them is enough. This peace they long for, this fulfillment, only comes from what has already been accomplished on the cross. Their “goodness” (our goodness) may hold up for a minute or a day, but ultimately we will fall off the tight rope. We’ll say that mean thing, drink that beer, or fail that test.

Then what?

To help our teens know their need for Jesus, to rest in him, they must hear more about His worth and work for them. They need to know it is not just His death on the cross that saves them but his perfect, sinless life credited to them as righteousness. Because Jesus met God’s holy standard, God now views his children accordingly. Their good behavior doesn’t make God love them more, just as their sinfulness doesn’t make God love them less.

Their status with God is unchanging.

They are loved immeasurably because of what Jesus did for them. And there’s nothing they can do, good or contemptible, to change that fact.

Now when our kids sin, they don’t have to hide in fear that God will reject them. Instead they can go to Him, freely confessing their failures and need. The more they deal honestly with the extent of their sin, the more they will begin to live in dependent need of their Savior. This is where real transformation happens.

When teens know how great Jesus’ love for them is anyway (despite their sinfulness), something happens on a heart level: they want to live in a way that is pleasing and glorifying to God.  This means that we as parents and the church don’t need to preach more law to our kids, but give them Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life they need to hear again and again and again. And so do we.

Kristen Hatton holds a master’s in counseling and works primarily with teen girls, parents and families. She is the author of Parenting AheadThe Gospel-Centered Life in Exodus for StudentsFace Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World, and Get Your Story Straight. Kristen and her pastor husband reside in Dallas, Texas and are the parents of three young adults and a son-in-law. Learn more by visiting her website at www.kristenhatton.com.

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