“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit… John 7:38-39a
Up until about 2010, I had assisted in youth ministry in two separate denominational churches for about ten years. While I enjoyed the experience, I persistently expressed grief to those over me that youth group needed to be more than a safe place for teens to hang out and play on a Saturday or Sunday evening – we needed to be giving these kids God’s word on a consistent basis.
The response to these numerous suggestions was typically, “If we do that, they’ll stop coming.”
So my role changed. Sure, I participated in the games the others played, but I made it my business to interject scripture and engage these kids spiritually when possible. Slowly but surely, and as it was observed that no one was fleeing, more Jesus-related material was introduced into these gatherings. Nevertheless, it was always a tough to sell the leaders, so in the end, it was still mostly kid’s play.
In my Bible study, Pastor Jon led me to this article on youth ministry titled, ‘In Touch With Jesus,’ from an October 2006 Time Magazine article. All I could say is that I wished I had stumbled upon it when it was first released. Check out what the author, Sonja Steptoe had to say on the topic:
Youth ministers have been on a long and frustrating quest of their own over the past two decades or so. Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination. Their conversion has been sparked by the recognition that sugar-coated Christianity, popular in the 1980s and early ’90s, has caused growing numbers of kids to turn away not just from attending youth-fellowship activities but also from practicing their faith at all…Some experts point out that young people typically drift from organized religion in early adulthood, but others say the high attrition is a sign that churches need to change the way they try to engage the next generation of the faithful. “This dip should serve as an exhortation for everyone to be about the business of discipleship, missions and a higher calling than popcorn-and-peanuts youth culture,” says Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Scholars who have looked at young Christians say their spiritual drift is in part the result of a lack of knowledge about their faith. “The vast majority of teens who call themselves Christians haven’t been well-educated in religious doctrine and therefore don’t really know what they believe,” says Christian Smith, a University of Notre Dame sociologist and the author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
“With all the competing demands on their time, religion becomes a low priority, and so they practice their faith in shallow ways.”
With all the competing demands on their time, religion becomes a low priority, and so they practice their faith in shallow ways.”
That last phrase caught my attention. A Christian’s faith is directly proportionate to how deep they choose to go, but as we would expect (and as this article demonstrates) a young Christian is highly unaware of how deep they can go. In these circumstances it is up to the youth leader to guide his commission to these deeper waters. This passage in Ezekiel demonstrates the progression.
And when the man went out to the east with the line in his hand, he measured one thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the water came up to my ankles. Again he measured one thousand and brought me through the waters; the water came up to my knees. Again he measured one thousand and brought me through; the water came up to my waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross; for the water was too deep, water in which one must swim, a river that could not be crossed….Then he said to me: “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed.
Ezekiel 47:3-5, 8
See the Picture
The man in this story is a picture (or type) of the Holy Spirit taking this person to the places where he could venture more deeply. There is no coercion, intimidation, or duress, just accurate direction and supervision. Is that not the role of the youth leader, parent, or mentor? If it isn’t, it certainly should be.
In Ezekiel’s description we’ve an application for Christian leadership; i.e., a series of faithfully sound events slaked with possibilities. The first act is to guide the child or teen to the water’s edge where they are first drawn in. They don’t have to enter, but many do. At ankle-depth they have succeeded in getting their feet wet.
Subsequently they’re shown a deeper place and it is there they are brought to their knees. In this place they come to appreciate their relationship with Jesus in a more significant way. It’s discovered in this place that they can commune with the living God.
Afterward they’re channeled towards the third depth realizing they are up to their waists now. Initially they’re uncomfortable. The very young don’t yet appreciate it, but the older ones sense this is the place of duplication. It’s here they learn to witness and effectively share their faith with others.
Finally we bring them to the place of total submission where they find themselves completely over their heads. Humbled, they discover that in their inadequacies they are most useable to God. It is also here where they discover they have been healed.
God will never make any of us go any deeper than we want, but by His Spirit He will always show us where we can wade deeper if we desire. It matters not the position, be it youth leader, parent, friend or mentor, for the Christian the role is always the same — to direct those in our care to a place where they can make well-informed decisions.
It’s time to bring Jesus back full-time into the youth group equation. Our kids don’t need more dodgeball and snacks, nor do they need a safe place where they will be coddled in their inappropriate lifestyle choices – they need solid Biblical doctrine, at an age appropriate level, that they can grow in and build upon.