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If you work with young people in the church, it’s almost guaranteed that someone will ask you for help or advice in reaching their “wandering” child.

For many good reasons, we’re deeply concerned for our children. Will they have faith? Will they stick with the church? Will they stay connected to the denomination they’ve grown up in? These concerns are especially prominent in a Reformed church rooted in covenant theology—one that makes and lives out serious baptismal promises.

In a society that offers so much competition to our faith, it’s no wonder these questions persist. The matter of passing on faith is complex—too complex to treat exhaustively here. But we can reflect on what makes an average teenager tick and how those traits might shape the church’s ministry. Here are five traits that make teens who they are, and suggestions for how the church might respond.

1. Teens Are Relational

All people are relational, but friendships are especially important to teens. Success and failure and the perception of happiness are determined by how relationships fare. Most teens report that peer relationships are the most important relationships to them. Social bonding through shared culture is also at a premium. Young people shape their identity by such things as the music they listen to, the sports they enjoy, and the celebrities they adulate; sharing these likes with friends is crucial.

The church responds: The great news about teens being highly relational is that forming godly relationships of integrity is the best way to nurture faith.

The church, therefore, can and must seize opportunities to build relationships of integrity between all members. Prayer partnering and programs such as Forget-Me-Not luncheons that pair seniors with students allow opportunities for a congregation’s members to form genuine relationships across generations.

And since relationships with peers remain highly important to young people, it’s essential that we provide them with communities of faith in youth group settings packed with fun and fellowship. Additionally, church youth groups should look for opportunities to participate in larger-scale events, such as SERVE projects and conventions, where youths can meet others their age who are discovering and growing in Christ.

2. Teens Value Their Parents

Though teens value peer relationships, research shows that the greatest influence on their character remains their parents and/or family of origin. Parents or guardians influence their attitudes, voting patterns, and religious beliefs more strongly than anything or anyone else. Interestingly, the number-one predictor of people’s presence in a church pew when they are 30 is whether or not their parents were active in church.

The church responds: We need to view parents as indispensable partners in the religious formation of youths. As we develop programs for young people, are we paying enough attention to the faith nurture of their parents? Do we provide opportunities for parents to share their faith and model it to their children? The church can help through ministry opportunities that bring families together—for example, youth vs. parent soccer—as well as walking alongside and supporting parents of teens.

3. Teens Live in Transition

Teens live in a transition zone between the carefree days of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. Some seem to slide into adult roles with ease; others do it kicking and screaming. Some can’t wait to grow up; others experience anger when adult responsibilities are laid on them. Torn between two worlds, teens can, understandably, behave like children one minute and adults the next.

The church responds: We need to minister to both the child and the adult in teens—allowing youths to respond seriously to the world around them, but also making room for them to have fun and just be kids. Making room for play buys a leader credibility when the agenda comes around to serious talk. Most youth groups do this well, but what about pastors, elders, and catechism teachers who connect with teens? Warm-up games, church picnics, and related activities hold incredible value for ministry. Churches should not neglect the fact that being a Christian has joy at its center.  

4. Teens Are Searching

Christian teenagers are moving in their spiritual journeys from the childlike faith “borrowed” from their parents to personally owned faith. This stage of life has been labeled “searching faith” because it is a seeking process. Teens in searching-faith mode may experiment with other religious perspectives and may waver in their level of commitment to traditional values held by the church. Some church members, especially those who did not grow up in an environment that encouraged searching faith, can find this process disturbing and inadvertently (or purposefully) pass judgment on young people, turning them away from church.

The church responds: A pastor and/or youth leader can be instrumental in helping parents and other adults be aware of and less anxious about this searching stage of faith. Folks in the church need reminders that although at times young people may need to be given direction, more often the task of the church is simply to be available and (relatively) non-anxious as young people wrestle to own their faith.

It’s particularly crucial for the church not to ignore or suppress the seeking process but to provide a road-tested, dependable faith perspective that is taught and practiced yet open to debate and questioning. One activity that we’ve found endlessly beneficial is the game “Take a Stand.” A provocative statement is posed to the group (for instance, “It doesn’t matter what the lyrics say in songs I like, as long as the beat is good”). The game challenges young people to “take a stand” on the statement and move to one of four labeled areas of the room: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree. A spokesperson from each area is asked to articulate the stand they have taken, and the debate ensues.

5. Teens Value Change

Young people are on the hunt for meaning and significance and will therefore have different preferences from those of preceding generations in order to define themselves.

The church responds: Since every believer is given gifts to serve the body of Christ, the church should seek to nurture young people’s gifts in its life and ministry. When looking for volunteers for committees or events, churches should give significant responsibility to their younger members. We should not be afraid to allow young people some scope in shaping worship styles that work for them (music, video clips, dramas, humor) as we seek to be truly intergenerational. On the other hand, it’s profoundly important that young people learn that it’s not always “all about them.” Teens must act selflessly at times and respect the worship preferences of other generations. It’s good for churches to question whether their worship incorporates this range of preferences.  

A Parting Word

In all of this we need to remember that we are in the hands of a loving God who is actively, by his Spirit, drawing people to himself.  As parents watch their children search out their own faith and even wander, guilt can hold sway. While it’s undoubtedly appropriate for all of us to do some careful self-examination to see whether we’ve contributed to pushing a young person away from church, when our children reach maturity they must be given space to make decisions for themselves. More often than not, our best course of action is to pray for our young people.

Ultimately, our children’s faith is in God’s hands. Our job is to learn to trust the movement of the Holy Spirit.

  1. What do you believe about God’s covenant with us and our baptized children?
  2. Because parents play such an important role in the religious formation of their children, how can the church nourish the faith of parents? What are their needs? What should the church provide?
  3. How do we relate to our young people who are in searching-faith mode? Should adults honor their quest? Recount a story of your relationship with a searching young person. How do you relate to him or her?
  4. What does your church do to nurture young people’s gifts in its life and ministry?
  5. What gives you peace and confidence as you see your young people move from childlike faith to personally owned faith?

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