Study after study makes the same point: This generation of teenagers, and the ones following on their heels, are coming of age in a culture that is less religious than previous generations. While this no doubt presents significant challenges, it also presents awesome opportunity. Those teenagers who are Christ-followers find themselves in a great position to impact the world around them through doing and speaking the Gospel. As Jesus said, the field is ripe.
And yet, many Christian teenagers struggle to talk to others about the foundational truths of their faith. A decade ago when the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion (still to this day the most wide-sweeping study ever done on religion and teenagers) were published in Dr. Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching (2005), one of the many valuable findings that resulted was that American teenagers are extremely inarticulate about their faith. Many of the teenagers in our youth ministries struggle to put their faith-essentials into words. Faith makes a difference in their lives…they just have a hard time explaining why.
In our current cultural climate, the inability of Christian teenagers to clearly talk about the basics of their faith is negatively impacting their chance to play a role in seeing others come to know Christ.
And so, I believe as youth workers we have to do a more effective job of two things: teaching our students the foundational distinctives of their faith, and helping equip them to talk about these basic faith elements.
Here are a few ways we can take steps toward helping accomplish these two things:
Remind Students That It’s Not About Being Perfect or Closing the Deal
There is a culture of excellence that permeates the world of many of our students. Athletic excellence. Academic excellence. Excellence in the image they craft. There is so much pressure not to be good at what you do, but to be great. I think this trickles over into their thoughts on sharing their faith. I believe many teenagers are terrified of not having all the answers, or of being wrong, or of “failing” to lead someone to Christ. We can relieve this pressure by reminding teenagers that, for most people, coming to faith in Christ is a process that happens over many interactions. Regardless of how effective they think they are in the moment, God will use their faithfulness to make Himself known to whomever it is they are speaking to. Also, and most importantly, remind students that we aren’t the ones who save anyone. Encourage them by reminding them that God saves whom He will save. Our role is to be faithful, but to rest in the knowledge that God is at work and His plans are bigger than us.
Make Knowing God and His Ways the Center of Your Youth Ministries
God’s main way of making Himself known to us is through the Bible. Seeing God’s story of redemption through the Bible is an amazing gift we can give our students. Leading them to see God’s character, to love and seek Christ, and to grasp what it means to live as imitators of God are key aspects of faith ownership. This happens through a passion for meeting God in Scripture. A youth ministry where God’s Word is valued deeply is a great foundation upon which to build.
Provide Students Some Basic Phrases That Articulate Core Theology
What if you took a page out of the more liturgical-based denominations and crafted some really simple phrases that capture the basic biblical concepts you want students to know? Phrases such as, “There is one God who exists and is the Creator of all things.” Easy, right? Yet it’s a core faith distinctive. As these themes come up in your Bible study, you could take the chance to reaffirm them. You could encourage your students to familiarize themselves with the phrases so when it came time to talk about their faith, they could do so through simple phrases backed by deep biblical truth.
Engage in Dialogue
Not discussion. Dialogue. Create moments for your students to talk with you and each other about what makes their faith distinctive. Encourage back-and-forth. See information not as a deposit you’re making but as a tool for meaningful conversation where deep learning happens.
Create Spaces for Your Students to Engage With Their Unchurched Friends
What if you could create an environment where your students’ unchurched friends could come and have a talk about religion? Not in a pushy or manipulated way, but in an open conversation where your students and their friends engaged in discussions about the nature of faith and religion. Maybe do it away from church in a small group. Whatever it looks like, the more you can help your students talk about their faith (in an environment where you can follow up with them and correct and redirect as necessary), the better they will become at doing it.
Create a Culture of Expectation
Your students need to know that God places a premium on them talking about their faith to others. Ask teenagers about this regularly. Encourage students who are doing a great job of it. Help create the expectation that faith-discussions should be a part of their lives.
Encourage Faith-Talk at Home
Encourage students who have parents who are Christ-followers to engage their parents in this process. Encourage them to ask their parents to share their faith-stories. Challenge students to dialogue with their parents about the basics of what they believe. Support healthy, spiritual conversations in the home as much as possible.
Are these steps the only answer? Of course not. They aren’t a fool-proof method, either, but they’re a start, and it’s too important a concept not to address. What would you add?