the early stages of adolescence can be a make-or-break time for your child?s faith. It?s during these years that young teens begin to think about their relationship with God in a whole new way. To find out how you can help keep your child?s faith growing strong, we talked to Mark Oestreicher, vice president of ministry resources for Youth Specialties. Mark is an experienced youth pastor and author, as well as the general editor (along with myself) of The Teen Devotional Bible (Zondervan). This Bible was produced by Youth Specialties and Campus Life magazine, our sister publication for teenagers.
What?s going on in the lives of young teens that makes this a great, or maybe not great, time for them to grow in their faith?
It?s the best time for kids to start taking ownership of their faith! Over the last 15 years I?ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of young teens, and I contend that if Christian kids don?t evaluate the faith of their childhood, modify it and recommit to it sometime before they hit 15 or 16, they?ll do one of two things. Either they?ll stagnate in their faith and go through life with a simplistic belief system that doesn?t affect their daily life at all, or they?ll walk away from their faith completely, believing that their parents? faith isn?t really relevant to their growing adult existence. There is an individual element to faith?each person eventually decides to either accept or reject the faith?that kicks in during the young teen years.
While these years are crucial for this process of taking the next step of faith development, this is just the start. No young teen will have a completely developed faith system. Part of that has to do with the way their thinking is changing in these years. Young teens are moving from thinking about things in a pretty concrete way to learning how to think more abstractly. This new thinking ability?thinking abstractly, thinking about thinking, processing potential outcomes and conflicting ideas?is still somewhat ineffective. This is why young teens are so drawn to the stories of the Bible, rather than the more abstract or symbolic parts. Stories don?t require abstract thinking to follow the plot. But they do require abstract thinking to apply them, which is why the young teen years are such a prime time to teach the great stories of the Bible. The stories help young teens make a bridge from the concrete to the abstract. Still, only one in a hundred will really be able to process abstract spiritual concepts at this age.
Can you give me an example?
A friend of mine was speaking at a camp for young teens. Hanging from a tall tree was a rope swing that swung out over the lake. In order to use the rope swing, kids had to climb to the top of a tall tower and then jump off the edge of the tower holding the rope swing. Most kids thought it was very cool, but some were a bit freaked by it.
At the end of the week, my friend was presenting the gospel. She said, "Trusting Jesus is just like that rope swing?the first step might seem a bit scary, but then you see that the rope will hold you and the whole thing is awesome." After her talk, a girl entering sixth grade came up to her and said: "I think I want to become a Christian, but I?m really afraid of that rope swing. Do I really have to go on the rope swing to become a Christian?" This sweet little girl (don?t you just want to hug her?) wasn?t able to think abstractly yet. She wasn?t able to grasp this simple simile. That?s one extreme.
At the opposite end is a boy named Garrett, an eighth grader in the junior high group at my last church. On a youth group mission trip to Mexico, it became apparent that Garrett really had the gift of evangelism. While the other kids wanted to spend their time on the construction project or playing with little kids at the VBS, Garrett was always grabbing an interpreter and walking door-to-door, leading people to Christ.
When we got back to the church, we shared our experiences with the congregation. I asked Garrett to talk, and I specifically told him, "Make sure you tell people how you led a bunch of people to Christ." Garrett shared his testimony and at one point stopped and said, "Marko wanted me to share how I led people to Christ." I cringed. He continued, "But that?s really not what happened. What really happened is that God led them to himself through me." Whoa! That?s big-time abstract thinking for a young teen.
What other hurdles do kids have to get over to really get interested in matters of faith, like reading the Bible and living out their beliefs? And how can parents help their kids get over those hurdles?
Honestly, kids typically find the Bible boring. To a 12-year-old, reading the Bible can feel an awful lot like reading a barely comprehensible school textbook. That?s why I really like the Teen Devotional Bible. All of the fun stuff in it is there to get kids into the text and see that the Bible really is relevant to them right now.
Your own honesty, integrity and transparency about your life and faith will make a huge difference here. If your kids can?t see you turning to God for help when you fail, can?t see that you need Jesus every day, they?ll be incredibly confused when they fail or when life doesn?t turn out like they think it should. Watching you learn and grow will be the strongest influence as they do the same.
Once I get my young teen interested in growing in her faith, how can I help her transition from our family-oriented spiritual activities?devotions or family Bible study?to her own personal time with God?
The key word is transition. What won?t work is 12 years of great family devotions, followed by an overnight switch to personal study and reflection.
To help your young teenager make this transition, shorten your family devotions and include a personal time where everyone goes off on their own for a few minutes. Or give your child some age-appropriate "Bible study" materials, have her complete the stuff on her own, then talk about it with her. Get two copies of the book and do the lessons yourself. That way when you come together to talk, it won?t feel like homework as much as two travelers on a journey of faith getting together to compare notes.
You also might try some more off-beat kinds of things, like a family spiritual retreat. Go to a cabin or go camping. Plan times for each family member to be alone with God. You could send everyone out with an envelope and have them collect different colors God put in nature. Have them find a rock to sit on and be still for a half hour. Have them find something in nature that represents who they are, or what they think about God. When kids actually experience God, instead of just hearing stories about him, it catapults their faith to a new level and increases their desire to find God in Scripture.
How can I help my kids understand the Bible or answer their questions about God when I don?t understand a lot of it myself?
Again, it?s that fellow-traveler idea. Parents think they have to have an answer to every spiritual question their kids ask. Not true! In fact, it can be more helpful to your young teen?s spiritual development for you to occasionally say, "I have no idea why God did that" or "I really struggle with that, too," rather than to give a pat answer every time.
If you don?t know the answer, find it together. Other than the Holy Spirit, nothing will solidify your young teenager?s confidence in her faith better than searching for answers with you. At the same time, don?t be afraid to leave some things unanswered. Part of knowing God is knowing that his ways are often beyond our understanding.
What are other ways I can help my child start to make her faith her own?
Experience is key. Getting kids involved in doing ministry?not just being recipients of ministry?can have an amazing impact. Find ministries within the church where they can be involved in a meaningful way. Take your family on a short-term mission project. Getting kids out of their comfort zone has enormous implications for spiritual growth. If you?re involved in some kind of ministry, involve your kids, too.
I?d also encourage you to allow your young teens to respectfully question your values. This an essential part of the spiritual growth process. It helps teenagers understand that doubts are OK and that they?re part of learning and growing as a Christian. The goal for all Christian parents is to raise children who will faithfully follow Christ as adults. Kids are a lot more likely to do that when they?ve had a chance to think through what it means to be a Christian and make their faith their own.
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Help Your Young Teen Move Toward a Faith of Her Own
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