The Faith Shaping of Your Teen, Part 1

Your teen is a wonder. You agree, right? You wonder how he/she will turn out. You wonder if he/she will ever grow in responsibility to clean the bedroom.  

You also see the wonder of God in that teen of yours. There are moments you are overwhelmedly awed.

God is shaping your teen. Faith is developed, or shaped (as I like to say), in your child all along the way.

So much of this faith shaping happens in the teen years—which is why I’m still a youth pastor. I get to see God’s active hand in lives all of the time (!!!!)—with everything being the possibility of this being the moment or this nugget of understanding changing a behavior or this decision to trust God to the extent that their face changes.

This isn’t just happenstance. There are so many factors God uses along the way to shape our faith. These factors actually have some order to them. I discovered this order from a book I read originally in 1987 but was first published in 1978. I find this faith shaping to be just as true today as I did back then. The book is Faith Shaping by Stephen D. Jones.

When first reading these tasks I had so much fun looking back and seeing God’s hand all along the way of my life. You will too. You will see how your faith has been shaped and so much of it will make sense to you. And you will smile.

#1 – Experiencing

Experiencing is defined as providing a continual reservoir of spiritual experiences from which a faith can grow on. This is the making of memories such as leading an Advent responsive reading to “big church.” Or going on a youth retreat and laughing so hard that the anxiety is set aside for a while so you wonder if Jesus is real. Or serving at a soup kitchen and seeing poverty for the first time and wondering where Jesus is in this poverty world.

Think about the role that memories have played in your own life. Go as far as to make a graph of your own spiritual journey. I guarantee it will be marked with times of memories, the good and the bad. It is those memories which have formed who you are today.

These are the basic categories of memories. You will not be able to help yourself as you categorize your own memories as you read these.

  • Headline memories – These are the big emotional experiences.
  • Personally touching memories – These are those unexpected moments when something in church choked you up, when you felt heard AND understood by an adult, when you got an answer to a question you dared to ask.
  • Repetitive memories – These are church traditions. This is a Good Friday tradition. This is the taste of the communion bread. This is that uber-happy greeter at your church door who gets laughed about as well as greatly appreciated because he/she says your name every week.
  • Significant relationship memories – These are who is in your circle. Hopefully your teen also has wise saints of your church family who beeline to talk to your teen every week.

I believe a youth ministry is more than just providing experiences. Youth ministry is faith shaping and experiences are just the beginning. But this task is an important one because if teens have no important memories of the faith, of the church, of an experience with God, of worship, or of spiritual feelings, they will find themselves in a faith vacuum as young adults.

That last thought still makes me shudder.

Task #2 – Categorizing

Categorizing is defined as consolidating emotions, clarifying values, and shaping attitudes. It is the taking of these experiences and categorizing if this life of faith is for me or not.

The picking and choosing of what one likes about God has always been a faith shaping task. Always. Before this post-truth world. Definition of post-truth is there may be an absolute truth, however they don’t care about the truth if it gets in the way of personal preferences. Teens and young adults are okay picking and choosing from other religions and belief systems and are okay about their truth being their truth just for them.

Categorizing is only Task #2 of seven tasks. Too many teens–and adults–are getting stuck in this task because they think categorizing their experiences is making a faith decision for themselves. That the deciding of what is true for you is not true for me is a faith decision. Not yet, even though they will adamantly say this is what they believe. Because this categorizing does not follow with behavior change.

One important thing to remember here is that this is a step that your teen must take. He/she is the one categorizing the experiences and the growing beliefs. If you categorize for them…I can’t even finish that sentence because it is not possible to categorize for someone else. You do see how a choice of following Jesus has then become something “my parents made me do.”

Your responsibility is to provide a safe place for your teen to do this. You can also provide honest feedback as you pass on your faith. You also can’t accept or affirm a sinful lifestyle that may be a part of their beliefs, no matter how much you want to find common ground with your teen. They need to fall in love with the true Jesus. There are ways to provide acceptance and affirmation that upholds Biblical truth. This is so tricky to define in words so I implore you to trust that Holy Spirit wisdom along the way. This may be the very reason that parenting teens is sooooo intimidating.

I must also add this quote from a book from 1996 that shaped me, Family-Based Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries. “Teenagers’ isolation from adults has left many of them unable to think critically. They are easily swayed by what feels right at the moment, whether it is going to church, buying a $200 pair of shoes or having sex. Without the habit of critical thinking, our teenagers become easy prey to anyone who has something to sell.” Use the gift of your church family as a resource for you so they may continue to categorize and gain critical thinking skills.

Task #3 – Choosing

Choosing is defined as valuing, deciding, and shaping a belief.  This is the natural progression from categorizing as the teen chooses to believe what has been categorized as good, true, or what he/she likes. Yeah!…we all celebrate. Except realize this—the teen is not invested in this choice yet.

Teens Experience, Categorize, and Choose beliefs based on what is right for them in whatever current emotional state they are in. If they are in “love” with the boy at the party, they will choose what they believe is right for that situation. If they are in need of purpose, they will choose the belief that God has created them for a higher call. Emotional decisions are a large part of adolescent development (which is why there are minor laws to protect them). (Which is also why they drive us soooooo crazy.)

This is the big reason I have taught other youth ministers for over twenty years that teens don’t bring their decision of faith into adulthood.

Part of Choosing is simply personalizing one’s faith. This is a big and normal part of middle adolescence development. It is similar to the adolescent development step of achieving emotional independence from parents and other adults. Personalizing one’s faith is creating a faith that is something of their own, a step more than categorizing.

When teens are personalizing their faith, they come off as being wrapped up in themselves or self-centered. There is the teen who is just flabbergasted that her mother stays over occasionally at her boyfriend’s home–and let’s her mom know of this sin at every moment she gets–while this teen drives her own car like a speed racer. Teens really are wrapped up in themselves. But it is just for a stage. Sorry and have hope, it will pass.  

Choosing is different from Categorizing because their categories for their faith experiences do affect their lifestyles. (Praise God!)

There is more. Tasks #4, #5, #6, and #7 are found in this article. You are seeing how your own faith has been shaped, right? Isn’t it fascinating to see God’s hand in your life the entire time? Especially as we move forward.

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