Our youth groups are made up of teenagers across the entire spectrum of faith. On one end, we have students who don't yet know Christ. On the other, there are students who have a vibrant relationship with Him. As someone who has been doing youth ministry for 15 years or so, I am very interested in the journeys students take to from point A to point B.
I'm especially interested in the process that leads students to own a faith that is important. A faith that is primary. One that they value immensely.
Why is faith important to some of our teenagers and not to others? It's an interesting question, isn't it? Many of your students have a faith that is at the forefront of their lives. But many don't. Many of our students come to faith in Christ but then, over time, watch their faith take a backseat to other aspects of their lives and personalities. This isn't the picture of a healthy faith-life.
But instead of focusing on why students fail to "get it," I think it's very interesting to really focus on the factors and processes that lead to students having a faith that is important in their lives. In other words, what are some of the factors that lead to faith really sticking?
I lead a workshop on this topic a few times a year in different settings. Through leading this, I have come up with quite a list of variables and factors that I believe must be in place for students to have a faith that is important to them. Here are a few of the more important ones.
1. Students must see examples of adults living out important faith.
Study after study shows that parents are the #1 shapers of faith. More often than not, students will model the very brand of faith they see their parents living. In fact, research shows that the main cause of teenagers who went from high teenage religiousness to low religiousness is that their parents followed the same progression. But it doesn't stop with parents. Students need to see other adults modeling important faith, too. This is where you come in.
You and the other meaningful adults in your church are crucial examples of living out a faith that is important. It's been said that discipleship is just as much caught as it is taught, and maybe more so. Your faith lived out is one of the most powerful things you can do to help students own an important faith.
Paul got this. Paul not only understood this, he was bold in his proclamation of it. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul says, I can teach you to follow God. But if you want to see what it looks like, watch me. Copy me.
Our students recognize authentic faith. Our lives impact our students as much if not more than our words.
2. For nominal faith to become important faith, students absolutely must take increasing ownership of their spiritual growth.
We have to facilitate the transmission of increasing faith ownership. What do I mean when I say students must own their faith? They must become the drivers of their faith. There has to be a hand-off where the individual student becomes the person most concerned about their faith instead of their parents, grandparents, or youth leaders What do I mean by increasing faith ownership?
How do we help make this happen? First, we let them know that this is expected. We actually make it clear that this is the expectation. Show them in Scripture where this is the case. Second, we equip them with the skills they need to take greater ownership of their faith. I've written a book about this and I would love for you to check it out. It's called NEXT: Growing A Faith That Lasts. It's a great resource for helping students take greater ownership of their faith. Finally, we can create environments where it’s OK to for students to ask questions of their faith, both questions about God and questions of God.
3. For faith to become important, it has to cost them something.
I admit, at first glance, this one is a little squirrely. It feels like a catch 22. If their faith isn’t important, they won’t sacrifice for it. But if they don’t sacrifice for their faith, then it won’t become important. But, I think it's easier than it sounds. The National Study on Youth And Religion is the largest study ever done on teenagers and faith. It took years to complete, and many of the findings are still extremely valuable. One of the factors they identified in students who maintained a vibrant faith-life through their teenage years into young adulthood, is that paying certain costs for religious beliefs (abstaining from sex, experiencing persecution, doing some things and not doing others, etc.) led to a stronger overall faith. In short, their faith had to cost them something.
The more teenagers make tough decisions based on their faith, the more important their faith will become. There is a wonderful term used in therapy: Fake it until you make it. It can be the same with faith. An important faith starts with small decisions. Small decision after small decision nurtures a faith that begins to matter.
Paul’s prayer for the Colossians in Colossians 1:9-10 is a fitting picture of what we should want for our students: " And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God." This is a picture of faith that is important! This is my prayer for my students and my children. It’s my hope for your students, as well.