Can Teenagers Become Spiritually Mature?
Tom’s post below is a great reminder of all we can learn from each other when we gather together. Join us at the National Youth Workers Convention this fall in Cincinnati, OH to connect with and learn from the full family of youth workers.
Can teenagers become spiritually mature?
How we answer that question will have a profound impact on what we expect and on what we do in our youth ministries. If you believe the headlines, scientific study of adolescent brains now proves that teenagers are incapable of making wise choices. Except that’s not really what the research says.
No matter, when it comes to teenagers, adults never let the facts get in the way of a good opinion. In her book In Search of Adolescence, Crystal Kirgiss shows that thinkers, artists, and preachers have been assuming the worst about teenagers for hundreds of years. Something about the onset of puberty seems to make adults panic. They suddenly see their offspring as either angels or demons. Rarely do we seem to be able to see teenagers as fellow human beings – with just as many flaws and just as much potential as adults.
What is spiritual maturity?
If we can find out from the Bible what spiritual maturity looks like, we’ll be in a better position to know whether teenagers can reach it. Some Christians think of the word “mature” as a grab bag for every godly quality and good behavior mentioned in the Bible. But that’s not how the New Testament writers used that word. They consistently used the word “mature” and the related metaphor of growing from infancy to adulthood to describe Christians who had reached a basic or foundational level of spiritual growth. The passages that use the word “mature” in this way identify a remarkably similar list of traits or capacities that Jesus develops in mature believers:
Knowing the basics
The writer of Hebrews rebukes his readers because “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of God’s word” and reminds them that “solid food is for the mature” (Hebrews 5:11-14, NRSV). In 1 Corinthians 3:2 Paul uses the same analogy of “milk” vs. solid food to describe the difference between spiritual “infants” and spiritual adults. Spiritually mature believers understand and internalize the basic teachings of the Gospel and the Christian way of life. A spiritually mature believer knows the basic truths of the faith well enough to explain them to someone else.
In Hebrews 5:14 we learn that the mature “have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” In Ephesians 4:14, Paul notes that unlike the mature, spiritual children or infants are “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” Spiritually mature followers of Jesus can tell the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood in ordinary, daily life situations. For example, Paul could confidently say that some in the Corinthian church were “infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). How could he be so sure? Because they had failed Love 101 by indulging in jealousy, strife and forming factions in the church. Their inability to discern this obvious violation of the basic law of love was the key sign of their immaturity. That’s why Paul had to re-teach them the basic truths, the “milk.” Mature Christians don’t do everything right, but they are quick to see and admit when they have violated the basic teachings of the faith.
Growing in community
In Ephesians 4:11-13, we get a clear picture of how maturity can only happen to people who are connected to the body of Christ. Paul writes that God gave special leadership gifts in the church so that leaders would “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity.” In case it wasn’t already clear, Paul drives home the point that maturity requires a unified body of believers all working together to help each other grow up into Christ: “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body . . . when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and builds itself up in love” (v. 15-16). Yes, we need each other to reach maturity. But mature Christians realize that God’s purpose is not just to make me like Jesus, it’s to make us like Jesus together.
Loving Like Jesus
Just after he talks about growing up into Christ, to maturity, Paul paints a portrait of mature Christian living: “no longer live as the Gentiles do . . .” “You did not so learn Christ!” “Put off the old nature . . . and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature” (Ephesians 4:17-24). And just in case anyone was tempted to over spiritualize this transformation in Christ, Paul makes it very practical. Stop lying; speak the truth to each other (v 25). Stop stealing; get a job so you can give to those in need (v. 28). Stop tearing each other down in how you speak; instead speak grace to each other (v. 29). Mature believers have not rooted all sin out of their lives, but they are on the path of replacing community destroying sins with community building virtues – all because of the “new nature, created after the likeness of God” that they have received in Christ. They are not striving to be good on their own, but they are actively receiving the grace of God to love others the way Jesus did. When you look at the life of a mature believer, you see someone who is treating others in a way that is recognizably similar to the way Jesus treated people.
So can teenagers become spiritually mature?
Can they understand the basics of the faith? Can they discern what those basic truths mean for everyday situations? Can they help others grow in community? Can they love others in a way that shows a family resemblance to Jesus? Yes, of course they can. The real question is, “how can our youth ministries get better at helping them mature in Christ?”
Professor of Ministry and Missions, Huntington University
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.