Derailing Spiritual Development

Youth Specialties
March 31st, 2011

With fondness and a bit of regret I remember my early days in youth ministry. In my early twenties, I was simultaneously going through the stages of healthy deconstructing of my faith, questioning everything, and leading a youth group week-by-week. In retrospect, I began to take it to an unhealthy place in my early days of pastoral leadership.  I disagreed with much of the vision of the Church I worked at.  I disagreed with the attractional model of Church ministry and I purposely ran my ministry in a different way than the vision of the senior pastor.

I taught differently, spoke differently; I challenged him on his understanding of Church.

Needless to say we didn’t have a strong working relationship.   

Back then, I worked out my beliefs in public and looking back, my behavior lead to instability in my ministry. Obviously my short-sightedness didn’t help drive the vision forward.  While other factors were at work in that context which lead to instability, I was definitely one of them.

Your students aren’t at the same place you are

There is something beautiful about wrestling with your faith.  In fact it’s biblical:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

 – Philippians 2:12

The challenge for many youth workers is understanding what their role is in students lives. We are called to teach students what they need to hear, not what we are learning. If we truly care about the Gospel and care about our students becoming disciples of Jesus, then we need to focus and prioritize building a strong spiritual and theological foundation for our students.  

The longer I’m in youth ministry the more I realize my role isn’t to teach my students what God is teaching me, but rather my calling is to help build a strong and stable theological foundation for my youth. Often youth pastors teach what they are learning or processing and their students are plunged into the world of wrestling with deep theological questions that they don’t have the grounding, foundation, or developmental capacities to handle.

How far is too far?

The real question is how far can you go in working out your faith and beliefs in front of your students without overstepping the boundaries of your role in their life as their youth worker?  I recognize there is a place to question and a place for authentic conversation in your youth ministry, at the same time you never want to derail the spiritual formation of your students by introducing what you, as adult, are wrestling with and that a early or middle adolescent may not be able to process.

Teach your students to think for themselves and be students of theology.

It is not my duty as a youth pastor to spoon feed.  I don’t teach my students to accept everything they hear me says as truth and don’t expect them to buy into every Church tradition or religious practice. Instead, I point them to my source of authority, the Bible, and ask them to discern God’s Word for themselves. I believe healthy deconstruction in youth ministry happens when youth are taught to wrestle with any religious Non-biblical tradition.  I teach my students to wrestle with the ways we do ministry and the ways we do Church.  I teach my youth its okay to question why we do things the way we do them. But we are careful to do that in safe settings and in ways that they can process.

Don’t question the fundamental Christian doctrines of the Church

I’ve learned that nothing good can come of standing in front and questioning fundamental Christian doctrines. Processing and wrestling with the doctrines of the Church in front of fragile, impressionable and cognitively immature youth will only bring harm to their spiritual future and isn’t for the good of the Kingdom.

Find some friends

Finally, it’s worth closing with this encouragement.

There is nothing wrong with having these conversations with people at the same spiritual level and maturity as you.  Wrestling with doctrines and beliefs is central to what it means to be a Christian.  God created us with brains and is big enough to handle our questions.  While it isn’t appropriate to process these things with your students, it is perfectly acceptable (and fun) to gather with friends and wrestle through this stuff.

Youth Specialties

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.