Navigating a Broad Spectrum of Spiritual Maturity
If your students are anything like mine, then they’re all over the spiritual map.
I have teens who love Jesus, teens who want to know more about Jesus, and teens who couldn’t care less. I also have teens who are spiritually apathetic but love our community—they’re the engaged kids who will play ball. I also have teens whose parents force them to be there, teens who are totally opposed to all things Christian, and teens who are only there to find ways to make out with their crushes.
Within this broad spectrum of student ministry, two questions arise:
1. How do we speak in a way that challenges our students to grow spiritually?
2. Without watering down the message, how do we speak in a way that doesn’t alienate the students who are on the opposite end of the spectrum?
The answer might be easier than you imagined.
It Can’t Be About Behavior Modification
Many of us mistake behavior management for spiritual formation. If a student doesn’t drink, doesn’t have sex, comes to youth group, and even does a devotional once in a while, then we might say that student is growing spiritually. If a student memorizes Scripture and brings other teens to youth group, then we think that student is killing it!
While all these habits are good, I would argue that instead of spiritual growth, these actions point to behavior modification. Let’s say that these benchmarks I mentioned above earn an A on our youth group report card. I’m then forced to find additional work for the A students, such as volunteering in missions, working with justice and compassion ministries, and memorizing more Bible verses. But if I focus on these students, then the D and C students will get left behind—and the F students don’t have a chance.
If I “dumb down” my curriculum and expectations to cater to the C students, then the A students get bored, and the F students still don’t have a chance—but like all bell curves, at least I’ll have a larger ministry. But this is not the only goal, is it?
We Need a New Paradigm
In a behavior-modification paradigm, we’re challenged with how to care for the entire spectrum. But in a spiritual-formation paradigm, students are asked to reflect on their inner life and discover the steps they need to take to move toward Christ.
A spiritual-formation paradigm is also about helping students own their own faith. When they do, their behaviors will come from their own convictions rather than the expressed, acceptable behaviors of the group.
For our group, we accomplish this by keeping the following questions before us. During every small group, every Bible study, every time we communicate with our students, we ask them to consider variations of these three questions:
- How can I be reflective? What does Jesus have to say to me about what I’ve just read or heard? What questions/thoughts/feelings did Jesus bring to the surface in my life? What is Jesus asking me to do, and who is Jesus inviting me to be? It doesn’t matter how spiritually strong a person is, this question allows space for everyone on the journey, and it invites everyone to move forward.
- How can I be a blessing? How can I put what I just read or heard into practice in a way it will bless others? We don’t grow in knowledge in order to hold it over people’s heads. Rather, we bless others at every turn. All students, from our strongest Christians to our most apathetic teens, can be challenged on this.
- Who will go with me? The Christian life is done in community. So this question compels students to include others in their faith development. The more we can encourage our students to see their spiritual development as dependent on being connected to others, the better chance we have for them to have faith for the long haul. As with the other two questions, this question can be a challenge for students anywhere on the spiritual spectrum.
Our student ministries are diverse and complex. Instead of dumbing down our curriculum, giving up on our convictions, or leaving some teens behind, let’s pour our lives into our students and leverage the influence we have toward spiritual formation rather than behavior modification.
After almost two decades of student ministry, Ben’s heart still beats and breaks for students. Loving students and helping them love Jesus have been the foundational principles around which he has organized his life and ministry. While his job description has transformed over the years, he is still most passionate about investing in the student ministry at MARIN COVENANT CHURCH. Follow him on twitter at @AVERAGEYM.
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.