Our Holiest Kids May Be Our Hardest Challenge!

Jacob Eckeberger
October 27th, 2016

We’re excited to have Marv Penner as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations he’ll be navigating in his seminars. Check out more information HERE.

They’ve heard it all before.

They’re holier than thou (and probably thine entire youth group.) Half of them have been home-schooled and they’re fluent in Hebrew. There’s nothing you can teach them because they already know everything there is to know. Leviticus is their favorite book and they have a well-articulated position on the authorship of Isaiah. It’s easy to be intimidated by these living lexicons, but the truth is that these biblical brainiacs likely represent our biggest ministry challenges –  and our most significant spiritual dividend, should we choose to invest

They may come across as arrogant and unteachable – and often that’s exactly what they are, but what we encounter at the surface doesn’t necessarily give us the whole story. I’ve got to be honest. My knee-jerk reaction to these mindlessly compliant kids has usually been to roll my eyes, avoid them and look for someone else to invest in. Someone who is actually willing to wrestle with the tough questions of faith in an authentic and transparent way. “After all,” I’ve told myself, “They don’t want or need what I have to offer.”

For a lot of these over-churched kids, faith is simply an exercise of the mind and the will.

They know all the facts and legalistically toe the line on all the rules whether they agree with them or not.  It’s sad for us to see these bright kids bored and apathetic about their walk with Jesus.  Their external behaviors seem to line up but their absence of life and passion leaves so much to be desired.

For some reason these kids have come to assume that the way to earn God’s affection is to meticulously get it all right on the outside.  Instead of a relationship expressing a deep heart of worship, they sincerely believe that God is primarily concerned with external appearances and behavioral conformity. For all they know about the Bible, it seems that they’ve missed the fact that the Good News is deeply relational.

Before we write off these apparently unmotivated law-keepers, let’s take quick look at some of the common characteristics of these kids and see if we can understand  some of the reasons their spiritual lives have been skewed this way.


The lack of spiritual energy and direction stems from the fact that most of these kids are living a secondhand faith.  It’s not just that they haven’t made it their own yet. Instead, their parents are often intrusively downloading their own theological biases, anxieties and demands on their son or daughter. For many of these moms and dads it’s driven by fear or pride and the only way the kids can counteract the franticness of the parents’ expectations is to emotionally detach from the whole thing.

Behavioral Compliance

Many of our theological traditions define sin primarily in behavioral terms – no sex, no swearing, no smoking, and the list goes on. When that path is followed to its natural conclusion it’s not surprising that children – and eventually teenagers – will assume that by the same measure, spiritual maturity is marked by doing the right things. I understand the Scriptural call to a life of holiness, but in this distortion, holiness is a prerequisite to relationship rather than the spontaneous response of a heart deeply in love with Jesus. As long as we define repentance only in terms of turning from something instead of seeing it as a rich invitation to turn to someone kids will keep believing that it’s just about doing the right thing.


It means to distrust the good seen in others. Kids who have grown up in the church are often spiritually cynical because they’ve seen the gap between the talk and the walk in their friends, their parents and all to often in highly visible spiritual leaders who continue to crash and burn with uncanny regularity.  They get the unmistakable sense that faith isn’t working for anyone – that it really doesn’t impact life at a deep and meaningful level.  Even their own experience of recommitting their lives to Jesus at the retreat campfire resulted in nothing more than a two-week blip on their own spiritual trajectory.


Tough questions are not welcome and if they are raised they elicit pat answers and predictable clichés.  There’s no place for most of these kids to step back from their faith and wrestle with some of the mysteries of a God who doesn’t fit neatly into a box and the often cryptic book he gave us through a process that’s not easy to describe. “God said it! We believe it! That settles it! The fact is that for most of these mindlessly compliant kids it’s far from settled, but the notion of expressing doubt is so terrifying they would rather simply not think about it. These kids have been taught what to think instead of how to think.

I’ve given you A,B,C and D of the alphabet used by far too many of our kids to spell out their faith.  We could carry on and talk about Egocentrism, Fear, Grumbling, Hypocricy, Isolation, Judgmental Know-it-alls, Legalism, and More… But let me wrap it up by suggesting a few reasons why investing in these kids should be a critical ministry priority.

  • Most of the theological distortions these kids live with are not of their making. The majority of them are simply living out an adolescent version of the values they had modeled for them.
  • Failure to invest will reinforce and perpetuate a pattern that must be challenged and interrupted as a blatant distortion of the heart of the gospel before it sullies another generation
  • There is significant power in the knowledge these kids possess, so as long as we can find ways to connect their saturated heads with their dry and dusty hearts the potential for deep intimacy with Christ and rich effectiveness is immense.

Maybe it’s time for an attitude adjustment about a group of kids in our care who need to see Jesus in a whole new way.

Marv Penner is an internationally known author, professor, speaker, and youth ministry veteran who has spent more than 40 years working with students and families. He’s the author of six books on youth ministry, including The Youth Worker’s Guide to Parent Ministry, Hope and Healing for Kids Who Cut, and Building and Mobilizing Teams. Marv is also a marriage and family counselor specializing in parent/adolescent conflict resolution, sexual abuse recovery, self-injury, eating disorders, and marriage and family issues.

Jacob Eckeberger

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.