I was coming to the penultimate point of my teaching series, something that – as a new youth worker and a new seminary grad – was the pinnacle of my ministry thus far. Now, 15 years later, I don’t even remember the topic (which may or may not have been a sign … ) but in that moment, please know that this teaching series mattered.
I paused, shot a pensive look to the students, and posed my final question.
Naturally, I expected hands to fly into the air – how would I choose? – as students clamored to answer the question that would surely impact their faith for the rest of their life. Instead, the room was as silent as a tomb. Everybody was either looking at the floor, hoping not to draw my attention, barely awake, or staring longingly at the snacks that were set up in the corner.
In the moment, I was disappointed. I had spent weeks prepping these lessons, even longer getting my own theology in order so that I could save the students in my group from the life-long fits of starts and stops that had marked my own faith.
Students need ownership
The mistakes I made in those first years (err ... decades?) of youth ministry are legion. However, one of the big missteps I made regularly was thinking I could simply download information into students – skipping that whole engaging teens part.
I believed that if I could only come up with the perfect lesson plan, I would be able to give them the tools to live a meaningful life of faith. However, that misguided idea of faith formation is grounded in the idea that students don’t already have active, meaningful lives of faith, but are instead blank slates that need to be filled by intrepid youth workers.
And, while I’ll eternally buy stock in “intrepid youth workers,” effective faith formation requires turning over faith ownership to teenagers. The risk, of course, is we don’t know what they’re going to do with it once we hand it over! Will they come to the wrong answer? Maybe. We’ll they question something we hold dear? Probably. But unless we allow students to own and claim their faith, it will never become meaningful and important parts of their lives.
Students need relevancy
Most of the students I worked with had no use for my theological heroes – Tillich, Wesley, etc. Likewise, they rarely were interested in the deep, insightful questions I was continually dropping on them. Be it theodicy or how the Trinity “works,” I often left the room frustrated that they weren’t getting it.
Now, a case could be made that I was not a good youth worker!
But the problem (besides my ego) was less about the information and the way it was presented. Most students understand the gap between how we think about God and how we contend with the sudden death of friends, war, large-scale poverty. So rather than leading with a term that had no meaning in their life, I should’ve started from a general place – something like “suffering” perhaps – and said, “Where have you seen this in your life?”
We understand what it means to suffer, to lose – to be disappointed. You don’t have to have grand theological thoughts to tap into those feelings, those experiences. Asking students to connect their faith to their experiences allows them to begin seeing those same insights outside of the youth room. But more importantly, it reminds them that their experiences have value to the church and to God.
Students need freedom
When I taught lessons, I had a death grip on the material. “Oh, you have a question about God’s character? Well, sorry – we’re covering that next week. Come back!” Besides being entirely insufferable, this approach forces teenagers to follow a path that – while probably well-designed – doesn’t allow for organic moments of transformation, let alone the potential for the Holy Spirit to break in!
If we allow our students to own their own faith, we need to give them opportunities to be wrong. To go out into the world and test their theories, their ideas about God. Does this mean they’re going to be wrong sometimes? Yes! But those mistakes won’t destroy their faith. Instead, they will become seeds that grow and turn into their faith into something dynamic and alive.
So, where does T.B.D. fit in?
T.B.D. is a new teen small group curriculum from Sparkhouse based around the idea that faith is – and will continue to be – an ongoing process. It asks students to bring their experiences, their thoughts, even their unpopular opinions, into the small group environment. It asks them to share what they really believe on a number of topics and focuses on engaging teens on these subjects, including Prayer, Sin, Mission and Salvation.
As they share their experiences, they are asked to think about them through the lenses of Christian history, theology, and Scripture. How does this new information inform our experiences? How does it make us rethink our opinions? Finally, each week, students are asked to take these new insights into the world. To test them. To report back and share how they worked and where they still need some work.
The result is a life of discipleship and faith that doesn’t paint in black and white strokes. Instead, it reminds students that it’s okay to be in process. To be figuring things out. I can’t think of anything else I’d want to teach my students.(But I do wish they liked Tillich.)
Interested in learning more about T.B.D. and how it can help your youth dig deeper into their faith? Visit our website for more information.