Ministering to Teens

Responsibly Guiding Our Children into Healthy Individuation
[Individuation: The life process by which created beings peculiar to a sin corrupted world attempt to personalize an acceptable definition of self through the development of mores, values and character.]

Christian teens today are undergoing an individuation process permeated with the influence of secular decadence as they journey daily the road to adulthood. A nationwide mentality of self-centeredness among adults is influencing our teens toward self-indulgent experimentation while on their journey of self-discovery. Lacking a consistent moral and spiritual model from parents and society, self-indulgent behavior has rapidly become many a teen’s primary means of discovering and expressing individuality.

The widespread inconsistency of adherence to personal values among adults, demonstrated by the specter of broken families, fallen religious leaders, and corrupt politicians is encouraging a cynical and self-centered mentality in our youth. As this process of individuality development continues to be corrupted, it is leading teens to challenge and reject, often through acts of open rebellion, many of the values and beliefs basic to Christianity.

The Credibility Gap

While on the journey to choose and validate their own set of moral and ethical standards by which to live, today’s teens are inevitably becoming more attuned to the immoral adult world around them. From these perceptions, teens are developing an increasing lack of confidence in the basic integrity of adults. This mistrust is contributing to the development of an even greater incentive within teens to make important life choices apart from the guiding influences of adults. Many teens are beginning to question, as a general principle, the qualifications of adults to be a positive guiding influence in their lives.

Discovery through Provocation

A significant stage in a teen’s maturation process is when they are becoming responsibly aware that they will soon be required to make decisions that will have a considerable impact on their future well-being. Privately, most teens are deeply aware of the increasing expectations upon them to mature into responsible adults, even though they may outwardly act as though they haven’t a clue. But, most teenagers are also keenly aware of the widespread moral inconsistency and hypocrisy in the lives of so many adults today. It becomes difficult for them to believe that adult authority figures really have the teen’s well-being in mind. With that persistent doubt, teens often challenge established authority with acts of provocation in an attempt to differentiate between truth and falsehood.
Reacting to this provocation, adults will typically label teens as rebellious, disrespectful, and having a bad attitude. We, as adults, far too often misinterpret the intentions of teens. In defensive reaction, we too readily assign ungodly motivations to those teenage behaviors we find personally offensive (Matt. 5:2,22; 7:1-5).

The Lure of the Occult

Parental depression, inappropriate anger, and deviant sexual behavior are being modeled by parents in the homes of many Christian children today. The numbers of children being victimized by sexual, emotional, and physical abuse seem to be at an all-time high. When society and even the home is no longer a place to receive healthy and hope filled guidance into adulthood, many teens will determine to find their own way by embracing alternative lifestyles. These alternative lifestyles appear to offer more security, peace, and personal reward than the lives being modeled by adults.
The surging popularity of the occult with teenagers reflects the increasing sense of hopelessness in the hearts of our teens as they strive to find hope in the ever-increasing darkness of the world around them. The occult has become an avenue through which teens attempt to appropriate a sense of positive personal identity and affirmation through peer acceptance. The mysteries of the occult present a tantalizing means by which a teen can feel empowered to overcome the heartache of social alienation.
Teens that feel unacceptable to parents or to other teens are especially vulnerable to the enticements of an avenue that appears to offer personal acceptance. Teenagers experiencing the emotionally painful isolation accompanying rejection by their peer group naturally gravitate toward any opportunity to feel accepted. The occult offers them this opportunity of acceptance by friendship with others through the commonality of shared interests.

Conditional Acceptance Through Drug Use

The soul of man was originally designed by God to rest comfortably in the profound realization of wholly acceptable individuality through relational interaction with a God who would love him perfectly. God’s perfect love for man was more than sufficient to supply man with an acceptable definition of self.
Tragically, through Adam’s sin, man was separated from the close personal realization of God’s love. Now, we grow up in a performance-bound, works-mentality world that offers conditional acceptance instead of unconditional love. Conditional acceptance is a cheap substitute for unconditional love. We must work very hard to earn enough conditional acceptance to temporarily fill the empty space in our souls that was meant to permanently harbor the fullness of God’s unconditional love (Eph. 3:16-19).
Our children want to be wanted. They need to be wanted. And many of our teens are desperately trying to feel wanted. Attracted to the social benefits associated with conditional acceptance, our teens are especially susceptible to the allure of peer acceptance through drug use.  By having and using drugs, teens encounter camaraderie through the mutual exploration of a common experience. By sharing or selling drugs, they can feel a measure of acceptance by feeling wanted or even needed by somebody. Through the drug induced highs they experience, they gain temporary relief from feelings of unworthiness.
As long as our teens cannot clearly envision a viable alternative to a seemingly endless striving for conditional acceptance, they will continue to embrace worldly formulas for temporary gratification. They will strive through misguided efforts to try to appropriate a substitute for what their souls were originally designed to freely receive – God’s unconditional love (Eph. 2:4-9).
The physical aspects of drug addiction can often be overcome by careful separation from the physical elements of the addiction – the drugs themselves. But the soul (the mind, the emotions, and the will) can only be truly emancipated from addictive behavior by appropriating the transforming power of God’s love and grace for healthy individuation.

The Fairness Principle

Taking their cue from the world around them, teens tend to view right and wrong from the context of “fair” and “unfair.” Based upon their perceptions of fairness, teens often believe they have a right to be angry and even bitter and revengeful (Matt.18:21-22). This principle is certainly well represented and encouraged by our excessively revengeful and litigious society. Our teens are witnessing a generation of Christian adults that seem to be exhibiting more trust in the rules of law than the ways of God. Suing someone today is often considered a justifiable opportunity to exact revenge and secure a monetary reward. Teens are not oblivious to this trend. And they are very much aware that the underlying motives are often greed, ambition and satisfaction of self, rather than seeking true justice through legal means.

Hollywood movies have a large impact with teens. Today’s movies do not typically present the Christian formula of forgiveness and personal repentance as a solution to the emotional damage caused by victimization. Instead, we are invited to participate vicariously in bloody vengeance as we view our movie stars taking justice into their own hands. (“Hmmm, where in the world do teens today get the idea that they can just go shoot people that they feel have mistreated them!?”)
We cannot expect our teens to develop into healthy mature Christians if we adults will not, by our own godly example lead them into Christian adulthood.

Fairness/Compensation Theology

Human logic, and even biblical principles, seem to dictate the right to compensation. Compensation is a principal that has some biblical support in the Old Testament (Ex. 22:1-17), although Christ offers us an alternative in the New Testament (Matt. 5:38-48; 1Cor. 6:1-8)!
It is difficult for a person to come to true repentance and forgiveness if he is viewing himself as a casualty of unfairness awaiting compensation. The beliefs and attitudes of many people involved in compensatory litigation go something like this. “I am the victim. I have been injured or suffered a loss of some kind because of this victimization. Therefore, fairness dictates that any person who has contributed to my victimization in any way owes me something.”
The individual who was victimized then begins to integrate into his personal theology the concept of conditional forgiveness and repentance based upon principles of fairness. This concept of conditional forgiveness and repentance might be summarized in these words, “I don’t have to repent of my anger, resentment and bitterness and forgive the one who has victimized me until he has apologized and/or compensated me.”
To believe that we do not have to forgive from our hearts implies that Jesus was wrong when he spoke to us about forgiveness (Matt. 18:22-35). Scripture clearly indicates that we can and must forgive and repent regardless of the other persons actions. Furthermore, it is my experience that a person operating from a fairness-based mentality rarely truly forgives or repents from his heart even after receiving an apology or some sort of compensation.

Responsible Guidance

Teens need to be taught by Christian adults that life isn’t fair but that God, nevertheless, is good and trustworthy and securely in control. They need to see Christian adults demonstrating the courage of their religious convictions through their own choices and their own actions. And most of all, our teens need to experience unconditional love from Christian adults.
Teen boys may seem to be more impressed by the self-glorifying, self-sufficient movie action hero; but their souls are more profoundly touched and their hearts moved by the man or woman expressing love with humility. Teens cannot be expected to trust the guidance of Christian adults who are not really trying to love them as Christ loves them. And they cannot realistically be expected to trust adults whom they know or sense are in conflict with them. They need to witness Christian adults who will not automatically react with harsh judgment, but, instead, respond to a teen’s provocations with a combination of forgiveness and love.
We will not see teens increase in godliness by simply pointing out to them that which we believe is right or wrong or by trying to exert more control over them through increased disciplinary measures. We will see teens turn to God when they see usconsistently turn to God.

Representatives of Hope

Jesus changed the world around Him by making consistently godly choices in both word and action. He accomplished this by the only method possible; complete surrender to the will of his heavenly Father.
It is our responsibility before God and to our teens to be transformed inwardly through the determined and consistent surrendering of our old ways of thinking (Eph. 4:22-24). Our children’s hopes must be anchored firmly in Christ. But we must guide them to Him by giving them the opportunity to evidence a portion of the fruit of that hope through relationship with adults who are being transformed into His likeness with ever increasing glory (2 Cor. 3:18). By this personal example of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, we will be teaching our children that their faith and their hope must not rest on man’s wisdom but on God’s power (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
Hope in God is an essential but frequently missing ingredient in the individuation process of teens today. Yet, as adults, if we will not allow our own lives to be an evidence of the sanctifying power of faith and hope; from what example will our children learn to hope? If our children are not seeing God changing our lives; why should they believe God can change theirs? But it is not enough to tell our children what God has done in our lives; we must also be able to testify about what he is doing. A changed life is an old testimony. But a changing life is a living testimony. A testimony of living hope in Christ Jesus.
As Christian adults, we have been given the opportunity and the accompanying responsibility of demonstrating the power of God’s love through the transformation of our own souls. Only as we become more like Christ will we be able to truly love our youth as Christ loves them. Only as we become more like Him will we be able to demonstrate the unconditional love which could be a beacon of hope for our teens in a world increasingly filled with alternatives that eventually lead to despair.

Religious Striving

On the other hand, believing that we must be all things to all people will restrict our success with teens. We will be too busy striving, trying to fix the problems in our teens’ lives to allow God the necessary time to fix the problems within our own lives. When we strive, we enter into conflict more often than we enter into healthy or helpful relationship with others.
Many Christian adults have been deceived and have succumbed to the delusion that their religious striving is an act of surrender to God! They point to the long hours they have dedicated in service to God or to the things they have sacrificed so that they may do “God’s work.” This dedication and sacrifice is then supposed to represent a surrendering of self. But, far too often, it is merely an indication of a very determined effort of religious striving. When we look at the apparent fruits of our labors, we may resist the idea that we are striving. We may point to our successes and to the appreciation being expressed by those to whom we have ministered. We may hide behind the success we are experiencing presently and even be receiving accolades from our peers, but God knows the difference we could be making if we were truly surrendered to Him.

The Road We Do Not Always Want to Travel

Teenagers do not always want to go where we would lead them. If we are to lead our youth to a place that they do not really want to go; we must allow ourselves to be led to that place first.
In chapter 21 of the Gospel of John, Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” We are told that Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then Jesus said, “Follow me.”
Like Peter, who was dressed by someone else and led where he did not want to go; we have been dressed by Christ in fine white linen and we are now being asked to go where we do not entirely want to go. But when Jesus said, “Follow me”, He was not making a request; He was issuing a command! Jesus is challenging us to follow Him to the cross so that our very lives might be an example of Christ’s hope for His children (Matt. 10:32-39).
If we will truly obey His command and follow Him, Jesus will lead us on a life-long, life-giving journey of dying to self. On this journey, we may confidently hope to glorify God by leading our children into healthy Christian adulthood (James 4:4-10; Col. 3:9,10; Eph. 4:20-24). If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize it is not always a place we want to go. It is a place of surrender and a place of forgiveness. It is a place of personal repentance, which leads to humility.
And it is only with a humble spirit, a Christ-like spirit, that we will successfully become a living representation of healthy individuation for our teens.

Copyright © 2000 by R. Thomas Brass
All rights reserved.