Youth Camp. It’s just not for me. The food. The dorms. The smells. That’s not my idea of a good time. But this summer, after filling up at Chick-fil-a, I dropped in on our students during their last evening at camp. While visiting with them during dinner, worshipping with them, and hearing them debrief God’s activity in their lives, I saw a group of imperfect but passionate Jesus followers.
Despite all the challenges, teenagers of this generation are not beyond the power of the gospel to rescue and empower to live on mission with God. Students of Generation Z (as they’re called) are eager to learn, grow, and do hard things for Jesus’ sake. They are not huge fans of stale institutionalism (who is?), but they appreciate a church that inspires and teaches them to worship God, love their neighbors, make disciples, and lay their lives down to proclaim Jesus among every nation, tribe, and tongue.
As I raised my hands in worship with our students that night at camp, however, I was encouraged and sobered in the very same moment. I’ve been around long enough to know that at least a few of these kids who were singing to Jesus at the top of their lungs in that wonder-filled moment will lose interest in him altogether in just a year or two.
Living with tensions
Like many Christians, teenagers live with tensions. They have one foot planted in the gospel and the other in the thin air of fickle passions, peer pressures, and cultural expectations. Secular humanism woos them at every turn. School curriculum, social media, entertainment, and even sports proficiently shape beliefs and gradually siphon affections away from God. And many children come from a complicated family structure that fails to provide the safety and consistency needed for healthy spiritual formations.
The pressures on students are unparalleled. They grapple with questions in the most formative season of life that no previous generation in modern history has faced. Complex gender and sexuality conversations are a way of life. Spirituality is celebrated, while the exclusivity of Jesus is scorned. Objective truth is a demon to reject, and personal preference is an idol to worship.
It would be a comfort if I knew that we could simply tweak our church programs to rescue students from all of that. Many churches thought event-driven, low expectations, and “come and see our moving lights shows” would do the trick. Modernization is amazing, and in some measure necessary, but we’ve discovered it does not have the power to transform a life or raise up a generation of world changers. Smaller, larger, modern, or traditional—kids walk away from all kinds of churches every year.
So how does a student who professes Jesus as Lord, travels on mission projects, and attends every student activity available for two or three years then walk away from the mission of God? There has been much conversation and research around that question, but the answers are not elusive.
The most important influences
Teenagers of this generation are not beyond the power of the gospel to rescue and empower to live on mission with God.
The greatest challenge to this next generation is not secular humanism or changing sexual norms or the pressures of entertainment and media. Stale church traditionalism creates a heightened level of cynicism that undermines the gospel, but that is not the greatest challenge to the next generation. The negative impact of divorce is overwhelming, but even the breakdown of the family is not the greatest obstacle facing our students.
As important as these influences are, nothing has the power to impact students for Jesus’ sake more than the passions of the adults closest to them. Whether that is a parent, stepparent, or grandparent, the next generation is shaped by the basic, driving priorities and practices of the current generation.
Often, however, Christian parents simply scan the community for the “best” church around that accommodates the adolescent preferences of their child. If the child enjoys the programming and makes friends, all is well. But if the church or youth program misses the mark, the parent soon gives the child car keys and a choice about how involved he or she will be. While the child has no choice about any other significant area of life, this freedom is granted with the rationale that no one should “shove religion down the throat” of a child. Instead of discipling their child, parents decide to let the child decide.
The truth is that no one should shove religion down anyone’s throat. This view of Christian parenting represents a devastating misunderstanding of biblical disciple making. Parents who shove, on the one hand, or are ruled by the whims of their adolescent, on the other, reveal a basic confusion about Jesus, his work in their lives, and his mission in the world.
Students moving from the middle years to the teenage years wise up. They learn to assess the legitimacy of their parents’ personal walk with Jesus; and the cumulative work of a parent always communicates the truth about one’s passions and priorities. A parent’s authentic love for Jesus does not guarantee the child will love Jesus, too, but a divided heart projects a hypocrisy that is hard to overcome. So, parents do not have to choose between shoving or not shoving. Instead, we pass along what and who we are. By our lives, we influence. By our words, we guide. By our practices, we instruct. By our passions, we inspire.
Moses said as much when he wrote, “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 6 These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. 7 Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (Deut. 6:4-7 (CSB))
When Jesus and his good news capture the affection of our hearts, we invite our kids to experience him with us, at our side. In our daily conversation and decisions, our kids see us pursue Jesus. They watch us choose his best over our preferences and theirs. They take note as we walk in his way and as we receive his forgiveness in our failures. They see us rest in his grace and grow in his wisdom. They join us as we make costly decisions that put him first in our finances and family relationships, and they learn to trust him with us for the consequences of those decisions. And they learn to love our church and join the mission of God in a community of imperfect followers of Jesus.
Every child has a choice to make about what to do with Jesus, so there’s no shoving allowed. But gospel influence happens in the smallest places of our hearts and homes. The stakes are too high for half measures. If Christian parents want to impact the next generation, if we want our kids to follow Jesus, if we dream of our grandchildren raising their hands to Jesus at youth camp, then we must turn our heart to Jesus, tear down every idol, and surrender every area of our lives to his Lordship. Our children will see the beauty of Jesus and the glory of the gospel by our passions and practices, and by God’s grace they will see the value of loving and pursuing him for themselves.
This post originally appeared here.