By / Jul 21

In our families and in our churches, we are far too often late to the conversation about sexuality with our teenagers and reactionary once we speak up. This should not be the case. The kitchen table and living room are perhaps the best places for this discussion. And the church is called to equip its people to follow Christ and make disciples within our cultures. To fulfill this, we must talk about the uncomfortable issues—homosexuality, same-sex attraction, gender fluidity, pornography, and sexual immorality—and we must do so clearly and compassionately. We cannot retreat out of fear or remain silent out of ignorance in either the home or the church. Now is the time for honest answers to hard questions. Here are four things we must do:

1. Help teenagers see the Bible as their authority and guide

The uncertainty about issues of sexuality is closely connected to the trustworthiness of the Bible for many teenagers. Many are not grounded in the Bible enough to discuss a biblical response to the issue, and the Bible does not function in an authoritative way in their life. Kevin DeYoung is right: “The challenge before the church is to convince ourselves as much as anyone that believing the Bible does not make us bigots, just as reflecting the times does not make us relevant.” (143) This challenges means two things:

First, we shouldn’t shy away from teaching what the Bible says about sexuality, but proclaim it with grace and love. Teach what the Bible says about gender, sexuality, and purity with clarity. Don’t neglect, dismiss, or deny what God has clearly said. However, while what you say is important, how you say it has never been more important. Don’t highlight the issues of sexuality as if it is all the Bible speaks against. Rather, teach what the Bible says about sexuality in light of its bigger picture—the goodness of God’s design for human beings and the good news of God’s redemption. The Bible invites us into something much bigger and better than our broken sexual desires—it invites us to know and enjoy the God who made and redeems us.

We shouldn’t shy away from teaching what the Bible says about sexuality, but proclaim it with grace and love.

Second, we shouldn’t neglect to teach why the Bible is trustworthy and why it functions as our ultimate authority. Students need to know what the Bible says, but they also need to know why they can trust it. This begins with demonstrating a high view of God’s Word and its authority in our teaching. It will also involve showing students what the Bible says about itself and how it is historically reliable. This cannot be taken for granted or only given lip service. It must evident in our practices and explicit in our teaching.

2. Listen

While there are many important and essential things we need to teach teenagers about gender and sexuality, it is imperative that we learn to listen well. We must be invested and involved in the lives of students so that we have the opportunity to listen. We must also create spaces where students are not only receiving God’s Word but discussing their lives and applying God’s Word to specific areas. When it comes to discussing issues of sexuality—especially homosexuality and gender issues—make sure to learn the stories of students who are struggling with these issues or have friends who are. Many teenagers fear being labeled judgmental or intolerant, especially when they have friends who identify as homosexual or as transgender. We need to hear this struggle and speak directly to it with grace and truth.

3. Be patient

This topic cannot be addressed in a sermon series and then put on the shelf. It must be addressed faithfully as we teach through the Bible in our ministries. It must also be addressed personally through discipleship relationships. In the home, parents must be equipped with resources to discuss these issues with their children around the dinner table. In light of our current cultural climate, many teenagers will likely take a soft stance on these issues and maybe even disagree with the clear teaching of God’s Word, especially when it comes to its political aspects (i.e. same-sex marriage).

Please don’t misunderstand, this is not an agreeing to disagree position. While we cannot compromise the consistent biblical witness about God’s design for gender or sexuality, we must also not cut off conversation with students the first time they push back against it. Like all areas of discipleship, we must commit to patiently walking with teenagers as they come to know and grow up into Christ.

4. Keep our focus on the good news of the gospel

Whatever we do, regardless of the issue we are addressing, we cannot shift our focus from the hope of the gospel. Following Christ is hard, and it will entail holding unpopular positions within our culture. We should not only make the gospel clear in our teaching, we should show why the gospel is really good news. We should be showing the worth of Jesus in the way we live and what we teach. We should highlight the joy of knowing and being known by our Redeemer. We should show how the gospel really is good news for all people regardless of age, sex, race, or sexuality.

It is good news about God coming to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). It is good news that our old self is gone, and we now have a new identity in Christ (Col. 3:1-11; Eph. 4:17-32). It is good news that our past does not define us nor do our present circumstances limit the work God wants to do in and through us (Phil. 3:12-14). It is good news about God coming to set us free from the bondage and shame of sin (Luke 4:18-19; 1 John 1:9). It is good news about God forgiving the guilt of our sin (Mark 2:1-12; 1 John 1:9) and bearing the full wrath of God in our place (Rom. 3:24-26; 5:1). It is good news about God bringing us out from the rule of sin into his glorious kingdom (Mark 1:15; Col. 1:13-14). It is good news about God making us a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and bringing us from death to new, abundant life (Eph. 2:1-10; John 3:3-5; John 10:10)

It is good news about God beginning the restoration of all things (Rom. 8:19-20), including our broken sexual desires. The gospel holds out a better way in the midst of our hyper-sexualized world. Now is the time to press into God’s Word, draw near to our neighbors, and speak and live with compassion and without compromise as we address the issues of sexuality with our teenagers.

Learn about this and other topics at the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on “Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World” on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, TN.

By / May 22

Christians view parenting as a really big deal. We invest almost two decades teaching our children to love God, to know his Word and to walk in his ways. Parents guide, model, inspire and correct.

Your parents may have done a good job, but it’s also likely they missed the mark along the way. But graduation day is not about what your parents did or did not do. Graduation day announces that it is now your turn. No more delay. This is the day you step forward. But you may have noticed the hand-off from one generation to the next does not always go so well. After Joshua, the great leader of Israel, died, the next generation walked away from God:

“The Lord raised up judges, who saved them from the power of their marauders, but they did not listen to their judges. Instead, they prostituted themselves with other gods, bowing down to them. They quickly turned from the way of their fathers, who had walked in obedience to the Lord’s commands. They did not do as their fathers did.” Judges 2:16-17

This new generation “quickly turned from the way of their fathers.” Their parents had walked in the way of the Lord, but the kids did not. It doesn’t have to be that way for you. Many Christians are wringing their hands and worried about the future, but this is no time to run and hide. This is no time to lose heart. Your generation has the opportunity to show and tell the gospel with a clarity we have not seen since the Protestant Reformation.

I don’t want to over-speak at this point, but I do not want to under-challenge you either. Instead I want to offer you four keys for your future. These four keys may or may not be new to you, but if you will use them, God will open new opportunities for you to live on mission with him that you never thought possible.

Key 1: Anthropology

I know, you thought school was out, but anthropology is the news of the day. Technically, anthropology is the study of humanity. It helps us answer the question of what it means to be human. What is male and female? How are humans different than animals? It seems the influence of humanistic, evolutionary philosophy has trickled down into every part of our lives. As a result, we often don’t know how to think about the differences between men and women, or the foundation and purpose of marriage, or roles and responsibilities of a husband and wife, or the value of children.

While we may be familiar with a Christian culture in our home, too often, we don’t have a well-formed biblical worldview when it comes to the basic question: “What is a human?”

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.” Gen.1:27-28

We are not little gods, but as human beings, we were created in the image and likeness of God. That simply means we were created to represent God. Unlike any other created being, humans were created to reflect the glory of God. The image of God stamped on our hearts gives us a distinctive dignity and an eternal purpose.

Contrary to popular opinion, God did indeed created us male and female so that we could complement one another and complete one another in marriage for his glory. While the pervasiveness of sin confuses us and tempts us to distort our understanding of sex, marriage and gender, God created us male and female. Marriage, sexual orientation and gender are not subjective notions of our psychology; they are objective realities of our biology. In other words, we are not what we think or say we are. We are what God created us to be. And that is not a consolation prize. It is God’s greatest good for us to live, breath, marry and procreate for his glory.

Key 2: Authority

Whenever things go bad for a generation, we can always look back and find the moment when that generation rejected authority. That’s how sin entered the world from the start. The serpent tempted Eve by saying, “Did God really say . . . ” (Gen. 3:1). After the death of Joshua, it is said the people of Israel turned away from the commands of the Lord (Judges 2:17). Then at the end of Judges we read:

We like our independence, so we tend pick and choose the authorities we prefer.

“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted.” Judges 21:25

Just as a reminder, it never goes well to do just whatever we want to do.

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” Prov. 14:12

We like our independence, so we tend pick and choose the authorities we prefer. We see ourselves as the ultimate authority over our authorities. And while not all human authorities always deserve our allegiance, our divine authority does.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Tim. 3:16

The Bible is not chicken soup for our soul. It’s not simply good advice. It’s not inspirational art for our coffee mug, bathroom painting or our tattoo. The Bible is the revelation of God that invites us to know him by placing our trust in his Son Jesus as the Lord of our life. So when we read that the Bible is inspired by God, that doesn’t mean it’s just inspiring. It means that is it God-breathed. It is God’s eternal, authoritative Word to us.

The result is that our posture toward God’s Word is one of humility. It means we adjust our life to God’s Word rather than expecting God’s Word to adjust to our life. It means we interpret our experiences through the lenses of God’s Word rather than interpreting the Bible through the lenses of our experiences. It means that rebuking and correction from God’s Word are normal parts of our life as we learn to follow Jesus and make him known. So graduation day is not Independence Day. It’s submission day—the day we yield our lives to the Word of God that we may walk in his ways.

Key 3: Community

God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:27a). From the very beginning, we see the triune Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit functioning in community together. The relationship of the Godhead is a mystery we’ll only fully understand in heaven. Nevertheless, it’s a model for how we function in community with others.

When God called Abraham, he called him to build a people. After the Exodus, God’s people lived in smaller tribes, then later in territories and cities. And when the Holy Spirit birthed the church in Acts 2, he launched a church planting movement from Jerusalem and throughout the known world. Believers would gather in communities of faith called local churches to worship God, grow in the Word, serve one another and share the gospel.

Despite a world that’s more connected through technology than ever before, we frequently live isolated lives. What’s more, family is an extremely confusing thing for most people. Many of us don’t even come from a two-parent family anymore. So we really don’t know how to relate to people, build friendships, have meaningful conversations or serve one another. We live on an relational island. Solomon had this to say about that,

“One who isolates himself pursues selfish desires; he rebels against all sound judgment.” Prov. 18:1

Isolation is not only selfish, it’s dangerous. We usually don’t accomplish anything meaningful that we accomplish alone. We were made for community. Some people are critics of texting. I’m not one of those people. Some of the best conversations I have with my wife are through texting, while in the same room together. But there are some things that words alone cannot do. Sometimes people just need a friend with skin on, a helping hand and to see love in action.

So the local church is not just a group of friends who enjoy music together. It’s a gospel community built on the person of Jesus Christ. The church is not an event we attend with cool activities and inspirational teaching. It’s a people to whom we belong in order to live out the mission and declare the message of Jesus Christ. The church is God’s “plan A” for making Jesus known in all the world. There’s no “plan B.” That means as individual followers of Jesus, one key to fulfilling God’s purpose for us is to build biblical community in a local church.

Key 4: Calling

As you graduate, the primary question is not what career you will pursue. The question is not who you will marry, if you will marry, where you will live or how much money you will make. The big question is not what you will do with your life. The biggest question is: What will you do with Jesus? This is not a cliché. This isn’t a guilt trip. This is a question of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this generation. The question of what you will do with Jesus and how you will live on mission with him is a question of calling.

We often think that we’re here to pursue our own pleasure. “Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life!” is the advice we often hear. And I want you and my kids to do what they love. But what we love is discovered in the God who first loved us. God created us. He loves us. And he sent his Son Jesus to redeem us from sin and give us new life.

King Solomon, who achieved amazing wealth and influence, finally came to the place where he understood that meaning and significance in life is rooted in the glory of God. Everything else is emptiness. Instead, it’s the glory of God that defines our calling in life.

So our vocation, our family, our hobbies, our location, our friendships and our faith are not separate compartments competing against each other. Instead, we offer the whole of our life to announce the glory of God and beauty of the gospel to the people around us.

The finish

We aren’t in a hurry for you to grow up, but that’s out of our hands. Graduation is the day we say, “It’s your turn, because this is your time.” This is your moment. Whatever your parents or friends or church have done, you are now responsible. I’m praying and believing that as you turn the keys of anthropology, authority, community and calling, God will unleash a Jesus movement in this generation that will turn the world upside down.

This article originally appeared here.

By / May 8

Finding a healthy church for your family is vital to you and your children’s spiritual growth. The centrality of God’s Word, worship and community are important aspects when looking for the right church. But what do you do once you find the church you want to settle down in? Here are a few things to keep in mind for your good, and especially for the good of your teenagers.

Join: Our attitudes toward church membership and its importance will be easily perceived and often mimicked by our students. It can be easy for us to just sit and spectate in the pew. But God’s Word makes it clear that joining with a church body is important. There’s a number of newly baptized people that were added to the fellowship of believers in Acts 2:41-42. It was also assumed by both Jesus (Matt. 18:15-20) and Paul (1 Cor. 5:1-2) that there be an understanding as to who was a part of the church. In both passages, those who were involved in unrepentant sin were to be removed from them, implying that there’s an understood group from which they should be removed.

So, church membership is an agreed-upon understanding of a local body as to who is a part of it. I do not mean that there is one way to arrive at an understanding of who members are. Some churches have a class, some have you sign a covenant, while others have a spontaneous vote and add you immediately. Regardless, when we have chosen a church, we should go through the necessary process of becoming a member.  

Attend: It’s important that we faithfully attend the churches to which we belong. The author of Hebrews apparently encountered some who had decided they didn’t need to attend their church (Heb. 10:25). Perhaps the most telling question we could ask ourselves is, “What’s an acceptable reason for my family to miss church?” Intentionally answering this question as a family and holding each other to that standard will speak volumes to our children.

The moments we wake up and want to go back to bed, but choose to go to church anyway, are going to teach our kids how important worshiping with the body of Christ is to us. When raising kids and discipling young people, much more is caught than taught. We can tell them all day long how important church is, but that morning will tell them so much more than we could ever verbalize. So let’s push through those moments, by God’s grace, and go join fellow believers in worshiping the God who created us, gave his Son so that we could come to him in prayer, and be a part of the community that he has purchased.

Serve: When Paul describes the church, one of his most poignant illustrations is of the church as a body (1 Cor. 12:12-30). The body of Christ is made up of many parts that serve diverse purposes. For us as a congregation to be fulfilling our unified purpose in Christ, we all need to be serving together. We can’t just be spectators at our churches. We need to be serving.

This community that we covenant together with is meant to spur us on to run toward Jesus.

Teach a children’s Sunday School class. Be a greeter. Help pass out offering plates or bulletins. Work the information desk. Help the youth Pastor with a small group. Find a way to serve alongside our children. There are several families at my church who sign up to be greeters together, and it’s a beautiful thing. If you are unsure how to get plugged into service at your church, just call the office and ask them; they’ll point you to some need, and gladly so. (Note: Many churches require church membership to serve in areas of ministry, so go through that process so you can start serving!)

Encourage: As the author of Hebrews says in 10:23-25, we meet together to stir one another up to love and good deeds. This community that we covenant together with is meant to spur us on to run toward Jesus. We look around, we hear the voices singing, we pray with and for one another, we serve and allow others to serve and encourage us. All of these things bring us closer into community and closer to Christ. Our children will see and experience this as they spend time in church—and our prayer is that they would be drawn to Christ themselves.

The encouragement in Hebrews 10 closes with the phrase “all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” The community that we belong to is a community of hope. We meet together, sing together, pray together and serve one another, resting in the hope that one day Christ will return, bringing our faith to sight. It’s this hope that drives us together, and drives us on. Let your children experience that hope by showing them the importance of being in a church community.

Read part one here.

In a changing world, your children will have questions you may not know how to answer. Join us for the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on "Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World" on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, TN, this event will welcome key speakers including Russell Moore, Jim Daly, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Todd Wagner, and Jen Wilkin. Register by May 31 and receive a FREE Austin Stone Kids Worship Album.

By / Apr 21

As a youth pastor, I meet a lot of families who are concerned about finding the right church, especially for the good of their teenagers. This is a big decision, and the number of churches to choose from, particularly if you live in the south, can be paralyzing. So, how are families supposed to decide where to go?

The first question I would consider if you’re already at a church is: What’s wrong with where you are now? There are certainly good reasons to leave a church, but, too often, our children learn some bad reasons for leaving a church from us. Before moving on, you might want to ask yourself questions like: Have I tried my best to engage with the people in this church? If I have legitimate, biblical concerns about this church, have I voiced them to the leadership? Have I confessed and repented of sins that I’ve committed against others at this church? If I feel that someone has sinned against me, have I gone to that person as a brother or sister in Christ and talked with them about it?

It could be that the best thing for your family to do is to stay right where you are. But, if you’ve answered all of these questions and still feel it’s time to leave, or if you’re not currently involved in a good church, how should you decide where to go? Although I’m a youth pastor, I wouldn’t recommend a big youth ministry as the first factor in deciding. Instead, the following are some of the most important elements to consider when finding a place to worship:

1. Commitment to God’s word

Does the church have a commitment to the word of God? Does it hold to the Bible as inspired and infallible? You can usually see this on the statement of faith or website before you arrive.

Your child will be directly affected by your church’s view of God’s word.

Secondly, is the Bible central to this church? It’s one thing to say you believe in the Bible; it’s another thing to act like you believe that. Is the Bible read in the church service? Does the pastor, when he preaches, let the Bible be the truth-giver in his sermons? Does the text of scripture give the points, or is scripture just pulled out of context to serve whatever the pastor wants to talk about that day? To be clear, this doesn’t mean only going verse-by-verse through a book. You can be faithful to scripture without preaching through a whole book, but the Bible has to be where the truth is coming from.

Your child will be directly affected by your church’s view of God’s word. Their understanding of the importance of the Bible will be heavily influenced by the church they attend. The church can have hundreds of teenagers, and great activities, but if the church is not built around the truth of God’s word, you’re wasting your time. Every other aspect of church life will be impacted by how a congregation treats the Bible.  

2. Commitment to worship

The church gathers each week for the worship of God. How do we worship God? We listen to his word, pray and sing praises. (Col. 3:16) So, does the church you’re considering pray? How much time do they spend in prayer? What are they praying about? Is the congregation invited to be involved in times of prayer, or are the prayers simply a transition time for the band to get off the stage?

Another element of worship is singing, not just music. Do the people in this church sing? Or is it just a band performance you get to enjoy before the sermon? Do they sing meaningful songs that communicate the truth of God’s word? The involvement of the congregation in singing and prayer is important, and it teaches us (and our teenagers) about what it means to be a part of the church, what are lives and souls are to be directed toward and, ultimately, the One the church is about.

3. Commitment to community

In the early church, community was a vital aspect of church life (Acts 2:42-47). They were intimately involved in one another’s lives. They didn’t file in and out like we do when we go to a movie or amusement park. They knew and were invested in each other. They shared their possessions and encouraged one another in the faith. Does this church seek to foster that kind of community element?

Another part of community is service and the use of our gifts (1 Cor. 12). Does this church offer opportunities for you to use your God-given gifts for the service of others? Are there expectations for people to use their gifts for the good of the body of Christ, or is it primarily a spectator sport? The opportunity to be involved in service will teach you and your child that to follow Christ is to do more than identify with him by name, but to serve actively among his people. It will teach the truth that faith without works is dead (James 2).

Once your family finds a church that meet this criteria, then you can think about other elements that will be best for your family. I would encourage you to explain what the important things are to your kids as you search and involve them in helping you identify whether these elements are present in the churches you visit. I would also encourage you not to drag the church search out for too long. Once you’ve found a healthy church that will help your family flourish, plug in. Worship, love and serve, for the sake of your family’s spiritual health, the good of the church and the glory of God.

Parenting is hard. But it is even more difficult for Christian parents to raise kids in today's changing culture Join us for the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on "Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World" on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, TN, this event will welcome key speakers including Russell Moore, Jim Daly, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Todd Wagner, and Jen Wilkin. Register by May 12th and receive a FREE Austin Stone Kids Worship Album.

By / Feb 6

I first stepped into the high school classroom 20 years ago. Fresh out of college, I was only a few years older than my students, and while I was eager to teach, I soon realized that I had just as much to learn. One lesson I learned early on is the profound influence that I could have on the hearts and minds of my students. It excited and humbled me at the same time.

There’s a certain amount of hand-wringing that adults often do over teenagers. We want to guide and influence them for good, but there's this nagging sense that at any point they will rebel and find everything that we try to instill in them to be either irrelevant or uncool. These concerns can be exacerbated by a growing sense of distress over the negative impact that an increasingly secular American culture has on our youth. It leaves parents and teachers feeling that they are losing their teens to the “culture wars.”

The middle matters

Yet, this sense that our youth will ultimately succumb to the temptations of a secularized culture is born from the false impression that culture is shaped by the people at the top.  On the contrary, people’s hearts and minds are more likely to be influenced and shaped by the organizations that often occupy the middle of society, such as the family, schools and the church. These institutions can have an equally profound impact on our youth.   

A Barna study in 2014 compared millennials who were active in the church to millennials who were no longer active in the church. Fifty-nine percent of those that remained active attributed their steadfast faith to a well-developed Christian worldview that was fostered by a mentor within the church. This speaks volumes to the importance of healthy families, churches and schools in the development of a youth’s worldview and is further proof that these institutions in the middle of society can have the upper hand in the so-called culture wars. Consequently, teens that are well-versed in a strong gospel-saturated worldview have the potential to hold the center of culture for future generations as well.

Fostering a biblical worldview

With this in mind, families, schools and churches should be proactively intentional about impacting their teens’ hearts for the sake of the gospel. Here are some practical ways to foster a biblical worldview in your teen in light of a increasingly secularized culture:

1. Encourage your teen to think critically about the culture around them.

Critical thinking is one vital aspect of education that is neglected in the school systems today. Nonetheless, it is something that can be fostered and encouraged at home and in the church.

Critical thinking is vital to cultural engagement. The Apostle Paul exemplified the power of critical thinking and cultural discernment while preaching the gospel to the Athenians as recounted in Acts 17. Paul devoted time to studying the culture of the Athenians upon his arrival in the city. He found much that was admirable about their culture and praised them for it, but at the same time, he discerned that other aspects of Athenian culture had departed from the truth of the gospel. We can teach our teenagers to do the same.

Noted theologian Abraham Kuyper was correct when he said, ”There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”  Music, art, science and the humanities all reflect the infinite worth of God. Encourage your youth to to seek out the good in these aspects of culture while thoughtfully critiquing the aspects of culture that fail to reflect the infinite worth of God.

2. Give your youth a safe place to work out their ideas.

Critical thinking and big ideas take time to foster and grow. You may find that your teen needs to wrestle with some really big ideas regarding scripture, truth and future plans.  There may even be a need for some real soul-searching to take place in a youth’s heart.  Think about youth mentoring in terms of a marathon, not a sprint. You may find yourself having to forbear through some awkward stages of thought with your teen.  

A good friend of mine who successfully raised four teenagers, all of whom are now devout Christians in their 20’s, amusingly recalled to me that when his oldest son was 17, he informed the family that he planned to live as a homeless person in Japan for a year—just for the experience. Rather than dismiss the idea as foolish (though it was a challenge not to), my friend respectfully dialogued with his son over the course of several weeks. He is happy to report that he convinced his son to avoid homelessness.  

Over and over again, I have found that teens whose family and church “stuck it out” with their youth and patiently mentored them beyond these awkward stages were far more successful than parents who insisted, and even worse bullied, their youth into ascribing to their values.  

3. Always remember that the relationship is the most important thing.

Surveys of Americans under the age of 30 have proven time and time again that they value authentic relations above all else. There are some pitfalls to this value system, as younger people have a tendency to idolize human relationships to an unhealthy degree.  Yet, such a longing for relationships and authenticity provides parents and churches with outstanding opportunities.

It can be tempting to allow your relationship with your teenager to lax, especially when they push back against you, so try to avoid unnecessary arguments and always keep Proverbs 15:1 in mind: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Faith and hope are necessary for your youth to grow in godliness, but it must be nurtured in an environment of love. Do all you can to preserve a healthy and loving relationship with your teens so that faith can grow.

Parents, teachers and church families, you are far more vital to the lives of youth than you realize. The life-giving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is decidedly more powerful than anything our secularized culture has to offer. Share it with them enthusiastically, and remember God’s promise in Isaiah 55:1: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

By / Dec 12

Safety is a prevailing concern for American parents. My generation baby-proofed our homes, obsessed over the safest car seats and boycotted sleepovers. But as hard as we’ve tried, we can’t avoid suffering. An example of this is found in an eye-opening article for the November 7 issue of Time, where Susanna Schrobsdorff tells us the pre-teens and teenagers we’ve raised are more anxious, overwhelmed and depressed than the generation before.

Over six million teens in the U.S. have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which is 25 percent of the teen population. After several years of stability, depression among high school kids is rising. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 12.5 percent of adolescents, ages 12 to 17, had at least one major depressive episode in 2015. That’s up from 4.6 percent in 2006.

The signature symptom

While not universal among kids with depression and anxiety, Schrobsdorff observes that nonsuicidal self-harm “[appears] to be the signature symptom of this generation’s mental health difficulties.” We know that family financial stress can exacerbate anxiety. Studies also show that girls are more at risk for depression than boys. But it’s harder to quantify how many teens are cutting, because they are deliberately secretive.

Schrobsodorff tells the story of Faith-Ann, an eighth grader who first cut herself in the middle of the night while her parents slept. She sat on the edge of the tub at her home and sliced into her ribs with the metal clip from a pen: “There was blood and a sense of deep relief.”

These sobering statistics and stories like Faith-Ann’s raise questions for parents. What caused this rise in anxiety among teenagers? What can I do to prevent my child from hiding depression? What should I do if I discover my child is cutting?

The link between mental health and technology

Schrobsdorff focuses on potential causes. She’s particularly interested in links between teenage mental health and their use of technology: “Conventional wisdom says kids today are over supervised . . . But even though teens may be in the same room with their parents, they might also, thanks to their phones, be immersed in a painful emotional tangle with dozens of their classmates.”

Getting your first smartphone is a rite of passage in our culture. Kids have them at earlier and earlier ages. Experts warn against the addictive distraction from schoolwork and the danger of exposing kids to online bullies, child predators and sexting. Such realities call for the same vigilance with Internet safety we’ve demonstrated in baby-proofing. Parents should know how to set up a phone’s restrictions and find a plan that allows for monitoring text messages. And parents must teach skills for navigating the world of social media by first limiting access, then giving increasing freedom as their children demonstrate growing responsibility.

But even with these precautions, a more subtle danger in children having smartphones is exposing kids to a deep experience of their own feelings before they have the skills to process them. Teenagers are wired for stimulation. The emotional reactions of a teenage brain can feel urgent and overwhelming. With a rise in hyper-connectedness, even rural youth are increasingly exposed to what Schrobsdorff describes as “a national thicket of Internet drama.” She writes, “Being a teenager today is a draining full-time job that includes doing schoolwork, managing a social-media identity and fretting about career, climate change, sexism, racism—you name it.”

Helping teens work through their feelings

It shouldn’t surprise us when kids who are more socially connected gain a greater awareness of the world’s brokenness and feel deeply about it. Dr. Brent Bounds, a clinical psychologist who served as director of Family Ministries at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, says it’s important to create a culture where it’s safe to talk about these emotions when they come. Parents can’t force vulnerability, but we can model it. And we can let kids know that it is not wrong to feel deeply.

Our goal shouldn’t be to change how they feel but simply recognize our kids’ emotions and affirm our love. Bounds told me, “Sometimes parents feel that they have to have all the answers to make their child feel safe. But one of the most freeing answers a parent can give their child is, ‘I don't know. But I love you and I want to support and help you any way I can.’"

When conversation is open with a teen, parents can simply reflect back what their child may be feeling—“You seem really angry right now. I wonder if you’re angry with me and don't know how to talk about it?" or, "Wow, that's a really hard situation. I can imagine you feel overwhelmed.” Using this same reflecting technique, a parent can help build a child’s emotional vocabulary from an early age. This will prepare kids to face more complex feelings when they enter the teen years.

Helping our children grow in self-awareness about their emotions is a pathway to helping them grow in self-care as well. A teen must identify that social media triggers his anxiety before he’ll understand his need to manage that anxiety in a healthy way—perhaps by putting down his phone and going for a jog.

What if my child has hurt himself?

When a child does report he’s hurt himself, parents or pastors should first acknowledge the risk the teen has taken to be vulnerable. Acknowledge the teen’s courage and then listen. It’s hard to do. Bounds observes, “Most parents are understandably concerned when they find out a child is cutting, but they tend to react in ways that don't draw out the teen but instead shut them down.”

Know that it’s not out of the norm for a teen to cut themselves at some point. The important questions to ask are: Where did they cut? (Alarming areas are inside wrists, forearms and the inner thigh.) What did they use to cut themselves? And how much/often has this happened? While we want to respect our child’s privacy, if you have knowledge that a child has been harming himself, take it seriously and press in.

Sometimes self-harm comes from a sense of helplessness and desire for control. Teens like Faith-Ann say self-harm relives internal pain by “letting the feelings out.” The desire may come from a child’s deep belief that she’s not big enough to contain the feelings she is experiencing. The desire to cut may even be a deep emotional witness to the truth that growing social awareness or social advocacy will not atone for the world’s sins. Our brokenness is only healed with the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22); but it’s the Savior’s, not our own.

As Dr. Scott James, a pediatric physician/researcher and an elder at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., cautioned me, it’s not absolutely necessary for us to come to a full explanation of why this is happening:

I've learned as a doctor that when it comes to mental health, I need to disabuse myself of the notion that I will always be able to pop the hood and get to the bottom of what a patient is feeling/doing. Empathy is important, but it's hubris to think we should always be able to correctly identify and address the exact motives of each person.

Instead, we can confess, “I don’t understand where my child is coming from or why she is viewing life the way she does. But I’ll be here for her regardless." That's a position of compassionate engagement that puts aside trying to be the hero and savior. From that place of humility, we can point to Christ, the true comforter and healer. Jesus understands. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).

By / Oct 28

Parents need to pay close attention to what has been named The Snappening. Amidst rumors of hackers accessing hundreds of thousands of SnapChat images, the creator, Evan Spiegel, is standing by his app, which is supposed to erase photos moments after they are sent, protecting the sender from anyone but the intended recipient viewing them.

It’s a perfect tool for sexters. But consider that 50 percent of the app’ users are 13 to 17, according to USA Today. According to another survey conducted this year, 54 percent in that age group send or receive sexually explicit images or texts.

Whether these images are ever released or not, The Snappening is a perfect prompt for parents to talk to their kids. If your teen is caught sexting, there could be legal ramifications as well as significant reputational and emotional damage. And, science says that a youth involved in sexting is at greater risk of being sexually active and in participating in risky sexual activity.

Talk to your teens

It’s time to talk. But don’t expect the conversation to be easy.

The Snappening is happening on the heels of The Fappening, a leak of hundreds of photos of celebrities and A-listers that did get posted publicly. Among them, Jennifer Lawrence, who defended her nude selfies by saying, “Either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he is going to look at you.” That kind of response is only going to normalize sexting as teens conform to the standard of the world in an effort to desperately control their sexual lives and relationships. Here are a few things you should cover in the conversation.

1. Ask your tween or teen point blank if they have ever sent or received a nude photo or sexually explicit text. The fact is, our kids don’t report this one at the dinner table.  Many of them may feel bullied or victimized but experience insecurity about how to ask for help. Be the parent. Ask the question. And if they say yes, you’ve got to ask them if they’ve had sex or oral sex or anything kind of like it. (Did I mention this wasn’t going to be easy?) Determine the level of risk and seek help accordingly.

2. Talk to them about the idea of consequence and permanence. If they understood these things, they’d be adults. Don’t let them fool you into thinking they are. The prefrontal cortex of their brains, which controls executive function—that is, self control and awareness of risk—isn’t fully developed until they are in their early twenties. If they thought many people would see the photo or there could be legal consequences, they wouldn’t have participated in sexting. The fact is: they didn’t think. It’s your job to help them.

3. Explain that anyone who is caught with a nude photo of a minor on their phone is at risk of uncertain legal consequences that won’t quickly go away. Last week, 30 high school students who were found with sexually explicit photos on their phones in Michigan learned that there aren’t currently laws on the books about sexting. They may be going to court to fight serious felony charges that could land them on the sex offender registry. While laws differ from state to state, we simply don’t have a plan in place to deal with children under the age of 18 who contribute to what is, in fact, child pornography.

4. Discuss the reputational and emotional risk. Jennifer Lawrence emerged rather gracefully as something of a spokesperson for other victims.  Uncertain of how the photos would affect her career, she considered the leak to be “a sex crime” and a “sexual violation.” These are powerful words that reveal the emotional turmoil the twenty-four-year old felt, but Lawrence has a fully developed mind and body and an established career. What kind of impact would it have on a much younger student who is not as confident in their life direction? You won’t have to dig deeply on the Internet to find many stories of teens who commit suicide in similar circumstances.

5. Finally, go back to the basics. Sex is a gift to be shared between a man and wife within the context of marriage. Tell them this often from the age of nine or ten until they are married. Otherwise, the world will tell them quite loudly and quite often. (Case in point: Jennifer Lawrence.)

The Hebrew word for sex in the Old Testament is yada, which means “to know, to be known, to be deeply respected.” You can’t know or be known by the pixels on your screen. God created the act of sex to bring one man and one woman into a mutually exclusive act of intimacy that is fueled with respect and commitment. Sexting is one of the most disrespectful activities that exists and doesn’t protect the exclusive intimacy of sexuality. It is a cheap counterfeit. Don’t let your kids be short-changed.

By / Feb 26

The following is an excerpt from Preparing Your Teens for College: Faith, Friends, Finances, and Much More by Alex Chediak. 

In the time since you and I have embarked on our adult lives, the challenges surrounding college education have dramatically increased. More people are going to college than ever before, it costs a fortune, we’re borrowing crazy amounts of money to go, and the newer graduates are competing with experienced candidates for precious few job openings. And high school graduates have also changed. Just as Gen Xers are different from Boomers, teens today are in a whole new category.

Lots of freshmen haven’t gotten the memo that college is a lot of work. They seem to think it’s an expensive vacation funded by you (along with student loans). Roughly one out of four freshmen does not make it to their sophomore year, usually due to immaturity or lack of focus. Other students get by, but never really grasp the purpose of the academic enterprise—they don’t become lifelong learners; clear-headed thinkers; well-rounded, flexible, honest, hardworking, self-starting, responsible, mature, humble men and women. They never develop strong communication, problem-solving, or people skills—the very qualities employers are looking for. Moreover, these traits equip us to love and honor God with all our minds and to do good works in the marketplace, in the laboratory, in the library, in the classroom, in the hospital, in the law courts, on the mission field, or wherever God leads us.

Many teens today are more dependent on their parents than we were at their age. They’re more distracted by media and technology. They’re less willing to discipline themselves and work hard. And they expect success to come more easily than is realistic. In a survey of more than 2,000 high school seniors in the Chicago area, sociologist James Rosenbaum found that almost half of them (46 percent) agreed with the statement “Even if I do not work hard in high school, I can still make my future plans come true.”

Yet studies have shown—ironically—that overconfidence leads to underperformance. Those whose self-esteem is more reinforced, apart from objective accomplishment, exhibit declining performance over time and are most likely to quit. It makes sense. If you think you’re better at something than you really are, you expect it to come easily. This makes you less likely to work at it, less likely to succeed, and more likely to be surprised and disappointed when you don't. As a professor, I have seen this happen many times.

I’m happy to say that some students are well prepared, get over the inevitable hurdles, and come out on the other side just fine. Others who start off poorly respond well to correction. They learn their lesson and graduate with a high degree of maturity and skill.

Training matters. Not just what we professors do on campus but what you do before your teens ever get to us. Thriving at college begins in the home. What you model and impart to your teens, day in and day out, makes a huge difference.

I’ve seen this play out countless times in the lives of my students, for good and for ill. Some students from churched backgrounds leave the faith while at college, either temporarily or permanently. Many fail to adjust to the rigors of college-level academics—even some of our most gifted students. And beyond academics, “failure to launch” is not uncommon—students preferring to linger in the no-man’s-land of adolescence rather than complete the journey to full-orbed adulthood.

Each of these topics is the subject of countless books in recent years. And while there may be disagreement on the best remedies for spiritually apostate, professionally wandering, or developmentally stunted twentysomethings, there’s strong agreement on what can mitigate these ailments: godly, involved parents who intentionally and wisely invest in their children, in word and deed, at all stages, but particularly in the teen years. There’s no doubt about it—what you and I do as parents, before our teens leave home, has the greatest likelihood of preventing these kinds of decline.

Shepherding your children in the direction of responsible Christian living in every sphere of life prepares them for the tests of post–high school life like nothing else can. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth” (Psalm 127:4)—to be released with care and intentionality into the world to find their mark for the glory of God and to become mighty change agents for the good of others.

So Preparing Your Teens for College is for you. When I get to know college freshmen, I recognize that the worldview and character they bring to college are the result of 18 or 19 years of living with their parents. Their worldview (how they think) and their character (who they are) impact their attitude (what they think) and behavior (what they do). Their attitude and behavior, in turn, give rise to their habits and their destiny, as they (like we) reap what they sow (see Galatians 6:7).

And all of this is true whether your children become medical doctors or ultrasound technicians, engineers or electricians, businesspeople or beauticians. A four-year college is but one of several possible launching pads into a responsible, fruitful life.

Learn more about Preparing Your Teens for College, and read more from the Introduction, on Alex’s website.

Copyright 2014 by Alex Chediak. Used with permission from Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.