Kids aren’t stupid. Today’s teenagers face more pressure to learn well and succeed academically than ever before. AP and IB programs around the country treat high school students like college students in the amount and difficulty level of the work assigned to them.
Outside of the classroom, students are exposed to a host of heavy and difficult concepts in the news, media, from friends, and in their home lives. Social media then invites them to lend their voices to these tough conversations, even at their young age.
Clearly our schools and our culture see kids as intelligent humans who are capable of learning, understanding, and discussing difficult things. But do our churches? If kids aren’t stupid, why do so many youth ministries treat them like they are?
Both in my own time in youth ministries as a teenager and in my time working in youth ministry myself, I’ve seen so many ministries that are so focused on being fun, cool, relatable, and accessible that they never actually teach their kids anything. A lot of youth curricula I’ve encountered can be summarized like this: “God loves you. Be a nice person.” Youth leaders will teach the parts of the Bible that lend themselves to this message and ignore the rest, especially the parts that are more difficult or confusing.
If this is what our youth ministries consist of, is it any wonder that so many kids grow up to be shallow, nominal believers (assuming they stay in the Church at all) or grow up to leave the faith altogether? After all, is there anything in this message (“God loves you. Be a nice person.”) that they can’t find almost anywhere else outside the Church as well?
When we don’t put in the time and effort to engage our youth with difficult lessons (both in Bible study and in topical and cultural questions) we do our youth an extreme disservice and may be causing more long-term damage than we realize.
The Risks of “Soft” Teaching
We may be raising kids to become shallow Christian adults who are effectively biblically illiterate.
Our churches are full of youth and adults who aren’t sure if Titus is in the Old or New Testament, can’t articulate the gospel if asked, and have no clue what it means or why it’s important that God is triune. Shallow youth ministry only proliferates this problem.
You would think that Christian adults who were raised in the Church would be mature in the faith, living on solid spiritual food. Instead, what we often find is the same situation the author of Hebrews described: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child” (Hebrews 5:12–13).
Are we raising our youth to be perpetual spiritual children? Are we modeling a spiritual life that never grows beyond the knowledge of the children’s ministry, or are we setting a model for life-long discipleship under God’s Word that is not afraid to engage hard parts of the Bible or hard cultural questions from a biblical perspective?
We may be raising kids whose faith, biblical knowledge, and Christian practice is not deep enough to sustain them through college and adulthood.
We don’t expect our kids (or anyone for that matter) to have a perfectly formed faith that will never be shaken. But in our youth ministries we are trying to set a strong foundation for our kids that they can continue to build upon as they age. If the foundation is shallow, not only will they have little to build upon, but their faith will be more easily shaken as they encounter more challenges in college and adulthood.
If teenagers don’t wrestle with hard questions at church, they eventually will outside of church. And if they’ve never heard an older Christian thoughtfully and biblically engage with big theological and cultural issues, they may assume that the Bible never had the answers or that the Bible is not relevant to real life, and so they toss it aside.
We may be raising kids into moralistic, therapeutic deists.
The phrase “moralistic, therapeutic deism” was first popularized in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, and names the type of religious belief that results from youth ministries whose curriculum starts and ends at “God loves you. Be a nice person.”
God does love you and you should be a nice person, but there is almost nothing that is distinctively Christian about this message. If we aren’t intentional about teaching the entire biblical witness to our youth (including the obscure parts like the minor prophets, Leviticus, and Revelation, or shocking and difficult texts like Judges 19, 1 Samuel 15, etc.) and deliberate about showing them the depths of their Christian spiritual heritage with Church history and theology, how would our youth know that Christianity or the Bible means anything more than “moralistic, therapeutic deism”?
With these risks at play, it is critical that we take the teaching and discipleship of our students seriously and lift our youth ministries into something more than just food, fun, and a 15-minute lesson that doesn’t mean much and doesn’t stick.
Building youth ministries with this level of teaching and discipleship is difficult. It requires training qualified youth leaders and putting a lot of time into lesson prep and teaching. But teenagers can recognize when they’re being “taught” by someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, didn’t really prepare, and doesn’t have anything to say that they couldn’t learn more effectively somewhere else. Let’s teach our kids the things that only the Church can offer them. Think about what could happen when we do.
Engaging the “Hard” Stuff
Show kids that we believe in them and their ability to learn and grow.
When we take the time to ask our kids hard questions, to walk with them through difficult topics, and engage with them in deeper conversations around spirituality, theology, culture, or life, they will recognize that we see them as worth investing in. They’ll understand that we think they are intelligent, thoughtful, and capable of depth. Believing in our kids and proving it by how we talk to them and teach them helps them believe in themselves and strive for more.
Help them grow in biblical knowledge and spiritual maturity.
This much should be obvious, but think about what it could look like compared to what it often does look like. If we’ve been teaching our youth how to read and understand God’s word throughout their child and teen years, then they will be able to wrestle with harder biblical texts from a place of wisdom and faith rather than from ignorance. They will be able to engage with all of Scripture rather than ignoring huge swaths of it that take more study to understand well.
We don’t need to be afraid of the culture “stealing” our youth if we are teaching them from a young age how to interact critically with the world around them with God’s word as their foundation. We don’t need to fear difficult life circumstances causing faith crises if we model and teach spiritual maturity and Christian faithfulness that expands far beyond the “feel good” stuff.
Show them that Christians aren’t living in a naive, “ignorance is bliss” fashion when it comes to challenging questions and confusing concepts.
This is the perception that much of our culture has about Christianity—that it is naive, that Christians are shallow or ignorant, and that our faith crumbles in the face of serious questions and challenges. We combat this perception by having youth ministry of honesty and depth. This also shows kids that it’s okay to be confused or frustrated by the Bible or in their faith walk. We teach them how to navigate hard seasons and difficult questions with faith, prayer, and study in the community of the church by modelling this as adults. Then, when their faith is challenged as they grow older (and it will be), they will know that those challenges don’t need to be earth-shattering.
How can we do this well? If your youth ministry hasn’t been operating this way and you want to make changes, or if you’re trying to build your youth ministry from the ground up, it can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.
Use qualified teachers (and if you don’t have them, train some).
Do you have seminarians in your church? Former ministers? College students training for ministry? Use them! Getting a degree or having lots of ministry experience does not mean you “graduate” to the big leagues of adult ministry only. These people might be the most helpful in adding depth to children’s and youth curricula rather than focusing primarily on adults.
And if you don’t have enough people in your church who are already qualified, train them! If we want our youth to do it, we should want our adults to do it. If adults feel ill-equipped to teach complex subjects to youth, the solution isn’t to keep everything basic. The solution is for the adult teachers to learn first, then teach.
There are tons of resources out there to help with this. The Bible Project and N. T. Wright’s For Everyone series are two great resources that come to mind. Is there a seminary or university in your area? Some seminaries allow community members to audit classes, and university libraries may have helpful theological resources available.
I should also add that just because someone is theologically trained doesn’t mean they will automatically teach kids lessons of depth. I’ve seen many seminarians teach shallow lessons to youth because they didn’t put in the time to do more or because they underestimated the abilities of their kids to understand. Even with qualified teachers, the decision to teach complex subjects and deep lessons must be deliberate.
Teach to the smartest kids in the room.
If you stay intentional and personal (leaving space for discussion, questions, and small groups) then the kids you think won’t be able to keep up will rise to the occasion in ways you weren’t expecting. I’ve been surprised again and again by the great questions and insights that have come from kids who are younger or less articulate than others in the room. Teaching to the smartest kids in the room ensures that those kids won’t get bored, and, if you’re patient and encouraging, the kids who are farther will surprise you with their ability to keep up.
Try to keep your numbers small.
This isn’t a problem in a lot of Anglican congregations, but if your youth ministry is booming, then create ways to teach in smaller groups. Maybe split up boys and girls occasionally, or middle school and high school students. Maybe end your lessons with time for multiple small groups to discuss the material further, or supplement your large group meetings with various small groups and Bible studies that meet throughout the week and build on what you do in the large group. This way you can gauge how much your kids are actually learning, and they can actually interact with the lessons rather than being passive consumers.
Use an interactive lesson format, instead of a sermon format, in your youth meetings.
Sermons leave little room for feedback. When you teach with an interactive lesson, you can ask questions to determine how much they already know. You can facilitate discussion that requires their participation to keep them engaged. You can ask questions throughout to determine if they are understanding and how much they have grasped by the end. Visual aids go a long way with anyone, but especially with youth. In my teaching I’ve almost always used a slideshow with pictures to illustrate what they’re learning and with jokes and questions throughout to keep their attention.
Give these types of changes time.
If your youth aren’t used to this type or level of teaching, it may take some time before you see the fruit, but it will be worth it. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). If we want our children to grow into mature, faithful men and women of character, depth, and love of the Lord, then we need to teach them with lessons of maturity, depth, faithfulness, and love of the Lord. And when they are old, Lord willing, we will see the fruit.
Anna Russell is a postulant in the Anglican Diocese of the South and currently serves as (soon-to-be) clergy in residence at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also works in missions mobilization as the program assistant in the Global Center at Beeson Divinity School where she received her M.Div. in 2019.