Tag Archives: junior high faith

young teens and bible reading

some time ago, i did a blog interview with josh griffin on the download youth ministry blog about young teens and bible reading. thought i’d share it here:

Research shows that a large percentage of churched teens rarely read the Bible outside of church. Why do you think that’s so?
A secondary reason is the busyness of the lives of teenagers these days; but the primary reason is that the Bible feels inaccessible to teens. They would say–if they’re being honest–that it’s “boring.” But what they really mean, if they had the words, would be, “I don’t know how to read it.”

Why do young teens have a hard time reading and relating to the Bible?
Of course, there’s a language issue. But I think the main hurdle for young teens is that reading the Bible feels more academic. They try it once or twice, but feel like failures when they don’t connect with what they’re reading.

young teen and bible.1How have changes in youth culture affected the ability of Christian teens to understand, relate to, and engage with Scripture?
One of the primary shifts in youth culture over the past couple decades is a major shift in how teenager understand truth. Mostly gone are the days when rational arguments trumped. Today’s teenagers and young adults have grown up in a world where their experience informs their understanding of what’s true. This shouldn’t unnerve us as Christ-followers; instead, we trust that the God who wants to reveal himself will meet teenagers in the living Word of God.

What are some of the spiritual challenges a young teen faces in today’s culture?
While I could answer this question in dozens of ways, I’ll go with this: today’s teenagers have an extremely heightened need for belonging. A desire for belonging is a good thing, and part of our being made in the image of God. But the challenge for today’s teenagers is that they usually learn their identity through their places of belonging. And, clearly, this can be problematic when their places of belonging tell them lies about themselves.

You’ve been involved in youth ministry for a few decades now. Is nurturing the faith of young teens more difficult today?
In many ways, yes (though not in every way). Certainly, our pluralistic culture has mostly eliminated the “base line” of basic assumptions we used to be able to make about teenagers’ knowledge of the Bible and basic beliefs. In many ways, the biggest issue I see is the extreme isolation of teenagers in our culture today: they spend all their waking hours in homogeneous groupings, and rarely spend time with adults. That brings all sorts of challenges with it that are difficult for youth workers who want to help teenagers grow into adults with a vibrant faith.

What are some of the challenges faced by parents, youth workers, and pastors?
As a parent of teenagers myself, I am constantly encouraged by our culture to treat my teenagers as if they are little children. This has a counter-intuitive negative impact on teenagers, extending adolescence (now understood to be a 20 year life stage!), and damaging their growth, including their spiritual development.

What are some ways that parents can help their teens understand the Bible?
This isn’t rocket science. A parent who wants to help their teens understand the Bible has to first model a life of being formed by God’s Word. Then, we have to be intentional about regular and ongoing spiritual conversations. Research has shown us the importance of teenagers verbalizing what they believe. Parents can have an amazing ministry with their teens by providing safe and supportive opportunities for that verbalization.

my new working metaphor for young teens and doubt

for years, as i’ve talked about the spiritual development of young teens and their brain development, i’ve said something along these lines:

abstract thinking is a beautiful gift from god that comes with the onset of puberty. abstract thinking is, in a nutshell, thinking about thinking. there are tons of implications, but the primary biggies are speculation (asking ‘what if’ and ‘why’ questions), and third person perspective (seeing myself from someone else’s point of view, or seeing someone else from someone else’s point of view, or even considering an idea from someone else’s point of view). these two results of abstract thinking are revolutionary to the spiritual development of teenagers (as well as for their emotional development, relational growth, and identity formation). preteens are some of the most concluded people on the planet. they have a completely worked out (albeit naive) worldview and systematic theology — concrete, but functional. then puberty comes along like a tsunami and obliterates all that conclusiveness, creating a space for questions and doubts and a move toward either rejecting childhood faith or growing into a more robust, complex, adult faith.

i think i’d picked up that ‘tsunami’ metaphorical language years and years ago from one of my own junior high ministry mentors. it’s dramatic, and sounds nice.

but it’s not accurate.

and i’ve replaced that metaphor recently in how i talk about this shift.

the reason it’s not accurate is that young teens don’t suddenly acquire fully-functioning abstract thinking. they get the capacity; but it’s like an underdeveloped super-wimpy muscle that has to be exercised for a number of years in order to gain strength. so, yes, young teens (post-puberty) have the capacity for abstract thinking; and it DOES have huge implications for all those developmental realities (including spiritual). but it doesn’t happen overnight. it’s not a light switch. and the ‘elimination’ of concrete childhood beliefs does NOT take place like the arrival of tsunami.

picture a giant cliff at the edge of a sea. but this cliff is made of something soft and easy to erode — like dirt, or sandstone, or chalk (think: cliffs of dover). when the capacity for abstract thinking kicks in, nothing changes immediately. those concluded faith bits still stand like a proud sea cliff as long as the sea below is calm.

but then something happens that creates a gap or tension between experience and belief. like: a 12 year-old who has always had a beautiful and confident belief that god answers my prayers, that if i really pray and it’s not selfish, i can throw a mountain into a sea. and that kid’s favorite grandpa gets inoperable cancer. the kid is confident (full of faith) that prayer will heal his grandpa; but grandpa dies. now, suddenly, there are stormy seas below the cliff. waves crash against that edifice, and erosion happens. the concrete beliefs of the preteen years can’t stand against the barrage of powerful storm waves.

btw: at this point, a young teen almost always needs an adult who can come alongside and help them move all this erosion/storm waves/doubts stuff out of the murky world of subconscious if they hope to do anything other than reject that previous faith bit (if they hope to consider alternatives and new, more abstract, ways of thinking and believing).

so there you have it: doubt comes to young teen faith not like a tsunami of change, but like a storm wave crashing into a sea cliff made of easily-erodible stuff.

let’s get in there, storm chasers.

cliffs of dover.erosion

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 3

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it…

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition

bored in churchBored with Church and God

When your kid was 9, he loved going to church, loved his Sunday school class, and seemed to have a real relationship with God.

But now, as a young teen, he seems bored. Maybe he’s even expressed this: “Church is boring; I don’t want to go.”

This is a natural occurrence in the lives of young teens. But the reasoning behind this boredom isn’t the same for every child. Here are a few possibilities:

Not Connected
Children (prior to the teen years) need fewer reasons to find church or Christianity engaging. A few fun moments in Sunday school or the reality of Christ in their parents’ lives can be enough. But young teens start to perceive a disconnect (if one exists) between real life and “church-world.” If they don’t sense a relational connection with people in the church (youth group leaders, other kids, adults in the church), it’s easy for them to make the small leap to boredom.

Young teens have a passionate need to be valued and noticed. Any place that doesn’t validate who they are as individuals, any place where they don’t feel known, can quickly feel awkward or boring to them.

Churchianity
Unless your family happens to attend a church with worship and sermons that connect with your young teen (this isn’t common, and isn’t normally the aim of most churches), attending church can begin to feel like a monumental waste of time to young teens – even if they still have an active faith in God.

The forms most churches use (in song, spoken word and format) are pretty foreign to the world of a teenager. Frankly, they’re often pretty foreign to the world of adults too! But the variance from “church-world” to the world of adults is almost always less than to the world of teens.

Faith System Disconnect
Probably the most common, and most healthy reason for young teens to feel boredom is their developmental need to grow up in faith. Pre-teens and children approach faith issues, obviously, with the mind of a child. But a young teen’s new ability to grasp (or at least entertain) abstract ideas begs all their concrete spiritual conclusions and understandings into question.

This shift in thinking ability has enormous spiritual implications for young teens, because pretty much everything we talk about at church, or in relation to faith in God, is abstract. Its like kids have a backpack of faith system “bits.” And during their young teen years, situations arise that call these bits to the forefront. When it becomes obvious to a teen that their childhood spiritual answer to a given situation or question doesn’t offer a strong enough answer anymore, they are forced to ignore this issue or struggle to allow their beliefs to evolve into a more adult form.

Don’t be freaked out by this process. Don’t be thrown by your teen’s expression of boredom. Instead, find constructive ways to come alongside her during this transition time of life.

Processing Boredom with Your Young Teen
Here are some ideas for coming alongside your young teen and her spiritual boredom:

  • Live it out. If your teen sees a vibrant and real faith being lived out day-to-day in your life (and being verbally expressed also), it will go a long ways toward helping him consider what an adult faith system should look like.
  • Talk about it. Our natural tendency is to lecture our kids about why they’re bored (“you need to do this”). Instead, work to create open lines of communication about faith and church. Process your child’s questions and reservations without jumping to easy answers.
  • Look for relational connections. Help your teen be (or stay) connected to the people of the church, not just the program. Look for creative ways to foster these relationships – with their peers and with other adults who will care about them.
  • Debrief. After a church service or youth group meeting, talk about what went on. Be careful that this doesn’t come across as a test. Helping your teen see the life-connection between what’s talked about at church and their world is a wonderful way to encourage the growth of their faith.