teenage faith formation grenade

girl shoutingi’m coming to this conclusion, which i verbalized recently for the first time during one of my coaching groups. it’s an opinion, not a fact (yet). but it’s based on a gumbo of inputs:

  • the stewardship of neuron winnowing that takes place in the years following puberty, leading to what the world’s leading adolescent brain specialist calls “the hard wiring” of the brain.
  • various readings of and talks by christian smith and kenda dean and kara powell.
  • mandy drury’s talk, based on her PhD research, at The Summit 2012, on the critical role of “testimony” in faith formation.
  • and, frankly, my unscientific and anecdotal work with my middle school guys small group every week.

here’s the soft conclusion, which i toss out like a grenade, fully expecting some will consider this an overstatement:

for teenage faith formation, verbalization of belief is more important than the accuracy of the beliefs.

it’s not that i think “accuracy” is bad. it’s a question of priority in the role of faith formation.

your response?

23 thoughts on “teenage faith formation grenade”

  1. I feel like I’m kind of in agreement with you.
    When our children learn to walk, do we ask them to have proper form or just get up on both feet? When they start playing a sport or an instrument, do we ask them to be first string or first chair or do we just want them on the field and making a sound?

    Obviously good form or good theology/doctrine, in this case, has to be a part of their development but it must start with those baby-steps.

  2. I think you are spot on. Getting students to “take ownership” in their faith and saying it aloud is (in my opinion) the best first step.

    The women at the well didn’t have all the “right” knowledge of Jesus, she just knew that He was the Christ. And, by telling people many were saved. We need to open our mouth and speak the simple (in concept) Truth of Jesus.

  3. Hi Marko!

    A couple things;

    1. If I waited until my content was 100% accurate before I spoke. I’d rarely speak. I tell the youth all the time that I retain the right to grow, learn, and flat-out change my mind on things as my faith forms. That is what we are talking about, faith formation.

    2. The area of verbalizing faith is a struggle for the youth I know. We work on it. We don’t freak out at bad-theology. We talk about it. We play it out in real life. And hopefully we all grow towards truth (or good theology).

    3. Becoming more accurate is important. That is why we talk a lot about ‘process’ and owning our walk with God and what faithfulness looks like. I love accuracy and the goal is to get there not start out there.

    My two cents.

  4. In 20 years of working in youth ministry my observations have been that in the middle school they are still playing around with the fact that they are allowed to believe on their own. After this step some begin to then play with rebellion they then move to the I believe stage… Your post made me think about verbalizing this.

  5. I think you’re right on, Mark. Both the testimony and the evolving awareness of convictions over time seems to make sense with the kids I’ve worked with. I feel like this has always been the case but maybe I’m wrong. Sometimes I’m a bit youthful in my inaccurate understanding of things too (and everyone one else knows it before I do) but getting it out is so important in spite of how ‘correct’ it is. PS I’m 50 with a Ph.D. and can still feel this way – maybe that’s why I love youth ministry. I can play in ideas and not be afraid of getting it wrong while seeking to get it better.

  6. And I’ve seen enough literature on neuroscience to recognize that adolescents experience ‘neuro-trimming’ making the need for grace in how and what they say and the patience to pastor the movement toward healthy executive function. I didn’t mean to downplay the serious reality of neuroscience and adolescents. – you’ve got an important point here for ministry both science, and ministry.

  7. I totally agree with this. We used this as a springboard in planning the Fall Confirmation Retreat for the conference (North Georgia) this past October. The worship services each included older youth telling their faith stories, and in the breakout sessions (by church confirmation groups) the students first illustrated their faith journeys (highway, roller coaster, path, graph – whatever way they could illustrate the highs and lows and turns and bumps) and then had them tell their own faith stories in their groups. It was a great opportunity for them to start recognizing how God has already been involved in their lives and a way for them to start verbalizing their faith.

    Of course, we might have never come up with that if it weren’t for the way you pointed all this out at our Youth Ministry Coaching Program. We’ll definitely be using that process in future retreats. I’d like to have some write-ups, though, to give the various youth leaders so they can understand the “why” of the process and how they can provide opportunities like that in their own churches.

  8. I think the premise is solid and also biblically accurate. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you too shall be saved”(Romans 10:9). The confession in this verse precedes the full understanding. Having a teenager move to that place of confession allows them to lock in their heart commitment and make it real as opposed to just an ethereal concept or desire. As good stewards of His Word, we would hope that any theology the young person has heard would have been accurate, but that will continue to be worked out throughout their lives. I like what you are doing with this Mark and tying it into the way the teenage brain functions is extremely interesting.

  9. This comes at a very apropos time for me.We finished a series of youth testimonies in our youth group at the end of summer. Some of them were fantastic. Some of them were off base with some doctrinal things. But it got them up and talking. And sharing where they are. I’m taking some flak from leadership for some of the things some of the kids said from stage. But I still believe it was worth it. It got the kids to be willing to take ownership of what they do believe (as stilted as that sometimes was).

  10. I think this all relates to the foundational truth that our faith is in God, not in a set of theological propositions. It is more important for our teens to center their lives – their choices, their thinking, their devotion – on Jesus than it is for them to have every point of doctrine down precisely.

  11. I’m thinking about this through the filter of Lem’s talk about exploration and commitment. Verbalization is a very real path of exploration in teenagers. It would be great to make it safe for adolescents to explore faith verbally before they commit to accuracy.

    All of this would depend on building a safe place to talk about faith, and an acknowledgment that formation is a process, not an absolute destination.

  12. Verbalization in the effect that it is their own words. That is the issue. We can memorize all we want, but it takes understanding enough as well as thinking through it ourselves to to be able to spit it out and OWN it.

    This is the “working out our salvation” part.

  13. I agree 99%! And, I don’t know what the remaining 1% would be to disagree with, I just don’t want to agree with you 100%.

  14. I agree if what you mean by verbalization is a students ability to express belief with not just words but also with art, action, etc. I have plenty of students who are not verbally articulate but communicate their belief with resounding tone. Our youth group president is not very verbal at all but she is clearly a woman of strong faith and devotion. Her beliefs are evident in her actions, attitudes, and relationships. It reminds me of St. Francis of Assisi famous words, “spread the gospel and if necessary, use words.” Which means then that I, as a youth pastor, have the responsibility to find ways for students to “verbalize” their faith through multiple mediums.


  15. I believe this is right on and the need for middle school (around the ages of 10-15) it is huge. The one thing that I’m not hearing much in this discussion is what kind of (sorry to use this word) “structure” do we need to give them so they can have a safe place to articulate their faith ideas? Even for kids who are just learning to read and write have to have the alphabet to work with or even younger kids who are just learning to actually speak have sounds that they pick up from their parents and other adults around them. What are the basic “alphabets” and “sounds” do our developing kids need to have in their minds so they can freely verbalize their belief?

  16. Youth?! This is true across the board in faith formation. It was the purpose of baptism in the early church (and today). In our culture there are a number of ways we can allow for this verbalization. However, as it pertains to youth I believe it sets the tone for the verility not the veracity of faith. As leaders we build on that and over time veracity , as such, comes on its own.


    I totally agree with that statement Marko for all the reasons the above people have stated. I’d also like to add on to what Mark Eades said… What resonated with me was:

    “Even for kids who are just learning to read and write have to have the alphabet to work with or even younger kids who are just learning to actually speak have sounds that they pick up from their parents and other adults around them.”

    I’m not sure what the structure will be but I once read, forgot the author, “When we learn, it is because we caught something we were not necessarily taught it.” I know for a fact that the kids I have taught over the years don’t necessarily remember what I taught more than how I lived. Does that make sense… So I think over time, and it starts before middle school kids are mentored, have faith lived out by a lot of people.

    I can attest to that with my own son. I believe he has a much deeper faith because of the spiritual giants that taught him through his life. Whereas in my previous church the teachers were very new in their faith and did not really live it out.

  18. OK, only 99% huh? Lets try this, I am not sure that every student will “verbalize” their belief. Every adult will not verbalize it either. However, what makes it important is that if they struggle through the stages I think I’ve seen, they will finally end in verbalizing their belief. I would think that you have to verbalize it to “live” it. That is what we strive for.

  19. i think i would add the words “at first” to that to make me agree with it. i think at first verbalization is more important, but i also think that i deal with the effects of our relaxing qualifications for accuracy in the church on a daily basis, and it’s hard to unlearn some of what our students have assumed their whole lives. but yeah, at first getting words around big ideas is huge.

  20. You know I’m on board with this. I like what Steve said above about it being caught and not necessarily taught. Starting from this idea changes how we approach ‘family ministry’ as well, or at least our conversations with parents. Students pick up the faith they see around them in their houses and in the church. If what they see is a lot of accurate language but no praxis, then that’s what they’ll think it’s all about. What are we offering up for them to ‘catch’ that will sustain them into adult faith?

  21. Playing around with this concept in terms of design terminology…

    In the design world, prototyping is huge. Building and making and externalizing creates a shared framework for designers to explore where something works–and where it falls apart. Then the design team keeps iterating and making small steps toward “higher fidelity” prototypes that more accurately reflect and communicate their design concept.

    Relating this to your provocation, I think we can prototype with language. Make (or in this case, verbalize) to think. Test and asses even a “low-fidelity” articulation of a person’s beliefs–which gets sharper and more “accurate” over time.

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