Battlelines No. 8

Today, Philip Jenkins joins us to talk youth ministry. If there’s someone I trust to know this topic, it’s Philip. For years, he has been on the cutting edge of ministry that benefits teenagers and enriches the work of fellow minsters. If you know Philip, you know why I asked him to write this and you know what a blessing it will be to read his article, simply entitled The Battle for Youth Ministry.

I think I’m supposed to want them to get off my lawn and stuff, but the older I get the more I admire teenagers. Since my first day on the job in 2006, a New Year’s Eve lock-in-all-nighter, I have believed that I have the greatest job in the world.

That being said, sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living, I hear stuff like, “Whew! Better you than me! I could never do that!” And maybe they’re right, but whenever I hear something like that, I always wonder “Have you ever spent time around teenagers? Because they are nothing like you think they are.” I admire teenagers and here’s why I think you should, too.

Teenagers remind me of the kind of heart I need to have. 

They have a humility, a penitence, an innocence about them that most adults do not. They are coachable, willing to learn and take correction. They are honest to a fault. They admit when they are wrong, even though they are not very good at doing wrong yet. They are passionate, emotional, fun, and energetic. They love nothing more than to be with one another. They value relationships, and because of this, I believe they are the most evangelistic group in the church. They love to laugh and play and make memories. And they don’t know how scary and dark the world is yet. 

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. | E.E. Cummings

And from the mouths of teens come some of the most beautiful sounds that you’ll hear in the whole wide world: hearts pouring out praise to God, and student after student confessing, “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God” as they surrender their lives to him in baptism. Notice something Jesus said in Matthew 18:1-4.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Using the Scriptures to specifically talk about teenagers is tricky, because the word teenager isn’t a Greek or Hebrew word (it wasn’t coined until 1922), so I guess it’s sort of like trying to describe an ice cream sandwich. 

“So it’s ice cream?”

“Well, yes, but there’s more to it than that.” 

 “So it’s a sandwich?” 

“Well, yes, but it’s not exactly a sandwich.” 

Teens are children, but they’re not completely children, and they’re adults but they’re not completely adults. They’re in this wonderfully awkward stage of life where childhood and adulthood collide, where they possess all of the lovable characteristics of children, while at the same time desperately attempting to figure out what it means to be an adult…and failing a lot. 

I say that not to dog teenagers – I say that because I speak from experience. The teenage years are the human version of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The kid locks himself in his room for something like 6 years and we hope that the thing that comes out in the end is a beautiful version of an adult. 

But it’s more than that or at least it should be. Our aim is not to teach teenagers how to be functioning adults. That’s nearsighted. If that’s where we stop, we will raise some great businessmen and businesswomen. 

Our goal should be to love them through the maggot stage and, not just tell them, but show them what it means to be a Christian adult.

The bad news is they’ll grow up and learn some of the bad habits we learn in adulthood. They’ll learn to be stubborn and not ask for help. To lie and hold grudges. To hide their problems. To shut people out. To hold it all in. To fail and be humiliated and learn to dream smaller and more “realistically.”  

But the good news is, there are teenagers to remind us of the kind of hearts we ought to have. 

And there’s more good news: teenagers need adults. After all, you learned to walk because, number one, someone showed you and, number two, because you learned what it felt like to fall down. Adults are just experienced mistake-makers, grown-up teenagers who got hurt, failed, and struck out, and watch this, learned. 

So the next time your priorities as a disciple of Christ get out of whack, remember the reminder of the kind of heart that you need to have, the reminder that Jesus gave his disciples that day in Matthew 18.

Then, after some deep reflection, take a moment and enjoy an ice cream sandwich. 

Philip Jenkins is the Youth Minister for the Mt. Juliet Church of Christ outside of Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of Lunch Ladies and a frequent speaker across the nation about teenage ministry. He also serves on the board of Evangelism University. He is married and the father of two young children.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), copyright (c) 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Photo by Amir Hosseini on Unsplash