Fostering Authentic Faith In Teenagers

Group of teenagers wearing G Shades aviator sunglasses

My wife and I recently went from parenting three kids to parenting five. No, we didn’t have twin babies! We brought in two teenage siblings we already knew and loved from around the neighborhood. Through a series of conversations with them and their biological parent over a period of a little over a year, it just began to make the most sense for them to live with us full time.

Making that jump has made me think a lot about youth ministry. It’s made me acutely aware, all at once, how different it is parenting a teenager versus pastoring one. I’m obviously a very cool parent, but I’m also really lame and the killer of all things good and beautiful (at least in the eyes of my 14-year-old!). Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about fostering faith in teenagers—because that’s something we’ve been steadily doing in the lives of these two kids since they drifted into our orbit of influence. And obviously it’s something all of us as youth pastors think about often in our ministry roles!

How do we foster genuine faith in teenagers?

I don’t have all of the answers to that, but it’s my belief that a gospel lens can help us navigate just about anything. So let me offer a gospel lens for us on this and then share a thought or two about what it looks like to raise the next generation of authentic Christians.

In the gospel, God gives us an almost irresponsible amount of ownership over the direction and pace of our faith journey. I mean, for God to pay such a high price for our salvation only to watch us often squander His costly grace wallowing in darkness and immaturity just because we want to? That’s got to be deeply frustrating—even for a God who poured out all of His wrath on Jesus already.

God could force us to learn. He could force us to obey. He could rule and regulate us into submission to The Way. But He doesn’t do that in the context of the New Covenant. He gives us so much autonomy in growing in our walk with Christ. We make so many mistakes and we’re so slow to get it, and He just gives us bits and pieces of the puzzle bit by bit. Because for Him, His investment in us is lifelong and continuous—because we’re His kids and He is our Father. So for that reason (and a number of others), He takes His sweet time shaping us toward Christlikeness.

And this is why this word “foster” is actually really, really appropriate. To foster is very different than to adopt. To adopt is to say, “these are my kids and I intend to raise them through adulthood.” This is the kind of relationship my wife and I have with the two teenagers we’ve brought into our home. They are our children, and our intention is for that relational dynamic to be a lifelong one. But to foster? To foster is to say, “I’m going to love these kids and provide a stable environment until they’re able to be fully reunited with their parents.” It’s temporary by nature, and that doesn’t make it worse, but it completely changes the way you see the relationship.

Most youth pastors and small group leaders would be wise to adopt a fostering approach to the next generation’s faith formation.

God is their parent, and there is much He can and will teach them after your season being a primary influence in their life is over. That means you don’t have to fret and stress about fixing every little thing about a student’s life or beliefs or behavior.

Your role is to provide love and a stable environment as you point a teenager to reunite with their Father more fully.

So…should you teach apologetics in your youth ministry? Sure, that’d be cool. But they’ve got a Father who can work with them on defense of faith stuff later, too. It doesn’t absolutely have to be you. You’re fostering faith, not parenting it.

Should your youth ministry have a robust student leadership team culture? I mean…that’d be dope. But they’ve got a Father who can call out their gifts and passions and use them for Kingdom work later down the road, too. It doesn’t absolutely have to be you. You’re fostering faith, not parenting it.

Should your teaching strategy give a complete overview of biblical framework, covenantal theology, and eschatology? That stuff’s all very helpful, sure. But they’ve got a Father who can provide avenues toward those learning paths as they grow older, too. It doesn’t absolutely have to be you. You’re fostering faith, not parenting it.

Your role matters. What you do or don’t teach matters. In fact, I believe it matters so much I created a curriculum centered around what matters most—the transformative power of life through a gospel lens. But sometimes as youth pastors we try to take on more burden than we were meant to. We’re not parenting authentic faith in teenagers. We’re fostering it. And, hopefully someday, we’ll get to see the unification with Father of these students we’re pouring into.

Until then, trust that Dad’s got this. He might seem a little irresponsible with His grace and slowness, but He can be trusted to build authentic faith in our teenagers over the course of their lifetime.

Mike Haynes is a full-time youth pastor and the creator of G Shades Youth Ministry Curriculum. Feel free to reach out to Mike anytime over email at mike@gshades.org
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