Teaching Teens Part 1: Loyalty

01.22.10 | Dan White | Comments[3]

loyal youth

Hello faithful few. Thanks for lighting up this blog to find out if I have anything brilliant or boring to say. Sad thing is sometimes we are so accustomed to being entertained or tickled by exciting speech that we think brilliance is only packaged in something shiny. I’ve been finding some brilliance lately in the boring. I was having coffee with a youth pastor recently who asked me how I came to teach the way I do. He asked “how do you know what to teach teenagers on a yearly basis.” Instead of answering right back, I asked what he teaches his teenagers on a yearly basis. He said “well you’re the expert I’d rather know what you do”. I said “well you love your teenagers in your ministry I’d rather know what you do.” “Well” he said “I think a lot about what it’s like to be a teenager, what it’s like to be facing what they’re currently facing, and what they will be facing when they leave our youth ministry, then I go dig in the Scriptures for spiritual food for them.” “Brilliant” I said, “really that’s exactly the place that I start at.” “I might use a different system or method but that’s the most brilliant thing you can keep front and center.” After we established that I was not the expert we were able to talk freely about things we’ve both learned and shared them without insecurity. Not everything brilliant is packaged in the shiniest book or presentation. So much of what I’ve acquired over the years is having an observant eye and a learner’s heart about everything. It doesn’t have to come from an expert or the publishing company that has the corner on youth ministry tools. Look around observe. Ask students, ask other youth pastors, ask your volunteers.

One thing I wanted to cover a little in this podcast is more of the nuts and bolts about teaching in the context of youth ministry. There is a lot of discussion and debate about methods of teaching and the role of sermons or small groups or discussion type groups. I think there is need for all of these modes in balance. I think one of the core pressing issues to be addressed no matter what your form for teaching is, is the dynamic of loyalty to Christian culture versus loyalty to Jesus Christ. In the last 13 years this pendulum swing has become a big deal to me and real point of concern, especially in light of the phenomena of truck loads of teens leaving the church only a couple years after they graduate high school. This phenomenon is forming the new post-Christian culture, which in raw definition is; young people who have an extended experience in the Christian subculture and decide it’s more of a turn off or decide it’s not a necessity for their everyday life. I was in youth group as a teen 20 years ago. I went every Thursday night and Sunday night. I was at every scavenger hunt, retreat, concert, and messy game night we did. I listened intently to most everything taught in our Bible studies, except when that cute girl visited. I had a youth leader I really looked up too. Somehow, I and many other youth group junkies extracted that the most important thing in our Christian life was committing to youth group and committing to “acting” like a Christian and being with Christian friends. I’m not sure if this was the message they intended to get across to us but really I’ve come to embrace that this shouldn’t be our central message as youth leaders. Maybe that flips your lid “committing to church, acting like a Christian and being with Christian friends is not our central and most essential message?” What are you drink’n Dan?

Most of the teens who I was in youth group with eventually went off to college or worked. That’s when things went south for most of them. When the youth group frenzied environment was gone so was the energy of their faith in God and the church. Now I know as youth workers we are not responsible for the decisions young people make after they leave us but I do think we are responsible to make sure we are emphasizing the essentials for loyalty to Jesus in a messy world not our Christian cultural/denominational hobby horses. For as much as church youth ministry has grown up and become more accepted and professional over the last 30 years, what we are teaching should always be at the core. I don’t just mean propositional teaching but what are we teaching or better yet what is being retained from our small groups, events, activities, worship and themes we choose to highlight. A good parallel example of retention comes from a conversation I had with a teen a couple of years ago while we both ate a slice of cheap greasy pizza, I had asked him if he came from a Christian home? He replied “it depends on what you call Christian.”  “We do devotions together and go to church every Sunday but my dad screams at us all the time, can barely make eye contact with us and my mom is never home and my brother is a mess but my parents never do anything about it, I’m not sure I would call that Christian!”

Teens pick stuff up. We do a similar thing in youth ministry circles. We assume our teens are being taught about a deep loyalty to Jesus because we’ve got events every month, Bible study, worship night and a dynamic retreat once a year but they may not be picking up the most essential message, they could be picking up an alternate message that deep loyalty to youth group and eventually Christian things is what we are about and will keep them spiritually strong. Jesus exampled that teaching the kingdom was at the core of his earthly ministry and his miracles were supporting elements to his teaching not the other way around.

After all that babbling I want to get back to my original thought. What is the content of our teaching and are we teaching for loyalty to our youth group culture or loyalty to Jesus?

Here are my top 3 personal disciplines or guardrails in teaching for loyalty to Jesus instead of loyalty to youth group/church culture. These three reminders became more present in my ministries and became internal convictions over time and probably outwardly more obvious in my last 5 years of ministry.

1. Place less emphasis on serving the church programs and more emphasis on serving the community. This might make some of you panic “that’s what teens do, they care for kids in the nursery and help in children’s ministry and serve on our youth ministry worship teams etc.” But here is what we are teaching young people that over time is biting us in the fluffy back side. We communicate that we care more about our programs than we do about the world we live in. This issue has shown to become a significant point of disillusionment with young people after they graduate youth group and start pondering what the church is really up to. Help your teens move into the world, into broken places in their circles of influence. Stop sounding the siren that serving God is serving the programs of the church. There is something that whiffs of a lack of authenticity and potential church culture narcissism that the world revolves around the activities of the church. Be careful you’re not sending this message. Practically you should be more encouraged if a teen is regularly volunteering at a local woman’s shelter than if they are attending one of your many youth outings. The beginning of youth ministry in the 60’s and 70’s was about providing alternatives to what the world offered. I still hear this all the time “we are providing a safe alternative.” This mode of thinking is increasingly finding less traction with teens nor is it intentionally building lifelong disciples of Jesus. Let me tell you why, eventually those Christian alternatives dissipate and a young person has to integrate into the culture and learn to love unbelievers, relate with unbelievers without living just like them and plug into needs within the secular world. But too often they were never taught to stick with Jesus they were taught more between the lines to stick with youth group, Christian events and Christian people. So if I were in your place I’d pull back on striving to gets teens to serve in the church and more to follow you into the world to serve the world.

2. Be careful of accepting and inviting decisions during emotionally charged environments. Careful. I know that God moves and the Holy Spirit pulls on us and on our affections to make an immediate choice. But I’m seeing more and more fallout from alter calls and the use of emotionally intoxicating environments to get responses from teens. We’ve swung too far with this. Teens begin to think that loyalty to Jesus can be widdled down to an emotional moment where they felt something. They begin to bank on these markers to stay close or feel close to God. But fast-forward to when they don’t feel something in the middle of their stressful college life, they equate that with not feeling God which then equates to not having the will power to stick with God. Let’s be honest, loyalty to Jesus is not sexy, most of the time it’s not publicly applauded, not too many people will recognize their obedience and when it comes down to it you don’t feel a big rush when you stick with Jesus. Jesus himself modeled that his loyalty to his Father God was not built on an emotional return. His loyalty was gritty, not understood by his friends, and he didn’t get high fives or fist bumps for his commitment. I call this Blue Collar spirituality (I’ll expand on this in a later podcast). I know the fear “if I don’t get outward responses (raised hands, crying eyes, someone coming down front, and signing a pledge) then how do I know they are choosing to change or that we are being effective. Sister, brother, it is not our territory to measure success this way. We trust Jesus and we hope to see him working his heart into them and we guide them to translate that into the way they make choices in their daily life.

3. In your teaching, avoid teaching only on topics that are trendy or current like: Sex, Dating, Friendship, or the internet. I did teach on those things but they need to fit into a holistic construction of what a Jesus Follower needs and looks like. Practically, lay out your cycle of teaching for an entire year put it down on paper. Try not to do one week teaching snippets and try not to go longer than 2 months on a subject. Create a rhythm in you teaching calendar. When you get it down on paper get some perspective on it. Does it have balance? Will a teenager get a lopsided perspective if they sit in your teaching a whole year? Youth Pastors have the tendency to teach their hobby horses or what they are doing for their own personal devotions. This is not a good rhythm to teach in. I know because I used to do it when I first started out. I meet quite a lot of youth leaders who pick one mode of teaching and park there; inductive Bible studies or teenage issues or what’s happening in culture. If you go with that approach I genuinely feel your setting up your teens for a really lopsided view on what God is concerned and passionate about. If you’re thinking long-term then this becomes compounded when they graduate and they realize they are only prepared for hot button issues or apologetics or how to study the Bible. Maybe that last one might bug you “how to study the Bible, that’s a good thing.” I’ve met a lot of young people who know how to study the Bible but don’t know how to navigate seemingly grey choices with wisdom or they don’t know much about the dynamic of trusting God when they can’t see him or feel him. 10 years ago I fell in love with the concept of the 7 checkpoints which is a book by Andy Stanley. I didn’t really ingest the book’s philosophy whole but I have to say the concept of teaching through the basic irreducible minimums over and over changed my youth ministry approach 10 years ago. Disciplining myself to hold a balance thematically I believe was instrumental in retention and transformation over the years. I purposed to lean less on a grenade type experience or moment and leaned more on the progressive formation provided by the Spirit’s work through biblically rooted principles. There are a lot of new helps and guides out there that have expounded on the 7 checkpoints type model.

There are a few other dimensions of teaching that are important pieces like; building a conversant environment and small groups. I’ll get to those another time since this blog is way too long and is challenging my own attention span. Next time I’d like to work out what Blue Collar Spirituality is. Let me know what you think, give your me feedback on something in this teaching blog ramble. Peace.

Director of Youth Resources,

Dan White Jr.



Your Comments(please keep them on topic and polite)

on 01.22.10 Susan commented

As a mother of kids who went off to college and lost their seeming closeness to Jesus, I can totally relate and agree wholeheartedly with your points. One went to a Christian college for 2 years and had the same type of "safe" Christian environment as youth group/church, before transferring to a secular state school. The time spent at the Christian college, similar to the time spent in youth group, created a desire to stay in that type of environment, although it did open the mind to social justice. Even with a period of "wing stretching" and testing, this child is still seeking the cloesness to Jesus, yet is completely disillusioned w/ religion.

The second went directly to a secular school w/ no "safe" Christian environments, so to speak. Life quickly began to move towards keeping God at a distance, with the closeness to Jesus slipping further and further away. As the parent, I can only pray and model how I believe Jesus lived his life, in hopes that this child will find a true closeness with the One who will save him.

I believe that building that relationship in a youth group, teaching how to really hash things out in the Word and teaching by example on how Jesus treats people, is the proper way to build the foundation that every teenager needs.

And again, I couldn't agree more with your points.

on 01.25.10 Tyler commented

Definitely long, a hard read on the computer screen. You've got stuff worth chewing on tho. When I substitute teach at middle and high schools it saddens me to see the cluster of blatantly youth group attending teens, with bracelets, t-shirts, stickers and blaring Christian music on their iPods, not to mention their dialect, functioning as a separate group, completely uninvolved in the lives of the people they're surrounded by. I believe you're emphasis on teaching loyalty to Christ addresses an extremely relevant problem in youth groups today. It's time for Christian teens to engage with their surroundings and impact the world.

on 02.05.10 Drew commented

True, amen, and heck yes.

My background in youth ministry was pretty heavily focused on the "conversion experience", but some of the most lasting results in true growth have been from kids I worked with up to ten years ago and I've only heard from lately. We plant seeds, we can't always expect to be there for the harvest.