One of the main reasons I remain focused on young people as my life work is because it is such an important time for developing a relationship with God. Most people will make a commitment to Jesus Christ before age eighteen or they never will. It’s exciting to see teens explore their spirituality, but it’s also a bit scary for us parents. As they move from a concrete faith to a more abstract way of thinking, they just may say and do some things that go against their parents’ views. While in college, our daughter Christy felt she had to disown our faith to eventually claim her own faith. Interestingly enough, today her faith still looks quite similar to ours.
This is the stage in their faith development where teens may not want to go to church, or they might say things about God just to get you upset. It is a time of passionate belief and passionate doubt. One morning they may sincerely feel called to be a missionary to help starving children, and later in the day they will tell you they don’t believe in God anymore and they want nothing to do with church. Both feelings are real, and frankly, for the time being, both feelings are a normal part of their faith development. The worst thing a parent can do is to freak out and panic or say mean things during this time of searching. A majority of young people are on a spiritual quest, and we can’t mistake skepticism or doubt as a sign that they are not interested.
Parents must avoid smothering their kids with their own faith. Sure you can set boundaries (“If you live in our home we expect you to attend church”), but don’t spend much time preaching at them. Allow and even affirm the difficult questions. A healthy faith has room for questions. And whenever possible, empower them to put their faith in action. During a tenuous time in the faith development of one of my own daughters, we went on a mission trip together. We served and worked with very poor children in Ecuador. The experience of putting her faith in action caused her to do some very important thinking, and one month after college graduation, she moved to Ecuador to invest a year of her life working with kids.
Teens today are very experiential. They need times to put their faith in action. Obviously, we can’t all go with our kids to a foreign country to do mission work, but we can help them find the time to give them the opportunity to do hands-on ministry and learn that the call to Christ is the call to serve.