Online Course

Energizing Your Teen’s Spiritual Life

Understanding Your Teen

The spiritual life of most teenagers is more like a roller coaster than a calm and gentle ride. As teens move from dependence toward independence, they naturally begin to explore and even question their belief system.

Now, we have a sign at HomeWord, where I work, that says 85% of the people who make a commitment to Jesus Christ make it before age 18, or they never will. So, the point being is that kids are going through a great amount of spiritual insight, and wondering, and so many things in their teen years. Now, many of those kids made commitments to Christ at an earlier age, but they solidify their faith by the time they’re 18. But here’s the scary thing, they used to own your faith, and now for them to actually own their own faith they almost have to disown your faith, and sometimes that happens in the teen years so don’t be surprised. But know this, that the most influential people in a kid’s life spiritually, even in the teen years, is mom and dad. So, that’s good news. Let’s work it out. This chapter was very practical. Hopefully what we have to say on video is very practical, and I think you’ll have a good discussion with it.

So, when our son was growing up he was very active in church and now as a teen it seems like he’s pretty lukewarm. He doesn’t really … We often have to force him to go, so I’m wondering is there anything that we can do to help bring his excitement back for church?
Yeah, yeah. Boy, I get that question asked so often And, A, it’s normal because, again, they’re kind of going through that experimental phase. No easy answers on this one because each kid, when you think about their spiritual life, each kid looks at it differently in their time. I mean, we have one daughter who just kind of breezed through the teenage years, and then we have another daughter who just fought it like crazy. Same family, same stuff, same church, same youth pastors, that whole thing, and yet they look at it so differently. So, sometimes you just want to get a hug and just go, “It’s sort of normal and they’ll probably come out of it.” There actually is a scripture that says train up a child in the way that they would go and in the end they’ll return.” It doesn’t promise you that you won’t have bumps in the road, especially on the spiritual thing. Actually, I think kids have to sometimes struggle a bit to become a more committed Christian. So, there have to be those kinds of times, at the same time.
Let me give you some bad news and let me give you some good news. Here’s the bad news, people in my work … I do family ministry, I’m thinking about teens all the time, 65% of the teens at a good church, your church, any church that’s probably a part of this, 65% of those kids will leave the church at some time after they graduate from high school, within like a two-year period. They won’t leave … Some will leave frustrated, whatever. Some of them it just won’t become as important. I don’t hear you saying that your teen is hating God, it’s just that it’s not the forefront of their mind, sort of normal. So 65% of these kids. That’s a whole state. However, we’re beginning to see a leak, and people are beginning to leak this out. We don’t have all of the research yet, but there are people now saying that there is a 300% better chance that kids will stay in the church if they have faith conversations in the home.

Now what’s fascinating is, because I have a youth ministry background I always thought that as long as they’re in a good youth group, but what we’re seeing is, no, as long as their home has faith conversations and, by the way, not toxic or preachy faith conversations. When you have faith conversations in the home these kids tend to stay longer. Now, let me say this, when you’re looking at the greatest influence of kids spiritually, you know who the greatest influencer is of a kid, basically, by far, mom. Isn’t that interesting? So when they do that it’s mom and dads are number two. We need to buck it up, dads. Us guys, we need to do a little better. But they’ll point to mom, oftentimes they’ll point to Dad.

Then they point to grandma and grandpa, friends and peers, and other relatives kind of stay on it, and then it’s the church, see. So, we in the church as parents say, “Great, that youth worker is so cool,” or “That intern is so amazing,” or “The youth group’s great,” and it is but it’s still not as influential as parents. So, apparently what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to be able to bring faith conversations into the home. Again, I’m not talking about toxic, I’m not talking about preachy. So, what do you do? I think you be intentional about building faith conversations. So, a faith conversation doesn’t have to be doing a Bible study. A faith conversation doesn’t have to be saying, “You know, in the Greek it means this.”

How do you have faith conversations? You know, when you’re driving, right before they go to bed. Some of my best times with my adolescent daughters and, again, I only had daughters so we had no hormones or drama in our life, oh man, but would be at night. They’d kind of lighten up a little bit, so I’d sit on the bed with them and we’d sort of talk about stuff. I wanted more faith conversation, they didn’t, so it wasn’t like they were having big time conversations, but ever so often it would kind of, again, sort of leak out. So, be intentional about this.

Now, our family decided when our kids were more what we’d call pre-teens that we would … Well, actually even younger for the youngest. We would start doing family devotions. I wasn’t raised in a church, so we had no idea how to do family devotions, so, Cathy looked to me and I kind of went, “Okay.” So, I would speak to the kids for about 20 minutes. How did that work? Well, not very good and, in fact, our kids, we’d go, “Okay, we’re going to have family devotions. Yeah.” They’d all go, “No, not family devotions.” It was horrible.

So one day Cathy, who actually has a background in early childhood development education, she goes, “Hey, no offense, but it’s not working. You’re kind of boring.” I’m like, “Oh.” Only a wife can say that. I’m like, “Wait, I speak to thousands of kids,” whatever. “Well, you’re not working with our kids real well.” So I said, “Well fine, being the passive aggressive husband/father … That could be another session. I said, “Fine, you do it then.” So, that night she says, “Okay, girls, we’re going to do a play.” It was family devotion night, but she never used the word family devotion because it was kind of a bad word in our family. So she goes, “Do you guys want to do to play?” Well, they’re all kind of that way and they said, “Yeah, this would be awesome.”

Now again, when I’m saying preteens, my oldest was a preteen because she was like nine and a half, so she was kind of pre, and she acted like she was 15. Then we had a seven year old and a five year old, so they were younger. What happened was Cathy gets out a storybook and says, “Why don’t we act out one of the Bible stories?” So I get where she’s going, plus she cheated and she had chocolate and red vine licorice in there and so the kids are stuffing their mouths with chocolate and red vines. Usually Cathy’s the one who like isn’t letting them eat all this amazing junk food. The kids are just stuffing themselves and loving it, actually.
So, [Christie 00:07:12], my oldest, kind of points to the Adam and Eve because it was the first chapter. She goes, “Let’s do this one,” and then they got in an argument. So, this is not super spiritual but nobody wanted to be Adam because they were girls and they wanted to be Eve, everybody wanted to be Eve. I finally said, Christie, you’re the oldest. Adam’s older than Eve, you’re Adam. She kind of goes, “Huh,” kind of a thing. She goes, “Can I wear a mustache?” Absolutely. You can have a mustache if you want.
So, then the two girls argued about being Eve and finally, and I know there will be people who know the Bible very, very well, some of you know the Bible very, very well. I actually cheated a little bit and I said, okay Rebecca, you are Eve and Heidi you are Yvette, Eve’s little sister. I mean, I was desperate. There was only one other part of it and it’s the snake and they’d already told me I was going to be the snake so you’re stuck.

So, they go into the soundproof booth and I’m looking at Cathy kind of going, “This is not spiritual, they got in an argument,” and I can hear them like laughing and giggling because they’re putting on clothes. They’re more about dress up. Christie all of a sudden walks out. She’s wearing a flowered shirt, mine, and she has this mustache on her face which looked terrible. We found out later it was a permanent marker mustache, but that’s another problem for the next day at school. I said, “Well Christie, why are you dressed like this?” She’s Adam. Well Garden of Eden, in their mind the closest thing to the Garden of Eden is Hawaii, so she put on Dad’s Hawaii shirt. Then Heidi walks out. Now, remember Heidi is only five, and she like a hula outfit on. So she has a grass skirt that we got about two years prior so you can see her pink panties, and the two coconuts are just kind of like dangling there. So as she walks by I try to place them in strategic positions for the five year old, and now one is on her shoulder and one is kind of down here. She goes, “Do I do the hula now?” And I’m thinking, “This is so unspiritual.”

Then Rebecca, who as I mentioned is our marriage and family therapist kid now, she comes out stark naked. She has no clothes on whatsoever. Now again, she’s only seven so it wasn’t the world’s worst thing. If she was 15 that would be a problem. But at seven she comes out and she’s the defensive one anyway, and she kind of just stands there like this. And I said, “Well, Rebecca, tell us what you’re not wearing,” because Heidi had no clue, but it was only because of Hawaii, so she didn’t know. Rebecca said, “Well, it says it right here in the Bible, meaning the Bible storybook, because she’s not even looking at the Bible. “She had no clothes on.” I kind of look at it. At the same time I see Eve, and she’s got at least covering of leaves in this picture. I went, “Okay, well, yeah.” Kind of look at my wife and I said, “We can do this, but Rebecca, if they ever ask you to be Eve at church you have to wear clothes, because she was the kid who would throw off her diapers, and all this.

Now, the point that I’m saying is, it was awesome, and we actually did the play and they laughed and they ate more chocolate, and it wasn’t as hyper-spiritual as mine, but guess what, they enjoyed it. So then, what we realized was kids support what they help create. So, we started doing it with our kids as they got to be adolescents. For example, one time Rebecca brought the deal because she really had a question, and she said “Agree or disagree, it’s okay for non-Christians to date Christians, because she kind of had a boyfriend who wasn’t a Christian and she was curious about this. So, she and Heidi … By this time our daughter, Christie, was away at college. … they got into a fight, I mean an argument because one believed strongly that you shouldn’t and one believed it was okay, and they gave illustrations for both and it was really actually not a … It was an intense conversation. Finally, one of them looks at me and says, “Well, Dad, what does the Bible say? I went, “Whoa.” So we had this moment.

So. the problem is is we think we have to do heavy-duty Bible study. We think we have to take them to what they do in youth ministry. We don’t. It’s just the conversations that take place. So, my illustration is, be intentional about faith conversations. In our family it still goes this way, 20 minutes is the longest we would ever do. We call it KISS, keep it short and simple, and it’s always mixed with some kind of fun food. It doesn’t have to be red vines and chocolate. But, anyway, I think that’s an important question, that you keep it up, but keep it short where they’re not going, “Oh, this is long and boring.”

There are a lot of other questions we could probably deal with, but as time goes on let the kids begin to lead it. But again, for our kids they got into things like positive inspirational YouTubes. They’d say, “We want to watch this three-minute video,” and it was really good. So then we would watch it and we let them do it. It wasn’t always as Christian as we wanted, but it was always brought up that they expected us to pray together as a family and things like that. Long answer to a great question.
Are there other practical ideas for helping our teens grow spiritually?

Well, there are. What’s interesting, Jason, is that, what might work for your family isn’t going to work for these guys, and what might work with one kid isn’t We have to be looking at all the different ways to do it practical, but I want us to keep as practical as possible. One of the things that we’re seeing work at HomeWord is, and HomeWord is who I work with, we have something called the Pass It On Initiative. What it means is we celebrate rites of passages of kids. They did that in the Old Testament. They did that … Other religions do that, but within Christianity we haven’t done that as much, or if we’ve done it it’s been hyper-spiritual, which is great, but it hasn’t always affected some of the other rites of passages. So, we have an initiative called Pass It On. Pass It On actually goes from kindergarten on through high school. But for teens, what we do is we have a deal that you do once a year, and it’s basically a ceremony, and there’s typically a symbol with it and you make it experiential if you can, because that’s a better learning experience, and you make it memorable.

So, for example, what is really on the mind of a kid when they’re driving, starting to drive? It’s that they want the keys and they want to learn how to drive, and so at a certain age what we have is we have celebrate the rite of passage of driving, because what do you want? You want responsibility. They’re not thinking about responsibility, they’re thinking about freedom, and they’re thinking about taking their friends, and all that. So, what we want to do is … So, we have a really cool thing where you kind of just celebrate that rite of passage.

When they’re in middle school you celebrate the rite of passage of sexual integrity. Again, you do an experience that has all these kind of memorable things where the conversations happen, maybe you bring in people.

I love … This is an illustration actually for kindergarten, but I just heard this that somebody in Nashville, Tennessee … We have each year grade-wise … In Nashville, Tennessee, they … It’s an invitation to generosity, and so this little kid had heard somehow, at church or something, that people were cold in Nashville in the winter and there were homeless. They let him choose what they were going to do, and so he said, “Let’s buy blankets.” It cost them 150 bucks. I’m not saying everybody can afford that, but they went to Walmart, they bought $150 worth of blankets. Walmart gave them a 20% discount, good for Walmart. They went with an organization, so they just weren’t by themselves, and they passed out blankets.

So, see what I’m saying is they had this experience, and then one of the blankets is now in the little kid’s room, see. Second grade they give Bibles. Again, you go back to in the adolescent times you do certain things that are key in their life. The reason I use a driving contract is because that sounds so unspiritual, but one of the things at that age you want to teach them is responsibility.
We have another year where we call it Money Matters. How do we teach our kids to be good, healthy stewards of money? Frankly, we care about their grades, and we care about their sports, and do they do club soccer, or not, and all this, but do we really proactively celebrate the rite of passage that now there’s some money in their hands. A lot of kids don’t handle money well. They don’t then do it well as adults, so why not celebrate a rite of passage?

One family we know actually, and this is kind of scary, I’m not sure I’d let my kids do it, but they actually let their children at age 16 manage the checkbook. Now again, they do that with parents looking over it, but each week they do that together, and in some ways they’re learning for the first time about a profit and loss. When my kids were little it was like, “Daddy, just go get some more money out of that machine,” as if the ATM just gave money, you didn’t have to put money into it. But at a certain age, with the adolescents, they need to learn that, see.

Then, the last one for 12th grade is what we call a manhood ceremony, womanhood ceremony. It’s really cool. You do it, it’s memorable, it’s pretty impressive. I’ve been in a bunch of them. I spoke for an organization at one time called Promise Keepers, and it’s a men’s movement, and the President of Promise Keepers is a friend of mine named Randy Phillips. He’s not the president any longer, but he used to always say, “A man is not a man until his dad tells him he is,” and then men would weep because men never … Many of these men never had their dads say that.

So, what we’re saying is why not do a rite of passage experience where you actually say, “Hey, at 18 you are a man.” Now, that doesn’t mean they’re going to totally act and do everything like an adult, but the fact is is that you recognize that. So, I was at one recently where the young man was given an object by his dad, which was kind of cool, and then there were other people who were close to him and we all spoke into his life about adulthood. We gave him affirmation and whatnot, and then we prayed together, and then we ate steak. It was great. But again, it was this thing that was memorable for him. That didn’t happen for me. I never had that. I had to kind of figure that out on my own. So, why not do something like a rite of passage.

Another thing is to serve together. What we have found is that when families serve together … You know, churches do great service projects, but why not a family do something? For us at Thanksgiving, my wife would have the girls, and myself, we would go to a women’s shelter and we would cook Thanksgiving with the women, because we wanted our kids to kind of be engaged with these women. Our kids actually loved this. As long as it wasn’t … We didn’t do it on Thanksgiving day because I think our kids might have rebelled more, and they didn’t want it on Thanksgiving day. We would do that. I remember there was a year when we didn’t do that and our kids went, “Well, why aren’t we doing the Thanksgiving dinner thing?” At first they balked, and then it got to a place where they were the ones who took it.

I remember taking my daughter, two of my daughters, to Mexico and having an incredible experience. The church was doing a kind of a all-family mission trip and we went, and it was awesome. Being with my girls was really neat. Then a couple of years later when my daughter graduated from college, she’d been in high school when I took her, but she graduated from college and she went and spent eight months as a missionary in Ecuador. I said, “Hey, what was the catalyst for that?” She goes, “You know, I feel like God started working on me when we went to Mexico that time. Remember when you snuck us out because the food was so bad, and we went and got pizza? Well, we had that conversation.” Wow. So I think those are the kinds of practical things.

One last, I think we need to expose our teens proactively to other role models than us, but who are adults? So, like for us, we invited a woman who was 25 to come and live with us. She was an intern at the church, she needed a place to live, and so what we did is we had her come and live with us. We were serving her and she was thrilled. She lived there for two years, but our kids all of a sudden had their intern, their favorite person, living in the house with us. We were fortunate enough to be able to kind of move some bedrooms around and she had her own place. That was a really positive thing for us because, today, my girls who are now young adults, but they’re still talking to her, and we just had a wedding and she was a major part of that wedding.

So it’s a process that we’ve got to make sure who are the role models? I think it takes all kinds of adult role models, and I think we need to be proactive about that. Anyway, maybe more information than you wanted on that question, but I think there’s some great stuff we can do.


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In this online course, parenting expert Jim Burns helps you navigate the change and transition to adolescence.

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