The Spectrum of Independence in Youth Ministry, Part 3

As we consider the issues in Part 2, we will try to determine where we want to be on that spectrum. We can focus more on our teens or more on outsiders. In Part 3, I want to say that these choices actually are the same thing. What I mean is that focusing on our teens is incomplete until we get them to share our focus on unbelievers.
teens_miller.jpgWhen a child goes to college, parental involvement dramatically decreases. College ministries don’t seek permission from parents for activities. Nor do they contact parents before one-on-one counseling. Independence from parents is expected during this time of life.

A Barna Group Survey revealed that “close to nine out of ten parents of children under age 13 (85%) believe they have the primary responsibility for teaching their children about religious beliefs and spiritual matters.” The vast majority of Christian parents believe they bear primary responsibility for their kids under age thirteen.

When their children are somewhere between thirteen and eighteen, parents greatly change how they view their responsibility for their children. The period when this change occurs is called “adolescence.” At age eighteen, a youth receives much of the responsibility for his life. But at age thirteen, the parent is still responsible. Somewhere during the five years following thirteen years of age, a young person becomes independent from his parents.

Scripture does not tell us exactly when the young person should leave the nest. Careful examination has led some to estimate the age of Christ’s disciples—about the early to mid teen years in the case of John and “Little James” and about the early twenties in the case of Matthew and Peter (“How Old Were Christ’s Disciples?” Otis Cary, Frank Cary, The Biblical World, Vol. 50, No. 1 [Jul., 1917], pp. 3-12).

It is important to understand that preparedness for independence doesn’t occur overnight. During adolescence, teens are beginning to establish their independence. They are developing their own identity, goals, aspirations, and—perhaps most important for this discussion—their own faith.

I probably learned some of my driving patterns from my friend Greg. He taught me that “good driving” means either the gas pedal or the brake must be completely depressed at all times. More importantly, my father took the time to teach me to drive. That process began with his modeling and explaining good driving. When I was fourteen, we spent some time with the engine off. He explained the pedals and their purpose. Then we went to a deserted parking lot and did some simple driving. Start. Stop. Turn. Turn so the car ends up between two lines. Back up. Turn into a parking spot. Then we hit the road with my father in the passenger seat. We drove on roads that were familiar to me. He pointed out some things I could improve. Later, after success, I drove by myself in daylight, then at night, then with friends, and so on.

Introducing independence progressively can reduce risk. It creates a relationship between the introduction of risk and the acquisition of skills that allow us to succeed in the face of those risks.

I believe this wisdom applies to youth discipleship. Our world is full of ideas, pleasures, and philosophies our kids will eventually be exposed to. Satan uses them to try to lure us away from the faith. At some point, our teens will need to assert their independence and live according to their own faith. I believe we should make adolescence a time of growing independence with progressive exposure to some of the things we know will be a risk.

We have no viable option to never allow kids to leave the nest. The question is whether to turn our teens over to themselves when they are eighteen or thirteen. I believe it is best to progressively release them from the guidance of home to a personally held and practiced faith. Parents should monitor and control this time of progressive independence—closely at first, then less closely after success.

Independent Thinking

A lot of talk in Christian circles today is about discernment. The word discernment in Greek literally means “judging between.” It is the ability to think and judge between options.

Hebrews 5:14-16, NIV

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

God clearly describes a relationship between maturity and the ability to discern or distinguish good from evil. Because discernment is a valuable part of mature Christian life, we want to see our teens gain it as they approach adulthood. As we continue to read, we see what type of issues He is talking about.

Hebrews 6:1-2, NIV

Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (emphasis added).

What comprises this foundation? The passage uses the word teachings and tells us by example. They are doctrines. These are the things we teach as truths of Christianity. About this passage, Calvin says, “In building a house we must never leave the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it, would be ridiculous” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Hebrews, John Calvin). Regarding doctrines, some are foundational; others take time to develop and belong to those who are more mature.

Doctrines are the products of scriptural interpretation.

2 Peter 1:19-21, NIV

And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The way we treat interpretations and doctrine is important. The truths of Scripture are above us and are true whether we accept them or not. They are not particular to the individual (neither the reader nor the writer). However, the individual is responsible before Christ for his doctrine.

Independence in Doctrine

In youth discipleship we find many levels of maturity. Discipleship promotes maturity in doctrine and in application. We will deal with these two areas in different ways. In the case of doctrine, we teach and expose others to the Word, leading to good doctrine. Therefore, we expect an increase in unity with maturity in doctrine. This truth represents an area of interest for parents.

Parental responsibility tells us that parents should know and oversee what we are teaching. However, they should also accept that independence is important and that we would be wise to give it progressively. The eighteen-year-old who goes to college should know more than the list of things his parents believe. He should be able to study the Word for himself and internalize its truths. He will learn these truths only if he studies the Word for himself.

Isaiah 66: 2, ESV

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.

What I’m about to say may sound difficult, but I believe that personal Bible study is more important than simply understanding all the right doctrines. It is more important to gain confidence in personal Bible study. In the next twenty (or fifty) years of independence, the one who learned to study the Word for himself will correct his errors. But the one who was bullied into truths he doesn’t actually see in the Word has learned only to fear and rely on humans more than on Scripture. In the long run, this condition is more dangerous. Still, there are issues we must agree on. In these issues, our goal is that the two situations mentioned above will coincide. That is, the student has correctly understood truths for himself from Scripture.

How can the church and parents oversee teaching?

  • Membership. Only members of our church can teach in youth group events.
  • Fellowship. No youth worker should be so busy with youth work that he doesn’t have time for church fellowship with his peers. Parents should know the teaching and thinking of the youth workers because they fellowship together.
  • Direct observation. Parents may come to youth group on a long-term basis and participate. Also, parents bring snacks and could easily stay for the teaching and discussion time. If they feel obtrusive by joining the group, they should feel welcome to “spy on us” by listening behind the kitchen screen.
  • Ask the teens. We all know this questioning may not work. Ask, “What did you do in youth group?” and the reply will surely be, “Nothing.” Instead, ask teens to think. “Did you agree with the lesson tonight?” In fact, with effort, that line of questioning does work. From time to time, I get e-mails from parents who spoke to their teens about the Sunday school lessons—which is great. Somebody was actually listening!

Independence in Convictions

The other aspect of thinking and discernment is application. Application is the act of making a connection between real-life actions and general biblical commands. For example, the Bible commands us not to be greedy. As we spend money, we will find that the application of that command requires us to search our hearts and see (and avoid) what we do out of greed and self-interest.

I want the reader to see this concept clearly as thinking (as opposed to acting). It is important to see the difference between discerning an action to be good or evil and obeying that discernment. Otherwise, one might suppose that the process of application is acting rather than thinking.

When we make an application, we are saying that some general scriptural command matches some specific real-world action. We often call these applications “convictions” because we are “convinced” that God has directed us by His Word. Application is different from doctrine because its conclusions are particular to the individual Christian. This fact presents a difficulty in practical Christian living. As we make these applications and obey them, we will sometimes find that our brothers in Christ do not share some of our applications. And at the same time, they make applications we doubt are appropriate. The question will always be whether the convictions we make are appropriate or reasonable. That question is impossible to prove to one another. This discussion brings me to two conclusions. If we are not precise about these, they will appear to be contradictory.

First, we are at liberty. We are at liberty from one another in regard to applications. That is, we should not expect others to live by our convictions. Nor should we as individuals judge them to be sinning when they live by their own convictions. And we should not conclude that our brother is unreasonable because he is convinced of applications we do not make.

Second, we are in bondage. We are in bondage to Christ in the matter of applications. This idea of bondage to Christ is important. It appears in both main passages that deal with Christian liberty. The “for” at the beginning of Romans 14:7 logically connects the diversity of convictions in verses 5-6 with the lordship of Christ in verses 7-12. Diversity of convictions is part of the method of the lordship of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, Paul discusses the application of his liberty and how he uses it for the gospel.

We must always choose convictions based on what we believe best makes us a servant of Christ. We have two methods for this choice. First is the Word of God. We must do that which will be done “in honor of the Lord.” We discern that aspect by understanding His Word and applying His principles.

The second is “giving thanks.” Romans 14:6 tells us that each brother “gives thanks to God” (cf., 1 Cor. 10:28-30; 1 Tim. 4:4-5). Being able to pray and thank God for something is a test of our true sincerity of conviction. First Timothy 4:5 sums up these ideas: “it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

In the case of application, maturity may result in either more or less unity. Sometimes teens will differ with their own parents. I won’t spend much time on this idea, but I must be clear about one thing. When discussing these topics, it is absolutely necessary that we teach obedience to parental authority. Teens may study and arrive at convictions about what they will do when they are older—which is valuable to consider. But for now they must obey their parents.

Parents may choose to discuss convictions and allow some latitude so teens can begin to learn the process of personally applying the Word. I believe it is best to begin this process with the application of general biblical commands rather than general prohibitions. For instance, how much should I give to the Lord from my earnings? This question will teach teens obedience to their own convictions and fellowship despite differences—even within a family. This process of progressively turning a teen over to his own convictions is the responsibility of parents, not youth leaders. A youth leader has no place to encourage behavior parents have forbidden.

Independence in thinking about convictions involves risk. A child might adopt a conviction his parents find objectionable. I believe that encouraging independent thinking is worth the risk. Forcing piety through obedience to externally imposed convictions is impossible.

Colossians 2:16-17, NIV

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (emphasis added).

Following imposed man-made rules and using human devices to wall us off from our sin have no benefit in overcoming our own sinful natures. This thought leaves us wanting to know what will overcome sin. That question must wait until Part 4.

miller_small1.jpgDan Miller is an ophthalmologist living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He received a B.S. in Premed from Bob Jones University in 1991 and an M.D. from The University of South Carolina School of Medicine in 1995. He serves as youth leader and board member at Cedar Heights Baptist Church, also in Cedar Falls. He has been happily married to Jenny since 1992. His opinions are not necessarily those of his church or SharperIron.
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