Faith That Prevails

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Your preteens will need a strong spiritual foundation to face
serious distractions such as doubt, peer pressure, temptations, and
stress. To help you take steps now to prepare kids for the
challenges ahead, Children’s Ministry Magazine talked to Christian
teenagers about their faith, what’s influenced it, and what’s
challenged it. Because they’re just like the kids who are growing
up in your children’s ministry, these teenagers’ insights can pave
the way for the next generation of teenagers — no matter what life
brings their way.

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The Family Factor

When asked about the biggest influence on their faith so far,
teenagers we interviewed overwhelmingly answered “family.”
Surprisingly, though, the family members making the impact changed
as kids aged. During childhood, kids say, their parents left the
biggest impression on them spiritually. But during adolescence,
siblings fill that role, as do peers, youth groups, teachers, and
mentors.

“My parents have always had a big impact on my faith — and
continue to,” says 15-year-old Mary Grace Joseph of Springdale,
Arkansas. “They consistently pray with us each day and read from
God’s Word. They’re two of the strongest Christians I know.”

Thomas Haugan, 17, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, says his
parents affected his faith the most as a child. But now his older
brother and a recent missions trip are having the greatest impact
on him spiritually.

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Parents’ importance in children’s spirit­ual development can’t
be underestimated. Kristi Andrews, youth minister at St. Joseph’s
Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Colorado, says of her youth group of
30 teenagers, “three-fourths are from non-Christian homes and
three-fourths have a hard time believing in the existence of a
loving God. Who can blame them?” she asks. “They’ve never
experienced Christ’s forgiveness, never seen a prayer answered, and
never witnessed the everyday miracles that come with having
faith.”

Children’s ministers can encourage parents who are providing
strong faith foundations by assuring them that their efforts aren’t
in vain. For children with non-Christian backgrounds, minister to
their parents’ needs and invite them to get involved at your
church.

Strong Faith Ingredients

Most of the teenagers we interviewed grew up in the church –
and most credit their church’s children’s ministry programs with
building their spiritual framework.

Content matters.
Clinton Franz, 13, of Golden, Colorado, says Sunday school object
lessons “left a big impres­sion” on him. He recalls in detail a
hands-on activity from several years ago that had an important
message about forgiveness.

Mary Grace credits the many Bible verses she memorized at Awana
for growing her faith as a child and for helping her during
challenging times. Other teenagers expressed regret that they
hadn’t committed more Scripture passages to heart.

Relationships matter.
“Special Sunday school teachers through the years invested a lot
into my life,” Mary Grace says.

The relationships children form within the church have the
biggest impact on their spiritual lives, according to Donna
Thurston, assistant for discipleship and family ministries at
Chatham Presbyterian Church in Chatham, Illinois. “In hindsight, I
think those relationships kept me in the church as I was growing
up,” she says. “If I hadn’t felt loved and like I was part of the
‘family,’ I wouldn’t have been very invested.”

Fun matters.
Danny Dahlquist, 16, of Sioux Falls, says church programs weren’t
only strong teaching tools; they were fun. “They taught me many
things about Chris­tianity and about being a Christian while using
fun activities,” he says.

The importance of fun shouldn’t be overlooked, says youth
minister Kristi Andrews. “If children see the Christian community
as inviting and exciting, as opposed to strict and boring, they’re
likely to continue participating as teenagers.”

The Central Message

Teenagers say children’s ministry programs strengthened them
against worldly distractions by keeping Christ’s message
central.

Christian Basics
“My church’s children’s ministry has taught me the basics:
to love, not to hate, to pray, to preach,” says Danny.

Reinforcing the basics of Chris­tianity is an essential goal for
chil­dren’s ministries, says Tracey Lawrence, author of
CounterCultural Christians Youth Ministry Edition: Exploring a
Christian Worldview (Group Publishing, Inc.). “I think we
underestimate what children can perceive, but their theology of God
is forming right after birth,” she says. “All their experiences are
shaping how they view God.”

Christ-Centered Activities and People
Mary Grace remembers “exciting kids’ services, great
Sunday school teachers, VBS, children’s choir, and big rallies”
where Christ and Bible stories were constantly shared. Having a
commitment to Christ and surrounding herself with Christian friends
have prevented worldly distractions from being a big concern, she
says.

Failproof Preparation

We can always learn how to do things better. So the teenagers we
talked to gave us several suggestions of ways children’s ministries
can do a better job of training teens-to-be.

Bible Study
Aaron Stevens, 16, of Springfield, Illinois, who’s the son
of a pastor, says he wishes his children’s ministry would’ve taught
him “how to do a Bible study on my own without the help of someone
else telling me what to study.”

Thirteen-year-old Clinton echoes that sentiment by saying he
wishes he’d been better prepared for adolescence by reading the
Bible more.

Youth minister Kristi Andrews confirms this longing. “It seems
so basic,” she says, “but children need to be taught Bible stories
and how to read the Bible. Very few teenagers in our youth group
really understand the Bible; it’s as though they’re intimidated by
it. [They] need to feel comfortable going to the Bible for guidance
when they face obstacles in their lives.”

Warnings of What’s Ahead
“I wish I would’ve been more prepared about the stuff I’d
see in middle and high school,” says 16-year-old Samantha Johnson
of Sioux Falls. “In elementary school, I don’t think I understood
that the older I got the more obstacles I’d face.”

Danny, 16, advises Sunday school teachers to “begin preparing
[children]for the stress that everything puts on them to stray
from their faith. Don’t scare them, but don’t demean the situation
either. They need to know what they have in store for them.”

Biggest Obstaclesto Christian Living

Our interviewees were honest about their spiritual struggles and
distractions. Most obstacles to Christian living fell into two
basic categories: themselves and others.

Self
Temptations, selfishness, and pride are all obstacles to
living a selfless Christian life.

“It’s a constant battle to do what’s right and not what’s the
most advantageous to me,” admits Grant Beaman, 18, of Sioux
Falls.

“For me, pride has been the biggest obstacle,” says Mary Grace.
“We’re most like Christ when we’re serving — and having pride is
the opposite of that.” She credits the “I am third” principle she
learned at camp with reminding her “to put Christ and others before
myself.”

“Self is elevated everywhere in culture,” says Lawrence. “It’s
all about self-love, self-improvement, self-esteem,
self-fulfillment. Some of these things are good, but the gospel is
clear: We are to also deny ourselves. This is hard when the culture
is saying ‘you’ are the most important thing. This affects all
aspects of life: how you pursue relationships, dating, marriage,
and also how you perceive God relationally.”

Peers
As a youth coordinator, Donna Thurston says, “I think the
biggest obstacles are peers who don’t value or aren’t invested in
spiritual development…If they’re getting mixed messages from many
other sources inside or outside the church, this can be very
confusing.”

Merrie Robinson, 14, of Lakewood, Colorado, is a freshman who’s
attending public school for the first time. “A lot of my friends
this year aren’t Christians,” she says, “and sometimes it seems
like they have more fun.”

“At my school,” says Samantha, “there are so many things you
hear, from swearing to gossip to nasty jokes. It’s hard to stay on
track when you have friends and people in your classes who enjoy
that stuff, and you want to fit in.”

Opposite Sex
As a youth minister, Kristi Andrews says the biggest
distraction she sees teenagers facing is related to the opposite
sex. Relational issues often lead kids to take wrong turns,
emotionally and sometimes physically.

Teenagers are less likely to be distracted by the opposite sex
if they have a positive self-image, Andrews says. “Children’s
ministries have an opportunity to set kids up for success as
teenagers by simply focusing on self-image: assuring kids of their
importance, helping them find their talents and spiritual gifts,
reminding them they were planned in their mother’s womb,
encouraging them to do great things.”

Top-Priority Faith

Teenagers say they’d like faith to be their top priority, but
most admit it usually falls a little lower on the list.

Constant Struggle
Stephanie Pemberton, 16, of Grayson, Kentucky, says she
tries to keep faith #1, but “day by day it’s quite hard.”

Aaron, 16, says, “I try to make [faith]my top priority, but
many times it ends up down at about two or three.”

“I know it should be [my top priority],” says Merrie, 14, “but
honestly it’s not. I have a really hard time with that.”

Lifelong Process
The struggle to keep faith #1 is common for all
Christians, no matter their age. Children’s ministers can prepare
kids for these feelings by reminding them that faith — and the
Christian life — is an ongoing learning process.

“Give kids permission to ask ques­tions, to have doubts even,”
says Donna Thurston. “If they don’t know that’s okay and that God
is big enough to handle that, then we’re raising robots who believe
only because they’ve adopted their parents’ faith. Real faith is
one that’s invested in, and experienced, not just inherited.”

Practical steps to arm kids for future challenges, Thurston
says, include “modeling faith that perseveres through hard times,”
teaching kids to watch for “God signs,” and teaching them to
pray.

“I’ve never come across a teenager who’s not open to prayer,”
adds Kristi Andrews. “But they need to realize they can pray; God
doesn’t just listen to adults.”

“Elder” Advice

When asked to reflect on their spiritual experiences and pass
along tips to the Sunday school set, teenagers warn children of
pitfalls ahead, but emphasize God’s constant presence.

Danny warns kids they’ll be in for “a bumpy ride” that’ll make
it “harder for you to keep your faith.” But he advises, “Stay
strong, and remember God is there — and he’s not going anywhere
any time soon.”

“God loves you no matter what you do,” Grant tells children,
“and though things may not always be easy, you’ll be able to find
strength in the Lord.”

Mary Grace’s advice is to “trust God with all that you are and
put him first in your life.” She says, “With those two things in
place, keeping the faith won’t be a problem.”

Tips for Teachers

Be encouraged: Teenagers’ words of wisdom are proof that their
time spent in church programs such as yours has paid off
spiritually.

Stay on message.
Mary Grace tells teachers to emphasize “the importance of trusting
in God — through the happy and sad times — and to put God first
in each of their lives.”

“Have [children]memorize Scrip­tures that will help them make
the right decisions in the future,” says Aaron.

Tell of God’s greatness.
Lawrence encourages teachers “to emphasize how incredibly
big God is.” She says, “With all the stimuli kids have in this
technological age, it’s easy for them to lose interest in the
‘unseen.’ But if teachers could really drive it home that the
unseen world has eternal consequences and that we serve an
amazingly huge God who can do the impossible, I think the next
generation will be able to stand strong.”

Focus on relationships.
Stephanie advises to “be there to listen” and to “set an example,”
because children observe everything you do.

Relationships are even more important than whether children
“get” a particular lesson, according to Donna Thurston. “Learning
Bible stories and facts is important, don’t get me wrong,” she
says. “But I’d rather have children know they’re loved by their
Sunday school teacher and that the teacher is invested in their
life, than have children who can tell me who Abraham’s son and
grandsons were.”

“The relationship of caring,” she continues, “will be what
children remember as teenagers or as adults when they’re
struggling: ‘I felt loved when I was [at church], maybe that’s
where I should turn again.’ “

Kristi Andrews sums it up: “Kids, from toddlers to teenagers,
need more than anything to know that someone genuinely cares about
them.”


Stephanie Martin is a freelance writer and editor in
Colorado. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change. Originally published in March-April,
2005 in Children’s Ministry Magazine.

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