In your preteen ministry, do you know your preteens’ struggles? 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 influences it, and what challenges 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.
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.
You can’t underestimate parents’ importance in children’s spiritual development. 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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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 Obstacles to 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.
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.”
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.”
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. Assure kids of their importance. Help them find their talents and spiritual gifts. Remind them they were planned in their mother’s womb. Encourage them to do great things.”
Teenagers say they’d like faith to be their top priority, but most admit it usually falls a little lower on the list.
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.”
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 grows when 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.”
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.