Pass on a Faith Teenagers Can Grow Into

GenZ is an increasingly non-Christian generation. Church kids are walking away from the faith as they grow into adulthood. Although I’m skeptical about some of the statistics, there is an undeniable problem that needs to be addressed.

I have served in full-time youth ministry for nearly two decades. That means this concern isn’t about statistics to me—it’s about individuals I love. This includes my own two teenagers and their friends.

Rather than keeping the cookies on the lowest shelf, or feeding into Christian alarmism, maybe it’s time to simply commit ourselves to teaching teenagers Christianity. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but student ministry has a track record for minimizing the role of doctrinal instruction. I believe it’s time to renew the theological mission of youth ministry. After all, we’re graduating a generation of church kids who hardly know what it means to be a Christian.

Parents and youth workers need to invite students into a faith that’s big enough for them to grow into, instead of continuing to give them a kid-sized faith they outgrow when they begin to experience doubt or suffering.

Here are three theological conversations I believe are crucially important for GenZ as they discover the beauty and truth of the love of God.

Who is God?

Before you move on from this question as a no-brainer, let me rephrase it in a way your kids may be asking: Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God? All of a sudden this feels like a weighty question, one that’s not as simple and clear-cut as church kids assume.

From the Christian viewpoint, the answer to this question largely centers around the question “Who is God?” and “What does it mean to believe in the Trinity?” This is an example of ways teenagers ask theological questions, but they often ask them indirectly, rather than head-on.

God is the Trinity. He is three divine Persons with one nature. Christians joyfully proclaim, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the Lord is one,” and baptize new converts “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal, separate, and united. What God does, all three Persons do; and what one Person does, all three do (John 5:19; Ephesians 1:3–14). They are perfectly united and yet each is a distinct Person, not merely one-third of God.

Although not every new Christian needs to be able to articulate these truths, if they do not believe in the Triune God, then they do not worship the Living God of Scripture. Teenagers need to be taught about the Trinity, not because we want them to become theology professors but because we want them to become Christians.

What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

The Barna Group reports that although more than half of GenZ professes to be Christian, only half of those professing Christians believe in the resurrection and even fewer believe Jesus was God in human form (more reflections on the Open Generation report here). If parents and youth workers practice a bare-bones approach to evangelism, then we may have students who call themselves Christians, but it’ll be a label that’s been emptied of its theological weight.

Raising up a generation to trust in generic Christianity isn’t enough, it’s merely a label. Such faith will not save, and it won’t sustain our students when they experience doubt or suffering or some other crisis of faith. Teaching about the core doctrines of the Christian faith isn’t a fast track to youth ministry growth. But it will invite students into a faith that’s actually Christian–and that’s pretty important!

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Biblical anthropology is the battleground of the next generation. Anthropology is the doctrine of humanity, and its central question asks, “What is a human being?” This question is at the heartbeat of the most contentious debate in today’s culture, and our teens need to know how to handle the contentious issues that stem from it, such LGBTQ+ issues, racism, mental health struggles, and abortion. Our teens are pounded with messages about these things and more, and they must be equipped with answers from God’s Word if they are to grow in discernment regarding the loud narrative of the world around them.

When students are invited to engage the Scriptures with the questions they’re facing, they’ll discover the Bible has a lot to say. For example, the Bible’s teaching about man and woman being created in God’s image has a direct impact on their understanding of both racism and gender identity. Both issues matter greatly to God.

We also need to grapple with the effects of sin and the fall on human relationships and gender identity. Teenagers who have developed a theological understanding of what it means to be human (including our condition as fallen sinners) will be prepared to engage in conversations about racism, sexuality, suffering, injustice, and a host of other difficult topics. In short, teaching students about Christian anthropology has many important applications for the hot-button issues they’re already trying to navigate.

A Faith Big Enough to Grow Into

When we call students into faith without anchoring them in sound doctrine, we’re enabling them to build their faith on a foundation that is easily shaken. Students may look at their own faith and feel it has nothing to say in response to their friends’ hard questions or alternative interpretations of basic Christian teachings. Other times, personal suffering or the hypocrisy of a spiritual leader can shake their confidence in the faithfulness of God, especially when their faith lacks a solid theology of sin and suffering.

Parents and youth workers who want their teenagers to develop a lifelong faith need to give them a faith that’s big enough to grow into. This doesn’t mean they need to become theology professors. But it does mean they creatively pursue theological conversations with the teenagers in their lives, leaving plenty of room for meaningful dialogue and reflection about the ways God’s Word shapes today’s cultural issues.

After all, the mission of youth ministry (and parenting) isn’t ultimately to build teenage disciples, but it’s to build adult disciples whose faith took root during their teen years. For that to happen, we need to invite them into a faith that’s worth holding onto.

Discover Cover

Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith

In nearly twenty years as a youth pastor, Mike has heard just about every question students ask. Your questions are important—and they may prove to be the very thing that actually leads you into deeper faith. Discover covers a wide range of questions that teens like you ask about faith including: Why does God allow suffering? Why should we trust the Bible? Is church relevant? Does God care about my sexual identity? and more. 

About the author

Mike McGarry

Mike McGarry, DMin, served as a youth pastor for nearly twenty years and is the founder/director of Youth Pastor Theologian. He and his wife, Tracy, have two teenagers and are committed to investing in the next generation. Mike is the author of A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry, Lead Them to Jesus, and Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith and has contributed to Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry. He writes and speaks frequently through Youth Pastor Theologian.

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