Learning To Love: Thoughts On Faith Formation In Young People


One of the questions that seems most prevalent in youth ministry circles–outside of “how many students are in your youth group”–is how do you know if a teenager is growing in their faith?

It seems most of us long for some definable or measurable way to record faith formation. And I wonder if this quest, though often rightly motivated and sincere, is missing an invaluable piece of the puzzle.

Because maybe measuring faith isn’t something that is so easy to detect…at least not in the way we want to measure it.

If you grew up in the church, you probably remember that extraordinary week-long activity known as “Vacation Bible School.” Now, if the thought of vacation and bible and school used in the same sentence sounds a little oxymoronic, I totally get it.

The idea was to get kids together for a week of fun activities (that’s the vacation part), and also teach them about God (insert Bible and school.) I attended these programs numerous times over the years.

They were fun. They were insightful. But I don’t think they often worked.

Now, I’m not trying to bag on this well-intentioned method for developing the spirituality of kids and young people.

What I’m more concerned with, though, is our mindset as the teachers and leaders and ultimately those who are responsible for passing on our faith to the next generation.

Because if we view Jesus and the love of God as merely transactional–I teach it to you, you accept it, your life is changed–we are going to end up discouraged, distraught, and empty.

Moreover, if we are set on “measuring” faith by ones ability to recite a well thought out and developed theology, I wonder if we really understand the process Jesus taught us in the gospels?

Teaching and understanding were pillars of Jesus’ movement. He was a great teacher and used the tools of his day to aid his instruction. He used real illustrations and stories.

He reached back into history and challenged the status quo. Further, He wasn’t afraid to rustle some feathers, especially of those who thought they had it all figured out.

But faith formation wasn’t so much a formula to get right, but an experience to live out. It was clear that Jesus’ followers understood His message not by their ability to recite His teaching, but in the way they lived.

It was about how they loved.

During my years of Vacation Bible School, we’d receive prizes when we could recall information.

Recite a Bible verse, get a piece of candy.

Rehash the previous day’s lesson, you’ll go first in line for the snack.

These methodologies (if we can call them that) did help us to retain information. But remembering something is not the same as being transformed by it.

Jesus encountered religious leaders who had massive amounts of knowledge. They knew the verses and the laws. They had been thoroughly schooled in the religious institution of the day.

And yet, Jesus could say their hearts were in the wrong place.

Is it possible to have all the right answers, but to miss the very essence of the message? In other words, can you know the message, but not the messenger?

Faith formation needs to look more like a journey of service and less like a Spelling B.

Instead of judging a young person’s spiritual journey based on their ability to recite verses and beliefs, what if we watched how they served?

What if we watched how they treated one another?

What if the litmus test for someone developing Christ-likeness wasn’t about knowledge, but about action?

If you’ve ever worked with young people, you’ve had a moment or two (or a million!) where you’ve wondered if they have heard your words.

Perhaps you poured your heart into a sermon or Bible study and you were met with blank stares or my favorite small group answer of all time: What was the question again?

These moments can easily discourage us and trick us into thinking we are not being effective. We think kids must not like us or they don’t like God because they are not engaged.

But the kid that seemingly didn’t pay attention during the lesson, is the kid who stayed behind to help clean up the youth room.

The kid that didn’t have the answer in small groups, is the kid who gave up his own money to help scholarship another kid to go to camp.

The kid who seemed bored and distracted, is the one who, when it really counts, chose to respond in love and kindness to someone else.

You see, if we judge faith formation by knowledge, retention, and the ability to have answers, we are more concerned with Pharisaism than with Christ-likeness.

Perhaps we should shift the focus a bit, and see faith formation as love, service, and sacrifice. Because Jesus didn’t say, “A new command I give you: Memorize all these Scriptures and you’re good.”

Rather, He told us to “Love one another.” He called it a new commandment because his followers weren’t doing it and they were missing the very essence of His message.

I wonder what would happen if we changed the end goal a little bit?  Bob Goff is famous for saying we should move from having a “Bible Study” to a Bible-doing.” I like that.

Let’s get out of a mode of thinking that faith is checking off boxes, and instead move into a place of movement, love, grace, and transformation.

Let’s help students see the goal isn’t learning all the right church things, but living a life that honors Christ. And we honor Christ when we take His words seriously and begin to love one another.

This is the greatest sign that someone has a faith that is real and vibrant–when their faith is actually lived out in tangible ways.

So, if you work with young people or have a young person in your home, I’d encourage you to seek a spiritual formation that is based on how one lives, not just on what one knows.

In this way, we will develop a faith that is rich and vibrant, set on following the example of Christ.

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