Several years ago, I had a life-changing experience with a ninth grade boys' small group I was leading. We were studying Jesus' teaching on the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-40.
I had hoped the boys would grasp that loving our neighbor was a natural overflow from loving God with our hearts, souls and minds. Boy, was I wrong, as I realized when I heard some of the boys' comments.
"Poor people are poor because they are lazy and didn't go to school."
"God helps those who help themselves!"
"Honestly, I don't care about helping them."
At this point, I was about to blow a gasket. Then I looked at my mostly affluent group, and it dawned on me that in their 14 years of life they had little reason to need God or need help from others. How could I expect them to care about others in need?
We had talked about loving God to death, but I didn't offer enough tangible opportunities to experience loving God and loving people. So I changed course.
"That's it!" I said. "Let's go get in my truck. We're heading downtown to see what it's like to be in need."
I wasn't sure if this would turn out to be one of my brightest ideas, but it became an ah-ha moment for me and my kids.Creating Opportunities to Love
Moments later, as one fired-up youth pastor and a pack of wild 14-year-olds headed downtown, I could tell I had their attention.
We stopped to purchase servings of coffee and hot chocolate, and we ended up on a sidewalk where another youth volunteer usually fed some of the homeless people in our city.
We set up shop out of the back of my truck, and my only instruction to the boys was to try and talk to these men and women as they would talk to any of their friends. Before they got to work, I asked them to consider these questions: "Do you think God considers these people our neighbors? If so, what should we do about it?"
From that point on, I sat back and watched as my boys began striking up conversations and drinking hot chocolate with some of God's most interesting and beloved people.
I heard them talking about the weather, sports, politics, music and faith. The anxiety they had been feeling earlier was nearly gone; my formerly apathetic small group was loving God and His people, but I don't think they realized it.
As we drove back to the church that night, I brought up Matthew 22:37-40 again. Suddenly, these boys were fired up as the words of Jesus came to life in a fresh, new way. As a youth minister, I got to live out Scripture in front of my group, which was the lesson they obviously needed to experience.From Borrowing to Owning Faith
No one reaches Christian maturity on his or her own. All of us grow into our faith by borrowing faith from someone else and then eventually transitioning to a faith that is owned, alive and growing.
Any time I've heard a teenager share about his or her faith at camp or in front of a congregation, they always mention the loaner. The loaner is grandma, youth workers, teachers or neighbors who live out their faith in such an accessible way that any teenager could grab it.