Walking with teenagers as they grow into fully functional adults is the main goal and purpose of youth ministry. But how do we accomplish this? Many times I have spilled my guts with passion and fervor to a teen trying to explain to them the importance of reading the Bible and spending time in prayer just to have them blink their eyes at me with a blank expression across their face. Youth ministry can certainly test your patience at times.

But we can’t let the frustrations cause us to lose sight of the big picture. We have to check our motivation and the words that we are using and the standards that we are setting to ensure that we are planting seeds in our teens and calling them towards what God has for them and NOT pandering to find our identity and worth in the surface level success of our students (O-U-C-H). We have to get out of our own way.

So how do we help students experience deep and meaningful spiritual growth?

1. Be Their Friend First, and Their Preacher Second.

That age old saying “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” applies here. And the thing is, that you will never be able to build up enough report with a teen to release you from focusing on this one. I can work with the same teenager for years and be totally convinced that we have an unbreakable bond because of all we have been through together and all of the good talks we’ve had, but they will turn into a brick wall when I try to talk to them about their walk with Jesus if I haven’t recently given them enough evidence of how much I care about the person. And the real kicker is that “enough care” is completely subjective on the part of the individual teen. Each one will require a different kind of communication and amount of affection, but if you hope to minister to that person then you have to meet them where they’re at.

There are many relationships where I have had to wait to talk about the ‘deep’ stuff. This doesn’t come very naturally to me. I like to cut to the quick and get into the nitty gritty, but it’s been very helpful for me to remember that not everyone is as open as I am. Not everyone wants to share their life story right away or get to the root of their subconscious thoughts or struggles. It can take some time to earn trust and have the privilege of talking through matters of the heart with a teen. That’s okay. It’s not our job to make people open up, but rather give them a safe space to do so if they want to. (Which they do).

2. Start Simple

The longer you walk with Christ and study the Bible, the harder it can become to pare things back down to the beginning. Now, teens are smart so they don’t need you to water anything down. They have enough people in their lives talking to them like they’re still little kids. But for anyone in your youth group that may not have grown up in the church, it’s important to remember that they may need you to explain things to them that you may be assuming everyone knows. For example, the story of Noah or Jonah. Most of us learned about that in Sunday school or at the very least watched the Veggie Tales movies, but if you are really reaching the lost, then you’re going to end up caring from some who didn’t get the same kind of exposure to the Bible as you may have.

A major part of walking a life in the faith is learning how to apply scripture to everyday life. The Bible was written in a different time and in such a differing context that it can be difficult for newbies and youngins to see how the words in the ancient text apply to them. If we are completely honest with ourselves, we all remember that feeling. There are some strange passages in there! But there are also timeless principals that ring true. As we know, “God’s word does not return void” (?). We have to walk into each opportunity armed with the simple truths found in God’s Word.

Here are a few Scriptures I find myself repeating in normal conversation:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

“I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Phillipians 4:13

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Phillipians 4:6

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5

3. Repeat… A Lot.

I found that hitting the same basic concepts over and over seems to work. Teens don’t always listen at first, and God’s word is so true that it often becomes more and more revealed every time it’s said. In every relationship, I have to ask myself what the themes are that I am trying to convey. Examples might be that they belong here, that God loves them, that God honors our faithfulness, or maybe that God is sovereign and involved in every aspect of our lives. Whatever the theme seems to be, I stick to it. I’ll say the same thing a hundred different ways before I unleash the variety of my thoughts on a walk with God.

4. Step Back and Be Patient.

Once you have said your peace, and used every tool in your belt what else can you do? All you can do is pray and let God do His thing. We’re his hands and feet, but he is salvation. We don’t save people, he does. We have to rid our minds of any selfish or prideful standard that might not give God the room to do the work in His timing.