Throughout church history, Christians have spent a considerable amount time practicing their faith. To be sure, we’ve had a number of church councils devoted to articulating specific theological commitments, but the church always has esteemed Christian practices highly. Dykstra and Bass define Christian practices as “the things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs, in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world” (2002, p. 18).
Practices can be powerful catalysts for the spiritual transformation of our youth. Regularly engaging in practices not only teach about the Christian faith, but through engaging practices, we grow more and more into the character of Christ—the dream of every youth pastor for his/her youth.
Practicing the faith in youth ministry settings takes many different forms which shape our being and orient our hearts toward Christ and toward broader engagement with the world. Youth participate in the practice of hospitality when they invite their friends to a pizza dinner held at church. We participate in the practice of caring for creation when we serve our local community by picking up trash on the roads. We participate in the practice of forgiveness when we encourage our youth’s parents to forgive their kid for lying to them about a failed exam. Practices have the power to shape us from the inside out, and teach us how to live the Christian life. They encourage us to be more intentional about finding opportunities to put our faith into action when we go about our daily lives.
Three Powerful Christian Practices for Youth Ministry
We know that while many youth may have high energy levels, short attention spans, and are perpetually glued to their Twitter or Facebook pages, they can be quite passionate about certain causes. For many youth, the Christian faith should not be limited knowing a set of key doctrines. Youth want not only to know about God, but also to experience God, live into the exciting story that God has revealed to us in His Word and in Christ, and manifest this life-giving story to the world. Practices are simply a mechanism for forming our lives in such a way that spiritual nourishes us, contributes fruitfully to the ministry of the church, and provides a bright and salty testimony to the world in the vein of
While there are numerous practices that youth groups could exercise and embrace, I would like to highlight three which I think will be powerful in shaping the hearts, minds and affections of youth, these being hospitality, working for justice and living as a community. These practices are dear to the hearts of youth, and implementing these practices into youth ministry contexts can be a powerful catalyst for spiritual transformation, the edification of the church and a powerful witness to the world.
The Practice of Hospitality
When we think of hospitality, we think of entertaining friends or opening our homes for certain church events, but the biblical understanding of hospitality takes on a different meaning entirely.
At its core, biblical hospitality is the practice of inviting, welcoming and sharing with those on the margins of society. A cursory survey of the Old Testament will reveal a God who not only sought to welcome the children of Israel into fellowship with Himself, but pursued a relationship with all the nations of the earth, as well. We read in the gospels that Jesus was an ardent Practitioner of radical hospitality, regularly welcoming the poor, the marginalized and sinners into His fellowship and caring for them. He chided the religious leaders of His day for their lack of hospitality and openness toward people in need of God’s love.
When practicing hospitality, ethicist Christine Pohl writes, “we make a powerful statement to the world about who is interesting, valuable, and important to us” (2003, p. 11). As Christians, we are called to mirror Christ’s example of being a hospitable people who continually welcome, invite and share with those whom society or the church may deem on the margins, as we affirm that these people are wonderfully created in the image of God.
In a youth culture that prizes popularity, beauty and rugged athletic ability, encouraging hospitality among youth may be tough. However, once youth experience the power of befriending or sharing with those less cool, they will become more comfortable with the practice, and as a result better comprehend the hospitable impulse of Christ. It is one thing to understand the hospitality of Christ with regard to our salvation, but to mirror Christ’s character through the practice of hospitality can be powerful in shaping the trajectory of the spiritual lives of youth for a lifetime.
Encourage your students to befriend a classmate who may not be popular in school, or have them invite their classmates to a pizza and movie night at the church. It will be important, however, for you to be a model of hospitality to your students. Take a homeless person out to lunch or invite a new person at church into your home. When ministers and students learn to love the practice of hospitality, they inhabit the posture Christ takes to all humanity when He invites sinners into fellowship with Himself.
The Practice of Working for Justice
The increased prevalence of human trafficking, the suffering of the poor at home and across the globe, and the plight of illegal immigrants all capture headlines every day. These are large-scale problems with complex inner-workings that upon first glance, seem too immense for us to overcome, and as a result, discourage us from getting involved. However, we are called as Christians to be faithful to God’s care for the oppressed and downtrodden in the world.
Time and again, the Bible reminds of the importance of taking justice seriously and making an effort to eradicate the suffering of others.
While the Bible does command us to care for those who experience injustice, how can we counter the behemoths of human trafficking, hunger, disease and poverty at home and in the world? Joyce Hollyday reminds us, “At the most basic level, doing justice means living in a way that takes into account the common good. It means caring about the needs of others in whatever ways we can, acting to ensure that everyone has access to such benefits as food, shelter, education, freedom, and safety” (2010, p. 186). Even though injustices committed on a large scale can be daunting for youth to engage, we can encourage our youth to readily meditate on ways they can reach out to their communities in practicing justice.
Consider taking your youth group to a refuge for abused women and providing a meal for the residents. Encourage students to learn more about what they can do in order to counter specific injustices in their area, whether human trafficking or the disenfranchisement of the disabled. You could rally the youth to campaign for funds for different causes in the community. The possibilities for youth to practice justice are numerous. Practicing justice is not only a way of being faithful to God’s commitment to justice; it strengthens our witness to a world that sometimes doubts our commitment to the common good. As youth practice justice, they will become more attuned to injustices in their area and grow in their understanding of God’s heart for the oppressed.
The Practice of Living as Community
The Christian community comprises redeemed people from numerous backgrounds that have come together to center their lives upon the gospel of Christ and live in such a way that models Christ’s love to the world. When we embrace our status as a community, we bear witness to the power of Christ to break down traditional social barriers and foster a deep sense of belonging and thriving in community.
In our world, we are challenged continuously to fight for our rights and to look out for number one. However, Scripture and the early church continually point to the necessity of living and serving together in the context of a church community.
Like all human beings, youth esteem their individuality. Some youth play a mean guitar, some can program computers quickly and efficiently, and others demonstrate great potential for future leadership in ministry. In order to foster community in your youth group, encourage and help your youth discern their individual gifts (spiritual or natural) and use them to serve the youth group and the church community as a whole. Encourage them to write notes expressing appreciation and encouragement to one another. The practice of living as a community can powerfully shape a student’s commitment to service in the local church and encourage the consistent use of their gifts in service to others.
Craig Dykstra reminds us, “The church, as community in the power of the Spirit, has over the course of its history learned to depend on the efficacy of certain central practices and disciplines in nurturing faith and growth in the life of faith” (2004, p. 41). Christian practices have the potential to shape the spiritual lives of youth for a lifetime. Practices, when done regularly and repeatedly, help us to grow in our faith and attune us to the way that God is working in the world through the Holy Spirit. Practices of hospitality, justice and living as community are only three of the many practices that youth pastors may want to consider integrating into their ministries.
Bass, Dorothy C., and Susan Briehl. On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010.
Dykstra, Craig R. Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. 2nd ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Pohl, Christine D. Biblical Issues in Mission and Migration. Missiology: An International Review, 31(1), 2003, 1-15.
Volf, Miroslav, and Dorothy C. Bass. Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.