Passing on a Vital Faith

The next generation needs lasting regeneration, too.
Passing on a Vital Faith
Image: Cristiano Medeiros Dalbem / Flickr Creative Commons

On a gorgeous morning in the California mountain town of Weed, the last day of a two-week youth-choir tour found us consuming a "Tour's-End Celebration Breakfast." Seventy-five teenagers eventually loaded into the station wagon and two buses in the coffee shop parking lot, while I remained to take care of the bill.

Moments later, I stepped out the front door, took a deep breath of clean, mountain air, and realized to my dismay that the parking lot was empty. All three vehicles were gone. Each driver, including my wife, Linda, had assumed I was in one of the other vehicles.

Rushing back inside, I phoned the California Highway Patrol and asked if they had an officer on Highway 97 between Weed and the Oregon border.

"Yep," came the answer, "one." I explained my predicament and added that our next rendezvous was to be Bend, Oregon-two hundred miles away! Half an hour later, that lone patrolman flagged the convoy and with a chuckle passed on the news: "You left your leader behind in Weed!"

As I look back over thirty years in youth ministry, I realize I've eventually been "left behind"-intentionally-by every group of kids I've ever had. There comes too quickly the time when I must watch them graduate out of my care. Each time I'm inclined to ask myself, Have I imparted to these kids what they need spiritually to be successful on the next leg of their trip?

How does a church give young people the goods they need for their journey through life? How do we pass on spiritual vitality to the next generation? I've done a lot of thinking about these questions, and I've arrived at some answers for my own ministry.

But first, what is vital Christianity? Can we know when kids have it?

A Lively and Animated Faith

When I look at the lives of Christian people I admire, I see common character traits. Let me mention a few that are especially important for youth and youth workers.

Joy. I'm with Eugene Peterson, who observed in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, "There are Christians who never crack a smile and who can't abide a joke. … But I don't meet very many of them. The stereotype is a big lie created, presumably, by the Devil. One of the delightful discoveries along the way of Christian discipleship is how much enjoyment there is, how much laughter you hear, how much sheer fun you find."

Joy doesn't always mean a vivacious outburst. Inner peace can be an expression of joy. But for the true Christian, joy is evident. I love the fact that the Roman Catholic process of canonization demands proof of joy in the candidate.

Across the years, I can't count the times someone has caught our youth group in the midst of a joyful moment and said something like, "Boy, I don't know what you guys are on, but can I have some?" Genuine joy cannot be purchased or swallowed or sniffed. Few gifts mean more to me than the recent comment of a young adult who used to be in my youth group: "Sonny, you helped us discover that being a Christian is fun!"

Gratitude. God's Word makes it clear that we aren't just to be thankful, but also frequently to say we're thankful-to sing it, to demonstrate it.

I've heard debates rage around such questions as "Can we be truly grateful for terrible things?" There are times to weep. But authentic Christians model a thankful spirit in the day-in, day-out routine of life. Every sunrise, every meal (even in coffee shops), every car ride, every encounter with another human being is an occasion to feel and to show, in some way or another, genuine gratitude.

Enthusiasm. I greatly admired this trait in my father. Almost every morning, he'd clench his fist and say, "Boy, am I enthused!" It may not be a bona fide fruit of the Spirit, but I think enthusiasm is an important graft into the orchard.

Everyone is enthusiastic about something at some time in life. For vital Christians, enthusiastic applies to their faith. What better way for our joy and gratitude to be demonstrated?

Wonder. G. K. Chesterton said, "The world will never lack for wonders, only wonder." So many people are blind to the incredible wonders of this beautiful world. Yet God's command is that we "be in awe of him and his creation."

The alive Christians I love take little for granted. They have failed to cultivate that chic trait of being blas about blessings great and small. They've erased from life's curriculum the lesson of boredom over God's masterpiece. God, to them, inspires wonder.

Kindness. Nothing I've read in many years has had more of an impact on me than an essay titled "Edification/Demolition" in Walter Wangerin's book Ragman. Recalling his encounter with two gas station attendants, he reminds us how far just one drop of kindness goes: "Every time you meet another human being you have the opportunity. It's a chance at holiness. For you will do one of two things, then. Either you will build him up, or you will tear him down." Christians who resemble the living Christ edify those with whom they come in contact.

An empty glove can do nothing by itself. But when a hand slips into it, it becomes animated-to work, to serve. Those whose faith is vital will be so because the Christ has entered their lives and is starting to act through them in kindness.

If this is abundant Christian living, how do we best transmit that communicable condition?

The Best Classrooms

To be sure, our commitment to kids must include time on their turf-and on their terms. Young Life calls it "contact time," but whatever you call it, effective youth leaders know there is no substitute for giving the gift of time.

Some of our best opportunities to pass on spiritual vitality come when we find ways to "get them away for a while." For instance, as I write I'm deep in the High Sierra of California on a week-long backpacking trip with a group of junior high kids. I doubt there was ever a finer setting for Christian education. (Didn't Jesus do a lot of hiking with his group?)

In a little while we'll have breakfast. Like every meal throughout this week, it will be prepared and shared by "cooking families" of four. Then they'll clean up together. All this time they'll be talking-asking questions, sharing ideas, telling stories. In the fabric of this backpacking adventure, they'll experience a wonderful learning setting: the eating of a meal together.

I estimate that 85 percent of the kids I've worked with over the last few years rarely have a sit-down meal with their entire family, except at Thanksgiving and an occasional birthday. Yet didn't Jesus use a meal to illustrate his fellowship with us? "If you'll open up your life to me and let me come in," he said, "here's what it will be like: we'll have supper together" (Rev. 3:20).

Whether in the mountains or back in town, the best classrooms are those that stir up the most interest and desire for learning:

-Understanding "springs of living water" (John 4) comes more easily when you're standing beside a mountain spring.

-A discussion of death and dying has more impact in a mortuary.

-Is spiritual food the subject? Discuss it over Egg McMuffins at you-know-where.

The list of potential classrooms is endless: the beach, a dry cleaner, the high school bleachers, a hospital, the jail.

But even with all the local possibilities, I still believe some of our best chances will come when we get the kids into a conference setting. For many years I took groups on youth-choir tours. We recorded some great memories and significant spiritual highlights, but it was a narrow exposure to the breadth of Christian life.

Then I took the suggestion of my friend and mentor Jim Slevcove and planned my first travel camp, a three-week tour that would involve our young people in a wide spectrum of Christianity. I came away from that experience convinced travel camps are the greatest thing since the wheel. The vast majority of the participants in the last eight years say it was the outstanding Christian-growth experience of their lives.

Here's a small sample of some highlights from the road:

-Each person had a clothbound empty book, and beginning one week prior to departure, he or she made daily journal entries.

-We spent two days in manual labor at a small Christian camp.

-Everyone read two Christian books, one assigned individually by me and the other an elective from our traveling trunk-library.

-We backpacked for three days in Olympic National Park.

-We presented several musical concerts (those not singing helped in other ways).

-We spent a half hour each day having "The Two of Us" with another troupe member we were least acquainted with, practicing the skills of verbal expression and listening.

-We worshiped in churches of half a dozen different denominations, broadening our view of the family of God.

Henrietta Mears once said it was a sin to bore kids with the gospel. It still is. The classrooms we choose to teach in can go a long way toward helping us make the lessons of the Christian life as exciting as . . . Christian life.

Back here in the mountains, we had a bear in camp tonight. He was intent on stealing some of our food, but we'd hung it out of his reach. We've spent many hilarious moments being entertained by conies, ground squirrels, and marmots before they dive into their rock-bound homes at the first hint of danger. We've seen a deer move silently down the sun-baked mountainside to the cool waters of a stream and, after a careful look about, drink his fill.

These little moments, and a hundred others besides, are lessons from Scripture come alive before our eyes. When Jesus said, "Consider the lily," I don't think he meant to cast a casual glance. He was telling us to observe closely and see what we could learn.

I agree with Henry Van Dyke, who wrote in The Gentle Life, "There is more of God in the peaceable beauty of a wood violet than in all the angry disputations of the sects. We are nearer Heaven when we listen to the birds than when we quarrel with our fellow men. … He that feels not the beauty and blessedness and peace of the woods and meadows that God hath bedecked with flowers for him even while he is yet a sinner, how shall he learn to enjoy the unfading bloom of the celestial country if he ever become a saint?" Preach it, Henry!

The Lesson of the Moment

Whether in a wild mountain place, however, or in the center of the city, the most important lessons we pass along come from the pages of God's Word. Youths need to discover its vital relevance to the great questions on their minds. Jesus constantly used parables to help people make this connection. And just as Jesus told stories of people, places, and things that were familiar and interesting to his audience, so can we use the abundance of material at our fingertips-simple illustrations that effectively convey deep spiritual lessons.

One source is the ever-changing list of Top Forty musical hits. Kids know lyrics, and I try to capitalize on that. Say I want to analyze the abundant life Jesus offers. I may contrast the biblical promise that "the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day" (Prov. 4:18) with the observation of John Cougar Mellencamp: "Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone." Sometimes I build an evening's Bible study around a popular group's lyrics and some contrasting quotes of Jesus and advertise it as, say, "Van Halen and Jesus Christ."

Motion pictures are another source of illustrations familiar to young people that we can make vibrant statements of Christian truth. Take Back to the Future. I've often thought how much fun it would be to go back in time. In this popular romance, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) gets his chance, but his visit to the past is dominated by the desire to make sure everything happens exactly as it had.

Given the chance, I guess most of us would want to change something-take back that hasty word or erase some sin. For Christians, we can interject, that last desire is no dream. The One who matters most has promised he will not only forgive our sins, but also make them as if they had never happened. Such an observation launches a great discussion of 1 John 1:9, Jeremiah 31:34, or other verses on God's forgiveness.

Other sources of twentieth-century parables can be found to communicate elements of the Christian life: sports, current events, school plays, even stories you make up yourself (after all, Jesus did it). Each of these lessons of the moment can be used to express our faith to right-now kids.

The Power to Endure

Any person working with youth experiences the heartbreak of what appears to be lively faith getting checked at the gate of adult life. How to lessen that possibility? Impart discipline.

Every young person growing up in America is acquainted with discipline, but not necessarily as a participant. He or she watches the dedicated few who make the Olympic teams every four years and, in between the events and commercials, catches a glimpse-up close and personal-of the daily routine of these athletes. Serious commitments are made and lived out for years in order to participate for those brief moments.

There are, of course, many young people who make a serious commitment to discipline themselves in various ways. Many high school football teams practice clear through the summer, snubbing vacations to be ready for the first game. Two practices a day are common. The same rigorous discipline is followed by young athletes in other sports.

Many other young people practice serious discipline in academics. They're looking down the line to college and career. In schoolwork, as in sports, these teenagers are learning great and lasting lessons in self-control.

But as Paul once said to Timothy, physical discipline is of little profit compared to spiritual discipline (1 Tim. 4:8). Friedrich Nietzsche used the phrase "long obedience in the same direction." We can help the next generation see that just as such long obedience is a basic ingredient in athletic or scholastic success, so self-discipline is essential in order to experience vitality in the Christian life.

I've encountered great numbers of Christian young people who can't see that Christianity and discipline have anything to do with each other. "If I'm going to grow spiritually, that's God's department. Do it to me, Lord!" But Paul makes it dear there is much for us to do: "Discipline yourselves."

How can we help kids learn to do that? I believe that to make a good start at discipline in most any field, we must be accountable to someone.

At Canyon High School in the Santa Clarita Valley of Southern California, the football players have Harry Welch. They know this head coach will demand everything and more from them, but they're still standing in line to try out for the team. They're told to eat right, sleep right, be on time, and train, train, train for virtually the entire year. The result is one of the best high school records anywhere, any time.

Those players could never achieve that discipline in the initial stages of their careers without knowing they had Coach Welch to answer to. As the years pass, however, some develop great discipline that is self-motivated.

In the classroom as well, most young people need to experience accountability-to know they're having a test on Friday, or their teacher will be reading that term paper that's due next week.

If, therefore, young people in our care are going to learn spiritual discipline, we have to find ways to make them accountable to each other and to us. The youth choirs I've directed have given me leverage across the years. Kids have really wanted to go on tour, so they were willing to accept such disciplines as 75 percent attendance at rehearsals, performances, worship services, youth meetings, retreats, and Bible studies. Travel camp reading assignments gently forced them into the world of Christian literature.

Although not every youth leader wields the leverage of a championship coach or a grade-giving teacher, we can set up rewards. Even a small group can schedule a special trip or activity. If kids want to go, they must be willing to accomplish the prerequisites, such as taking part in a service activity, reading their Bible daily, or attending a set percentage of meetings. They begin the disciplines for the reward, but as habits form, they develop self-motivated discipline-what we're after in the first place.

I've sometimes heard rewards disparaged: "It should not take a lollipop to get young people to do what's right." But I've noticed the outstanding high school teachers give out lollipops-a special trip, recognition, personal attention-to students who achieve. In the final analysis, I suspect it isn't so much the lollipop that matters. What really counts to the kids is the approval of an adult they admire, someone who cares enough about them to give them something special.

Young Christians, like all of us, need support, encouragement, and frequent affirmation. But they also need to hear from us when they're blowing it. Their accountability to us requires that we "speak the truth in love" from time to time.

Eugene Peterson writes of a seminary dean who must occasionally call a young man or woman into his office and say something like this: "You get good grades, seem to take your calling to the ministry seriously, work hard, and have clear goals. But I don't detect any joy. You don't seem to have any pleasure in what you're doing. I wonder if you shouldn't reconsider your calling. If a pastor is not in touch with joy, it will be difficult to teach or preach convincingly that the news is good."

This dean did three things of value for these students: he began by affirming them, he defined their shortcomings, and he suggested how to overcome them.

I want to make every fundamental aspect of the authentic Christian life subject to this accountability, both for myself and for the kids. I consider: Is there proper respect for parents, teachers, and other authorities? In every relationship, is the desire to serve overcoming the desire to be served? Is the laughter with others and not at their expense? Is time being given away to others?

When the season is over, a letter awaits the athlete who has succeeded. Perhaps even a trophy. A diploma awaits the scholar. If we can help young followers of Jesus discipline themselves to achieve enduring spiritual vitality, what would be a fitting symbol? Probably a wash basin and towel.

On the Fourth of July 1971, Garrison Keillor lay in the grass and with his young son on his chest looked up into the night sky and imagined his grandchildren. As he wrote in Newsweek, "I imagined them strong and free, curious, sensuous, indelibly cheerful and affectionate, openhanded-sympathetic to pain and misery, quick in charity, proud when insulted and modest if praised, fiercely loyal to friends, loving God. … When you look at the stars, you don't think small."

My week in the mountains is over now, but I've had lots of chances to look at the stars. I'm not thinking small, either.

I want the next generation of Christians to be fully, abundantly alive and constantly growing, exuding a lively character, and persevering always.

When Lucy returned to Narnia in C. S. Lewis's Prince Caspian, she wanted to see Aslan again. When she finally did, she was somewhat surprised. "Aslan," she said, "you're bigger."

"That is because you are older, little one," answered he.

"Not because you are?"

"I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger."

To find God bigger-isn't that what we want for ourselves? And for the next generation? May we all find him bigger as we-and they, with our help-grow up in faith.

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