A lot of time in the Christian stratosphere is spent talking and thinking about keeping around those people in my generation, those who are in college or just graduated. They may be kids who grew up in church or appeared really solid spiritually headed into college, but the pressures of their peers or the academics or anything drew them away from continuing to grow in their relationship with Jesus.
As a college graduate myself who faced those pressures and, by God’s grace, came out on the other side of the diploma with an intact faith, I often wonder how that happens. How could so many of my Christian peers, some of whom I was friends with during my first couple years of school, lose their faith? What happened? I saw it happen with my own freshman and sophomore year roommate. It was disheartening and discouraging.
We can talk about the negative college atmosphere – something often perpetrated by films and TV shows highlighting the YOLO college lifestyle – but I’m going to offer you a different perspective, one that I’ve always cherished and believed because I really think it’s true.
I believe a lasting faith begins with a solid foundation before college, usually in the high school years.
Why I Believe This
Ninth grade to twelfth grade, in my view, are the formative years of one’s existence. You start to learn who you are, what you like and how you think. Yeah, you get a little bit of that before and definitely some of that afterwards, but, at least from my experience, high school nearly killed me.
I moved to a new private K-12 school in fifth grade and, to be honest, I still hadn’t adjusted by the time I got to ninth grade, to high school. I’m a naturally slow adjuster who likes to find issues with everything I’m doing, even if in reality it’s going swimmingly, so that’s not a real surprise. I might learn quick, but I adjust slow. I struggled to build friendships in high school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. I’m naturally super self-conscious, slow to fully trust and suspicious of people’s motivations. The one true friend I really had going into high school and I had drifted apart by senior year, each of us motivated by different things. I had some good friendships at school, but the ones that really lasted I didn’t know until senior year and I was ready to graduate.
A lot of that was my own doing. My shyness and insecurities withheld me from developing deep and lasting friendships with my school peers, as well as a self-righteousness that I’ve written about before. I could have easily been led down a path of self-loathing and depression that could have lasted a lifetime, resistant to really engaging people and loving people, except for one thing that God provided.
My youth group. I am still close friends with a few of the guys I met and built friendships with during that time. One of them was my youth pastor, who stayed true to the Bible and taught from it weekly. Our conversations during Sunday mornings and nights and Wednesday nights revolved around truth from Scripture and how to live for Christ. Did my self-righteousness affect my learning? Yes it did. No question. But the faithfulness of a few older men (and by older, I mean mid-20s to early-30s) really planted a seed in my walk with Christ that has continued to last to this day.
Other influences like Snowbird Wilderness Outfitters, a summer camp, and other older people in my life who encouraged me helped to develop a really solid faith foundation in my life.
When I went to college, I spent the first two years living on a dorm floor with a bunch of non-Christians or nominal believers. There were brief temptations to go party or drink alcohol, but I didn’t step foot in a party or take a sip of alcohol during my entire college career. I attribute that to the grace of God working in my life first and foremost, but I can’t help but think that He used the positive influences during my high school years to develop that strong resolve to stay as obedient as I possibly could.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t struggle. I dealt with a lot of anxiety and depression during those first two years. A couple of conflicts on my hall during the fall of my sophomore year, when I was the RA (read “student cop”), had me thinking about transferring or just quitting because relationships I had with fellow students I lived with were ruined. There were fleeting moments of deep despair. The self-righteousness I carried in high school flipped 180 degrees and, instead of being super prideful in my obedience, I condemned myself daily for my lack of obedience.
So what happened next? God gave me an opportunity to spend time with solid Christian community, and I took it. I learned from my time in high school that I desperately needed to be around Christians, and I hadn’t been doing that enough. A couple guys became a couple of my closest friends and helped pull me out of the mess I was in. I went to church throughout my time in college and, by my junior year, landed at a solid church with faithful biblical preaching and older men who were willing to speak truth to me and really love me no matter what I had done.
Why High School Is a Crucial Time
In high school, you develop who you are and you really build the foundation. I understand the argument about college being the time when you kind of get to choose who you want to be, but that only happens if you don’t discover it in your high school years. It’s also the same with your faith.
In my story, I had built friendships with and been influenced by men who loved Jesus and cared for me. People had taken the time to show Christ’s love to me. But not just that, they shared truth with me. Truth. Not watered-down, good-feeling words, but truth.
During high school, you get a lot of messages from a lot of places. Friends. School. Church. Media. Popular culture. It’s nearly impossible to wade through all that mess and not get super confused or conflicted. And as a church-going kid or a Christian, it’s even worse. If you grow up in church and are not a Christian, you can either feel bad about going away from the way your parents brought you up or get so repelled that the high school years are just the formative time for your resentment. And if you’re a Christian, you want to stay true but the draw and pull of popular culture is so strong. Everyone else is talking about the latest Kanye CD, why can’t you join right in?
There are three kinds of high school Christians I’ve noticed:
- The self-righteous believer: This was me. I was a Christian, I did believe in Jesus, but I was super passionate about it and oftentimes it would affect my relationships with students at my high school. I don’t think I did much for the cause of Christ. In my senior yearbook, my classmates said I most evoked Ned Flanders, the token Christian character on The Simpsons. Super Christian. Super self-righteous. I took it at the time as a compliment that I was being faithful to Jesus. But.
- The conflicted believer: This person has some real faith and some real understanding of the gospel and of Jesus, but there’s still some areas in which they live by the world. I think there’s a little bit of this in everyone, but this kid tends to be a little more “ashamed” of Jesus in their high school context. There’s more than just the Sunday faith, but the temptation of the world continues to draw them away. This is the best kind.
- The Sunday Christian: They’re legitimately saved, legitimately a follower of Jesus, but that seems to take a backseat during the week. They’re great evidences that the culture and sin has great power over us. And we can’t fully blame the kids. They’re just doing what they naturally do as human beings.
Each of these kids need the Gospel as much as the kid who doesn’t believe, whether he or she grew up in a Christian home or not. And that’s the main reason it’s important to reach high school kids, to reach anybody, because they all need the Gospel. But because of the special pressures surrounding that age group, I believe that special attention is needed. Just like we dedicate ministries to those who suffered abuse as a kid, those who deal with addictions, those who have been divorced, it is equally as vital to be reaching out to the youth.
The Worthy Complications of Youth Ministry
I think adults often see high school kids and they might be a little scared. High school kids can be a little intimidating. A great deal of them are strong-willed and stubborn to resistance, while some are so malleable that they’ll change at the movement of the wind. A high school teacher told me last week that a public high school is a microcosm of society. I tend to agree with her.
But that can scare people. Adults might be afraid that they wouldn’t be able to handle all the issues that come with high school kids. They might be afraid that they won’t earn their respect, their attention, their approval. It’s a legitimate fear to have. Not all fears are to be condemned as lack of faith. There is truth in the idea that our fears have some lack of faith that help feed that fear. But there’s some legitimacy.
Another barrier is time. It takes time and patience to invest in high school kids. You’ve got to be willing to invest yourself emotionally and physically. You’ve got to hang around them. You’ve got to play with them, speak with them, share words with them. Have conversations. Stay involved. Don’t invest yourself halfway in and then give up.
It’s hard because there are going to be days when they don’t respond the way you want them to. There’s going to be days when you don’t feel like it. But that’s all ministry. That’s all relationships. But these kids are the future of not just America, but the church. The future of the Gospel going to all the nations.
They need the Gospel because the world is telling them they don’t. There are millions of things and people vying for their primary affections and attentions. They’re telling them that they’re not enough the way they are and need to be more like the rest of the world or they don’t need any of that religion crap so just do what the world does. They’re being told Jesus’ love for them is not enough for them to live. They’re being told that sex, sports successes, good grades, positive attention, popularity with peers and listening to the right kind of music will be what fulfills them. But that’s not true! Only a real relationship with Jesus is what will really fulfill them.
They need older Christians investing in them. Who else will they hear truth from? Who else will not just tell them the truth but also live it out? Who else will show them that the Christian life is the life worth living? I’ve learned over the last year that I follow Jesus not just because I feel like I have to, but because it’s the life that gives me the most meaning, the most purpose, the most joy to my existence here on earth. The high school kids of today won’t know that unless those of us who are older and have been through that show them, not just tell them, but show them.
That’s what Jesus did. He didn’t just tell us how to live, He also showed us. He didn’t just tell us He loved us, He also showed us. We should seek to do the same to the high school kids around us.