Warning before reading: this is one of my more cranky blogs, but for what I hope is a good reason. I know that the following challenges to youth programs based primarily on fun and positive messages do not describe all youth programs, and please forgive me if your program takes equipping youth with Biblical values and a passion to serve Jesus seriously. However, in the lives of the teens close to me I see very little of this today. It makes me especially sad because I know it doesn't have to be like that. I was a youth leader for many years and even then I often doubted if I was doing the right thing because my program was not the most fun one around. It was filled with lots of Bible lessons, challenges, active service to the poor, mission awareness, and very high expectations. It was a large group, friends were invited, the church was pleased—all the outward measures of success were there—but I still wondered. The years have passed. My kids have gone on to become pastors, staff in Christian organizations, community and government leaders reflecting Biblical values, I pray their time in the not-always the most fun youth group contributed to that. So with another prayer that this cranky blog prove beneficial, I offer it to you. You have been warned.
Celebrate, but also challenge your graduates
In preparing for this series of posts and resources on graduation (links at the end here), I searched Google to see what other churches were doing for graduation. Overall, the emphasis was on celebration, honoring the students, remembering all they've done, along with advice on making sure names were pronounced correctly. All fine and good, but for a generation of students who have grown up with constant reminders of how wonderful they are, but I think we do them a disservice by sending them off with one more "you are fantastic and the world loves you" message.
Though we want to take time to celebrate students and their accomplishments, we don't want to miss the opportunity to challenge them to a deeper commitment to their faith. This may be one of our last opportunities to do it.
Particularly for high school students, graduation is the start of serious spiritual challenges. Many churches rightly bemoan students drifting from their faith after high school, but if we've spent years telling them life is a big party and Christianity is lots of fun (or how else would we get them to come to youth group?), we shouldn't be surprised.
It may be too late to change years of inculcating an attitude of entitlement in their Christian faith, but we can send them off with challenges and prayers. To help you do that I've prepared a series of communications for you, which I'll link to at the end of this post. Before I do that, I'd like to share Three Challenges of the Christian life that are the foundation of the why I created the communications I did and the Biblical basis for them. My focus was primarily to high school students, though the applications go beyond that. I would encourage you to use the content here to talk to your graduates as you use the communications. Please pass this on to other staff members, parents, or people working with your students.
Three Challenges of the Christian life and how they apply to our graduates
Challenge #1 The Christian life is a constant series of choices
Up until the time they graduate, many choices are made for students. They have limited control over their schedules, budget, or life options.
Of course they've made choices in minor areas, such as: pepperoni or cheese pizza, and major ones as to what schools to apply to, but these choice opportunities give them limited training in the barrage of moral choices that will confront them outside of high school. Especially if they move away from home, no one is going to daily challenge them about behavior or remind them to think of consequences before they act.
Quite the opposite will happen as there will often be peer pressure to violate many of the moral choices enforced by living at home. If students are not prepared with a solid interior core and know that it will be challenged, they often drift into behaviors that are damaging to their spiritual lives.
Please take time to talk through with your students potential choices they will be confronted with. In addition, take time to emphasize that they alone are the one who makes the decision on their behavior—they cannot blame friends or the new environment or the ageless excuse of "everybody is doing it." Emphasize that behavior has consequences, that choices are rarely without results and some of the results leave lasting scars. The Bible is filled with times where God challenges his people to choose (emphasis mine below):
If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. Joshua 24:15
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants. " Deuteronomy 30:19
I have chosen the faithful way; I have placed Your ordinances before me. Ps.119:30
Having convinced your students that they alone are responsible for the choices they make, the next challenge is extremely important because students need to understand the basis for making choices and it isn't what they've often heard.
Challenge #2 The Christian life isn't always fun
How many times have you heard (even in church) this statement, "If it isn't fun, don't do it." Or the associated phrase, "It's all about having fun."
These are lies. Fun is not the summun bonum (the highest good or truth) of life and decision-making.
When students hear statements like those above about fun (and we are all guilty of this) it naturally follows that we will use fun as the measure for doing things or not doing them. Human nature being the self-gratifying, greedy weasel it is (though we try so hard to hide it) we feel justified when we announce we aren't volunteering at the nursery at church, or for the homeless ministry, or at the church office because it just isn't fun anymore. If we say that, or if we hear our students say things like that without a challenge we are doing them a terrible disservice in life.
Much of life isn't fun. Studying hard, mastering difficult material, staying friends, commitment to a ministry often contain large sections of time that aren't fun. That doesn't mean we quit.
Most actions of significance, self-control, or sacrifice that changed the world have little or nothing to do with having fun while they were being done.
Christians often talk about joy in the midst of trials, and that may be true, but we need to be honest and tell our students that the joy may not come for a long time and there may be a lot of pain until that time. The best example of this of course is the choice of Jesus in dying for us. He could have chosen not to it. But he chose to go to the cross, not because it was fun, but
For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Heb.12:2
The joy didn't come for Jesus until he was home with his Father and the joy we yearn for in all our hearts won't be satisfied until that time also.
Until then we need to be honest with our graduates and give them strategies to cope with the hard times, not excuses to bail out of difficulties that could be opportunities for spiritual growth. A nap, a cup of coffee, or a walk can do wonders until total joy overtakes us when we see Jesus. Even if nothing helps, we teach them not to cave in to the tyranny of fun as a life standard.
If fun isn't then the measure for choices and conduct, what is? That leads to:
Challenge #3 The Christian life's standard for decision-making is God's Word
We must share with our students and remind ourselves that there is little in the world at large (and particularly today with the sad spirit of deceit and rancor in public discourse) that will show us how to live or make decisions. We have to have a standard beyond fun, beyond the daily babble and life distractions, beyond ourselves, if we want to live rightly and pleasing to God.
That standard of course is found in a very big book that many of our students have not read to the depth required for significant life change and a solid behavioral anchor. But it's never too late to encourage them to make the Bible such an intrinsic part of their life they will know what God wants them to do in every situation. For many today who don't want to sit down and read a big book we are fortunate that there are Bible apps and they can also listen to the Bible. Through most of human history, listening was the primary way most people learned God's Word and it's a great way to get it into our students today. Listening isn't a lesser way to take in God's Word. It's the content that is important, not the channel we use to get it into our hearts and minds.
Jesus said "If you love me you will keep my commands" (John 14:15). It's only through his Word that we learn what those commands are.
And once we learn those commands, we are back to the first challenge of making a choice to obey or not. At the end of the day, they are alone in that decision. Do what you can to prepare them for it.
Communications that will help you start a conversation about these challenges
I've put together a series of communications, all free, that you can use to start conversations with students about more than celebrating graduation. Just click on the title to go to the material.