When I became a Christian, one of the first things that was drilled into my head was the importance of daily, personal (i.e., individual) devotions. I was encouraged to spend 10-15 minutes each day studying the Bible (usually through a devotional booklet of some kind), praying about what I’d learned, and jotting down ideas how to live out the principles and truths I’d been exposed to. It was a practice that served me well as a teenager, and one that has continued to shape my spiritual formation as an adult.
However, over the past few years I’ve really begun to question the effectiveness of personal devotions. Obviously they aren’t bad (millions of Christians would claim they are an integral part of their spiritual walk with Christ), but when I take an honest look at the times in my life that have been the most powerful in terms of wrestling with the Bible and letting it (re)shape me, there is one common thread: at least two or three were gathered (cf. Matthew 18:20).
In high school, my best friend Mike Garner and I would do personal devotions each morning (sometimes the same one), but we’d discuss it (and sometimes debate it) during our walk to and from school. I can still remember particular conversations we had–moments standing on a street corner for an hour talking through an idea or Scripture. For the life of me I can’t remember one personal devotional time during that same period in my life.
In university (Redeemer University College), our weekly dorm devotions were some of the most incredible, intense times of faith formation, and not because they were full of kumbaya moments either; they were often heated, challenging, and relationally demanding. I can still remember conversations and interactions that even to this day bring back a flood of fond memories. I know I did countless personal devotionals during my time at Redeemer, but once again, I cannot recall even one.
Even today, I might have to point to Elevate (Grindstone church’s high school group) as one of the most significant arenas through which God continues to stretch me in terms of my understanding of Him, His word, and His calling on my life. I can say unhesitatingly that Monday nights with our Elevate leaders and students are amongst the most influential in terms of my own spiritual journey.
I once heard someone remark that sermons (and for the purposes of this discussion, personal devotionals) are like meals. Often, we can’t remember every meal we’ve eaten, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been the source of energy through which we’ve grown and been strengthened. That’s why I wouldn’targue that personal devotionals are unnecessary. But I have begun to push myself and others to consider some of their limitations:
a. Personal devotionals are one-dimensional. The one-dimension? you. Like, literally, it’s just you in the room (well, God’s there, but you know what I mean).
b. Personal devotionals aren’t an intuitive learning style for many people. Many people do not learn well in a context of social isolation and invidual reflection.
c. Personal devotions aren’t often energizing or interesting. Because there’s no one there to build on your thoughts and reflections (or disagree with them), it’s easy to just go through the motions and check it off the discipleship “to-do” list.
d. Personal devotions often feel like an uphill battle. Maybe this is the most telling limitation of them all. Many people spend tons of energy trying to be faithful to a daily devotional habit, but with very limited success. Maybe the continued frustration we experience isn’t because we’re spiritually lazy or weak–maybe it’s because God’s Word was designed to be read, studied, and wrestled with (primarily) with other people and not in the corner of the room by ourselves.
I’m no expert on the ins and outs of devotional practices throughout historic Christianity, but I do believe that the Scriptures have traditionally (and predominantly) been engaged with through community–where two or three are gathered. In fact, I’d love to find out exactly when the evangelical obsession with personal devotionals came into prominence.
The more I think about it, the more difficult it is for me to picture Jesus sending off his disciples to complete their personal devotions. Throughout the Bible, community and spiritual formation seem to be assumed partners, not optional tag-ons or extra credit for keeners. While men and women of faith clearly had an intensely personal commitment to God, worship, prayer and Scriptural study were collaborative, community disciplines. To grow in their faith, people gathered–they didn’t scatter.
Again, I want to be careful not to slam personal devotions, but I wonder what kind of difference it would make if I/we did fewer personal devotionals and did more collaborative devotionals–devotionals that were structured the same way as personal devotionals, but were done with at least one other person.
Clearly, this is done already: bible studies, small groups, etc. But I’m asking a slightly different question. I’m asking what difference would it make if the default mode of engaging the Bible was through community study and not, as it so often is, via individual study?
I know so many people (especially students) have an extremely difficult time reading/studying the Bible alone. I think a lot of those difficulties can be traced to the limitations I cited above. If we eased our emphasis on personal devotions and encouraged group or even tandem studies more, would more consistent and transformative encounters with the Bible emerge? I’m increasingly suspicious that’s exactly what would happen.
Some immediate ideas I’d like to try:
1. Limit myself to 2-3 personal devotional times a week, while attempting to do a tandem or group devotional study 3-4 times a week.
2. Encourage students to take a hiatus from personal devotions and instead encourage them to study and discuss a devotional with a member of the same gender 4-5 times a week (i.e., tandem study). This may include reading the devotional alone at one point in the day, but making sure to discuss it with your study buddy later in the day.
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The following is an excerpt from Mere Disciple, chapter 9: A Tree of Life
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:1–4
How do you and I stay rooted in Jesus? How do we remain connected to Him so that we can experience this great life and extraordinary hope regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in? How do we keep Jesus’ call to discipleship front and centre, especially when we are assaulted by countless distractions and difficulties? How do we avoid being overwhelmed and choked out by the cares and worries of this life? Staying rooted in Jesus begins with and is sustained by a commitment to four priorities.
Engage the Bible everyday. Whether it means reading, studying, discussing, or memorizing, staying rooted to Jesus means staying rooted to the Scriptures. We need to continually stretch our understanding of what the Bible says and how that should play out in our lives. The gospels should be read consistently and carefully, because declaring ourselves to be disciples of Jesus means we’re trying to embed the values, attitudes, and priorities of Jesus into our lives. The importance of reading, studying, memorizing, and discussing the Bible is a value most Christians agree on but few actually practice. However, everyone I see flourishing in their discipleship walk is engaging the Bible everyday.
Develop a strong prayer life. Developing a strong prayer life is very challenging for most people. Personally, prayer is an area I read about, talk about, and think about more than I actually do anything about. Prayer is very hard for me, because quite honestly it feels like a waste of time. It feels inefficient and sometimes ineffective compared to physically doing something, but I’m pushing myself beyond those faulty assumptions. I’m in the process of exploring different forms of prayer because I want to develop a strong and intimate relationship with Jesus. This intimacy will never happen if I neglect communicating with Him honestly and openly. Although it may not be easy for us, taking time everyday to share our hearts with Him—and taking time to listen for His still, small voice—is critical to our growth as disciples.
Invest in a local church. I will be the first to say that church can suck. You know it and I know it. But here’s the reality: I’ve never, ever met someone who powerfully inspires me to love and serve Jesus who isn’t invested and connected to a local church. I don’t think church is some kind of magic bullet when it comes to discipleship. However, I believe that discipleship outside of a church commitment just doesn’t work. I also know how tempting it is to bounce around and check out the latest ministry, church, or preacher. But discipleship requires roots, and you can’t grow deep roots if you’re continually uprooting yourself in order to be a part of the next new thing. Therefore, if we are serious about discipleship to Jesus, we have to make it a priority to plug into and invest in a local church community.
Serve others. Following Jesus as a disciple means continually reminding ourselves that in Jesus’ kingdom leaders are the ones who serve (Luke 22:26) and greatness is measured by one’s ability lay down one’s life for others (John 15:13). Our days are filled with opportunities to bless and serve others in both simple and profound ways, and Jesus calls us to adopt a servant heart that places our preferences secondary to the interests and needs of those around us. Jesus said that His kingdom is one that will be characterized by servant leadership (Matthew 20:25–28), so if we aren’t consistently serving others we’re operating out of ego and self-centredness.
These disciplines, however, may strike us as overly simplistic or obvious. Because of this, it’s common for us to overlook them in order to look for something that sounds deeper and more profound. But these four practices form the foundation—the root structure—of the Christian faith. If we ignore, dismiss, or abandon them, we’ll soon find ourselves feeling old, gnarled, and lifeless.
After years of discipling, mentoring, and observing many young adults, I’ve noticed a huge difference between those who just talk about these things, and those who actually do them. Jesus said a disciple is someone who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (Matthew 7:24, emphasis mine). It’s easy to extol the virtues of Bible study and prayer, hold lengthy conversations on the nature of community, and discuss new justice initiatives. However, none of these things lead to transformation in Christ. Those who have been truly transformed are those who have consistently done these things and not just talked about doing them.
To order a copy of Mere Disciple: a spiritual guide for emerging leaders, click here.
The following is an excerpt from Mere Disciple, chapter 5: The Beautiful Risk.
Over the years, I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be the top relationship advice for dating Christians (or those interested in dating). The list has emerged through countless conversations and discussions, and offers some great ground-level wisdom on how the call of discipleship should steer our journey through romantic relationships. This is not a list where it’s all or nothing—that is, in order to be a disciple, all of these ideas need to be in place. It’s important to remember that discipleship is a process and a journey. Those who have taken to heart even one or two of these principles have told me that it has had a dramatically positive effect on their life, and has helped immensely in the process of controlling their negative sexual habits and impulses.
Keep your passion for Jesus central.It’s easy to give Jesus priority status when there’s no competition. When we start dating, however, it’s common for many of us to slowly channel the energy that we’ve been investing in our relationship with Him into our newfound love. But Jesus isn’t our relational back-up plan, someone we put first until someone better comes along. He needs to stay central for us regardless of whether we’re single, dating, or married.
Relationships flourish when Jesus and His kingdom are the priority of both people, but falter when they aren’t. When Jesus is our first priority, our view of love, sex, and relationships is enhanced and enriched. But when Jesus is relegated to being our second, third, or fourth priority, our entire view of love, sex, and relationships becomes distorted. Knowing Jesus intimately is critical if we want to know what authentic, life-giving expressions of love, sex, and relationships look like. If we’re not anchoring our heart’s deepest hopes and longings in Jesus, our romantic relationships will always end up disappointing and frustrating us. We’ll be placing unrealistic expectations on our relationship that can only be fulfilled by God.
It’s a wonderful thing to fall in love and find someone with whom we can share our lives. However, we need to be careful that even good, healthy dating relationships don’t become stumbling blocks that cause us to forsake our first love (Revelation 2:4).
Don’t rationalize an abusive relationship.It’s common for many people (especially women) to find themselves in an abusive relationship at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s a boyfriend who is physically abusive, or a girlfriend who is controlling and emotionally manipulative. Regardless, I often see the rationalizing of major dysfunction. Many of us would rather put up with abuse and dysfunction in our relationships than be alone, so we go to great lengths to minimize or deny any abusive behaviour.
“Well, she’s not like that all the time.”
“It isn’t really that bad.”
“It’s no big deal. That’s just the way our relationship is.”
No relationship is perfect. Each one has its fault lines and issues, but there comes a point when a challenging relationship becomes a destructive one, and when abusive patterns have emerged that line has been crossed.
Sometimes denial can run deep. If we don’t identify and end the abusive relationship until it has run its course, we will be heartbroken and devastated. Or maybe we believe we’re the one sent into this person’s life to do the saving, to make them a better person, and so we wear the abuse as a kind of badge of honour. Maybe it brings us some kind of self-righteous satisfaction that we’re suffering for a greater purpose and are willing to love someone so “complicated.”
Regardless of your particular situation, if you are involved in an abusive relationship—whether the abuse is physical, emotional, or sexual—you need to end it. You know it’s unhealthy, and chances are it’s negatively impacting every area of your life, including your relationship with God. You should talk to a friend, parent, or pastor you trust who can help you transition out of your relationship.
Don’t believe that romantic relationships are the key to happiness and fulfillment. This piece of advice often comes from one of my high school students when we brainstorm relationship advice together as a group. All of us go through a stage where we assume we’re a boyfriend or girlfriend away from having it all. We believe that if we could find our “true love,” all the issues that bring us down will fade into the background. We believe that love, peace, and joy will flood into our lives and give us our “happily ever after.”
Falling in love and being in love is awesome, but if we think a relationship is what will save us from loneliness, low self-esteem, and purposelessness, we’re just wrong. No matter how good, godly, and healthy a relationship may be, it cannot fully satisfy the deeper spiritual hungers within you. To enter into any relationship with the expectation that it will be the key to a happy life is to place an idolatrous, unhealthy, and unrealistic expectation on it. This expectation will only suffocate any potential for the relationship to grow in a healthy way. We must never ask or assume another person can provide what only God can. When we stop looking to a relationship to be the key that will unlock the potential of our lives, we open up space for healthy relationships to emerge into what they are meant to be.
Only date someone who has a passion for following Jesus with their whole lives. “Christians should only date Christians.” That opinion is repeated in countless books on Christian dating, and yet from my point of view it’s just not a helpful way of approaching things. The statement is clearly well-intended, but like many things within the church the attempt to simplify in order to communicate things clearly has created new problems.
For example, the overly simplistic categories of Christian and non-Christian can be an enormous stumbling block. If the discussion centres on dating Christians vs. non-Christians, we can quickly (and mistakenly) substitute “people who go to church” with “Christian” and unintentionally lower our standards to anyone who shows up to church on Sunday. But should a Christian relationship be validated by something as trivial as church attendance?
I think it’s much better to frame the discussion within the larger context of discipleship. If we want our central passion to be Jesus and His kingdom, does it make sense to date someone who doesn’t share that same intention? If discipleship to Jesus is something we take incredibly seriously, does it make sense to date someone who supports us in our faith but isn’t actually committed to it themselves?
No, it doesn’t. That’s why I encourage people to pray for and seek out someone whose passion for Jesus is profound, undeniable, and inspiring. That is the kind of person, that kind of disciple, is someone you should pursue. Too many people settle for someone who’s churched instead of prayerfully holding out for someone whose discipleship commitment expresses itself in dynamic, passionate, creative ways. If you want your love for Jesus to deepen throughout your life, committing to only dating (and eventually marrying) someone with a strong and vibrant faith should be non-negotiable.
Never settle. Personally and professionally I’ve never seen anything good come from relationships that started with, “Well . . . you’ll do.” That being said, I’m not an idiot; I know how difficult it is to be the only person without a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the ache that situation creates. But we need to have the courage to move into and through that discomfort, trusting God to somehow satisfy what we’re longing for, even if we can’t anticipate how.
Make a list of qualities you want in your future spouse, then work backwards. If you want someone who is fun, spontaneous, spiritually intense, wise, and playful, that’s not going to happen if you date someone who is some of these things, some of the time. Obviously this means we’ll have to do a bit of reflection on our future marriage partner before we start dating, but isn’t that a good thing? We date in order to allow God to help us find a kindred spirit with whom we can become a soul mate through marriage. If someone told me they were ready to date but couldn’t articulate what they were looking for in someone beyond being attractive and funny, I’d tell them they just aren’t ready to date. If we don’t know what we really want in our dating relationships, the likelihood of us settling for something “good enough” is exponentially higher.
Before I met my wife, I spent a few months putting together a list of character qualities that I wouldn’t budge on. If someone only had three out of ten, I wouldn’t date them. eight out of ten? Sorry. I wanted a perfect score. Why? Was I some kind of unreasonable jerk with an inflated sense of entitlement? No. I knew what kind of marriage I wanted, and I’d lived and learned enough about myself to know the kind of person I needed to hold out for. That didn’t make times of singleness easy, but because I had a razor-sharp clarity about what I wanted and needed, settling for anything else became much harder.
Avoid the Romeo and Juliet syndrome. Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers who were so in love they could never be separated. They quickly melted their own identities into each other and made each other their entire world. This syndrome is all too common in dating relationships. We’ve probably all known a friend who started dating someone and then stopped hanging out with everyone except their new love. All their spare time was spent with their Romeo or Juliet, and the relationships and priorities that were previously very important were disregarded and pushed aside.
The Romeo and Juliet syndrome is closely linked to the assumption that was addressed previously in this list (i.e., romantic relationships are the key to happiness and fulfillment). Out of this assumption we look to another person to be the emotional saviour we’ve been waiting for, and we do all we can to surround ourselves with this person as much as possible. This trap is easy for us to fall into, so my advice here is to put limits on the amount of time we’re spending with our boyfriend/girlfriend, so that we don’t (intentionally or unintentionally) make them the focal point of our daily routines and habits.
Set boundaries. It’s really important to establish boundaries before we enter into a dating relationship. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in a literal free-for-all in terms of what is done, said, and experienced together, and this is always destructive to everyone involved. Healthy relationships need boundaries, and they need to identify and decide what boundaries are going to be in place as it relates to four dimensions of the relationship:
a. Physical. What physical boundaries need to be in place in order to protect each person’s dignity, reputation, and purity?
b. Emotional. What emotional boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure the Romeo and Juliet syndrome doesn’t take hold?
c. Social. What social boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure that each person is investing in healthy relationships outside of the dating relationship?
d. Spiritual. What spiritual boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure that each person is growing spiritually as individuals and not just focusing their spiritual growth on the context of their relationship?
Ideally, the couple should meet with a few older and more experienced couples to help them define what boundaries will be in place for them. These older couples can also play an important ongoing mentoring role in the new couples’ lives.
Learn from your mistakes. We all make mistakes. As much as we parade around ideas of personal holiness, the biting truth is that imperfections and blunders seem to be the rule rather than the exception within our lives. Even during seasons where I feel an uncommon clarity of purpose, strong sense of conviction, and deep connection with God, I’m ashamed to admit how easy I’m seized by sins like lust, envy, pride, and idolatry.
But as I look back over my life, it seems to me that the only sinful slip-ups that have really cost me in the long run have been the ones I’ve stubbornly repeated, knowing precisely what I was doing. Proverbs 26:11 states, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” That’s the cycle that can destroy us if we’re not careful. So when we make a mistake, regardless of what kind or what severity, we need to realize that beating ourselves up is of limited value. Genuine repentance doesn’t always need to be a tearful exercise in self-pity. Sometimes it expresses itself with a clear decision and focused intention to put together a game plan to avoid repeating the mistake again. After reflecting on my own journey and many years of pastoral ministry, I’m convinced that God won’t let our mistakes define our lives if we’re willing to learn from them and seek restoration in Him.
Take three months between dating relationships to reflect and learn. The temptation to rebound with an immediate dating relationship after one has ended is enormous. Why? Because we’ve been in a relationship long enough that we’ve become accustomed to having someone to call, touch, and hang out with. To go from that to nothing feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us, and our first instincts are to get ourselves back into a relationship as soon as possible in order to avoid the awkwardness of readjusting to being single. But when we start relationships in order to avoid being single, we’re actually just using the new guy or girl for our own selfish ends. That foundation isn’t going to take us very far, and we should expect more heartache to come if we just rush into new relationships after ending old ones.
If a relationship doesn’t work (for whatever reason), it’s always important to take some time away from dating relationships and recalibrate our hearts and minds. We need to carve out time to reflect on what went wrong, and why. We should explore how we need to grow from our experiences in the previous relationship so that future relationships are healthier and more Christ-centred. Relationships teach us a lot if we’re willing to listen to the lessons. Be sure to carve out at least three months between dating relationships so that you can focus on learning whatever lessons God wants to teach you during your time of transition.
Break up well. This might be one of the most surprising and overlooked pieces of advice I share on the subject of building healthy relationships, but it’s so important. Nothing tests the genuineness of our discipleship commitment to Jesus than our willingness to refuse to blame, badmouth, or hurt the other person during a break-up.
A break-up usually results in a lot of hurt for everyone involved. Two people who once thought of each other as “true loves” now become enemies looking to strike back at each other. However, it’s exactly in this new and awkward context that Jesus’ challenge to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) comes into play.
If we’re the ones doing the breaking up, we need to do so in a way that minimizes the emotional damage for the other person. We’re going to cause hurt, so we need to be as gentle, reasonable, and kind as humanly possible. Being rejected is a horrible feeling, and we don’t need to escalate those feelings (even if we think the other person deserves it). We should strive to be gracious and kind, and after the break-up never speak badly about the other person.
If we’re on the receiving end of the break-up, the emotions that flood into our hearts are going to make it very easy for us to justify hatred and retaliation. We need to fight those impulses with everything in us. That doesn’t mean minimizing how much it hurts to have someone dump us, though; it just means refusing to let the hurt we’re feeling morph into a cancer of anger and bitterness. Getting dumped sucks, but striking back through hatred and retaliation won’t provide the healing we’re looking for. That can only be found when we pour our energy into our relationship with the One who is “close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18).
To order a copy of Mere Disciple: a spiritual guide for emerging leaders, click here.
CNN posted an interesting interview with Kenda Creasy Dean about her new book Almost Christian. In her book, Dean argues that how the church currently engages the youth culture amounts to little more than a do-gooder, self-help “Christianity” that is utterly failing to captivate the hearts and lives of youth.
The article (found here) is excellent and reinforces what I’ve been saying for years: youth ministry isn’t working. It’s time for ministry that focuses on identifying, challenging and empowering emerging leaders within Christ’s church to come into prominence.
How does “emerging church ministry” differ from “youth ministry”? Head over to http://meredisciple.com/downloads.htm and grab the free PDF article “The Future of an Illusion” for my thoughts.
It might be difficult for some parents to read through, but here’s a top ten list that I’ve been wanting to write for a while. Over the next several days I’ll be expanding on each of these in succession, but for now, here is my top ten mistakes Christian parents of teens make:
10. Not spending time with your teen.
A lot of parents make the mistake of not spending time with their teens because they assume their teens don’t want to spend time with them! While that’s true in some contexts, teens still want and need “chunks” of one-on-one time with parents. Despite the fact that teens are transitioning into more independence and often carry a “I don’t need/want you around” attitude, they are longing for the securing and grounding that comes from consistent quality time.
Going for walks together, grabbing a coffee in order to “catch up,” going to the movies together, etc., all all simple investments that teens secretly want and look forward to. When you don’t carve out time to spend with your teen, you’re communicating that you’re not interested in them, and they internalize that message, consciously or unconsciously.
9. Letting your teen’s activities take top priority for your family.
The number of parents who wrap their lives/schedules around their teen’s activities is mind-boggling to me. I honestly just don’t get it. I know many parents want to provide their children with experiences and opportunities they never had growing up, but something’s gone wrong with our understanding of family and parenting when our teen’s wants/”needs” are allowed to overwhelm the family’s day-to-day routines.
Parents need to prioritize investing in their relationship with God (individually and as a couple), themselves and each other, but sadly all of these are often neglected in the name of “helping the kids get ahead.” “Don’t let the youth sports cartel run your life,” says Jen singer, author of You’re A Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either). I can’t think of many good reasons why families can’t limit teens to one major sport/extra-curricular activity per season. Not only will a frenetic schedule slowly grind down your entire family of time, you’ll be teaching your teen that “the good life” is a hyper-active one. That doesn’t align itself to Jesus’ teaching as it relates to the healthy rhythms of prayer, Sabbath, and down-time, all of which are critical to the larger Christian task of “seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
8. Spoiling your teen.
We are all tempted to think that loving our kids means doing all we can to ensure they have all the opportunities and things we didn’t have growing up. This is a terrible assumption to make. It leads to an enormous amount of self-important, petty, and ungrateful kids. A lot of the time parents are well-intentioned in our spoiling, but our continual stream of money and stuff causes teens to never be satisfied and always wanting more. Your teen doesn’t need another piece of crap, what he needs is time and attention from you (that’s one expression of spoiling that actually benefits your teen!).
There are two things that can really set you back in life if we get them too early:
a. Access to too much money.
b. Access to too many opportunities.
Parents need to recognize they’re doing their teens a disservice by spoiling them in either of these ways. Save the spoiling for the grandkids.
7. Permissive parenting.
“Whatever” — It’s not just for teens anymore! The devil-may-care ambivalence that once defined the teenage subculture has now taken root as parents shrug their shoulders, ask, “What can you do?” and let their teens “figure things out for themselves.” I think permissive parenting (i.e., providing little direction, limits, and consequences) is on the rise because many parents don’t know how to dialogue with and discipline their children. Maybe parents don’t have any limits of boundaries within their own life, so they don’t know how to communicate the value of these to their teen. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to, because their own self-esteem is too tied up in their child’s perception of them, and they couldn’t handle having their teen get angry at them for actually trying to parent. Maybe it’s because many parents feel so overwhelmed with their own issues, they can hardly think of pouring more energy into a (potentially) taxing struggle or point of contention.
Whatever the reason, permissive parenting is completely irreconcilable with a Christian worldview. I certainly do not advocate authoritarian parenting styles, but if we practice a permission parenting style we’re abdicating our God-given responsibility to provide guidance, nurture, limits, discipline and consequences to our teen (all of which actually help our teen flourish long-term).
6. Trying to be your teen’s best friend.
Your teen doesn’t need another friend (they have plenty); they need a parent. Even through their teens, your child needs a dependable, confident, godly authority figure in their life. As parents we are called to provide a relational context characterized by wisdom, protection, love, support, and empowerment. As Christian parents we’re called to bring God’s flourishing rule into our family’s life. That can’t happen if we’re busy trying to befriend our teen. Trying to be your teen’s friend actually cheats them out of having these things in their lives.
Sometimes parents think that a strong relationship with their teen means having a strong friendship—but there’s a fine line that shouldn’t be crossed. You should be friendly to your teen but you shouldn’t be your teen’s friend. They have lots of friends, they only have one or two parents—so be the parent your teen needs you to be.
5. Holding low expectations for your teen.
Johann Goethe once wrote, “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat as man as he can and should be, and he become as he can and should be.” All of us rise to the unconcious level of expectation we set for ourselves and perceive from others. During the teenage years, it’s especially important to slowly put to death the perception that your teen is still “a kid.” They are emerging leaders, and if you engage them as such, you will find that over time, they unconsciously take on this mantle for themselves. Yes, your teen can be moody, self-absorbed, irresponsible, etc., but your teen can also be brilliant, creative, selfless, and mature. Treating them like “kids” will reinforce the former; treating them as emerging leaders will reinforce the latter.
For an example of how the this difference in perspective plays out, I’ve written an article entitled “The Future of an Illusion” which is available as a free download from www.meredisciple.com (in the Free Downloads section). It specifically looks at my commitment to be involved in “emerging church ministry” as opposed to “youth ministry,” and it you may find some principles within it helpful.
4. Not prioritizing youth group/church involvement.
This one is one of my personal pet peeves (but not just because this is my professional gig). I simply do not understand parents who expect and want their kids to have a dynamic, flourishing faith, and yet don’t move heaven and earth to get them connected to both a youth group and local church.
I’m going to let everyone in on a little secret: no teenager can thrive in their faith without these two support mechanisms. I’m not saying a strong youth group and church community is all they need, but what I am saying that you can have everything else you think your teen needs, but without these two things, don’t expect to have a spiritually healthy and mature teen. Maybe there are teens out there who defy this claim, but honestly, I can’t think of one out of my own experience. As a parent, youth group and church involvement should be a non-negotiable part of your teen’s life, and that means they take priority over homework (do it the night before), sports, or any other extra-curricular commitments.
Don’t be the parent who is soft on these two commitments, but pushes their kid in schooling, sports, etc. In general, what you sow into determines what you reap; if you want to reap a teenager who has a genuine, flourishing faith, don’t expect that to happen if you’re ok with their commitment to youth group/church to be casual and half-hearted.
3. Outsourcing your teen’s spiritual formation.
While youth group and church is very important, another mistake I see Christian parents make is assuming them can completely outsource the spiritual development of their child to these two things. I see the same pattern when it comes to Christian education: parents sometimes choose to send their children/teens to Christian schools, because by doing so they think they’ve done their parental duty to raise their child in a godly way.
As a parent–and especially if you are a Christian yourself–YOU are THE key spiritual role model and mentor for your teen. And that isn’t “if you want to be” either–that’s the way it is. Ultimately, you are charged with teaching and modelling to your teen what follow Jesus means, and while church, youth groups, Christian schools can be a support to that end, they are only that: support mechanisms.
Read Deuteronomy 6 for an overview of what God expects from parents as it relates to the spiritual nurture and development of their children. (Hint: it’s doesn’t say, “Hand them off to the youth pastor and bring them to church on Sunday.”)
2. Not expressing genuine love and like to your teen.
It’s sad that I have to write this one at all, but I’m convinced very few Christian parents actually express genuine love and “like” to their teen. It can become easy for parents to only see how their teen is irresponsible, failing, immature, etc., and become a harping voice instead of an encouraging, empowering one.
Do you intentially set aside time to tell your teen how much you love and admire them? Do you write letters of encouragement to them? Do you have “date nights” where you spend time together and share with them the things you see in them that you are proud of?
Your teen won’t ask you for it, so don’t wait for an invitation. Everyday say something encouraging to your teen that builds them up (they get enough criticism as it is!). Pray everyday for them and ask God to help you become one of the core people in your teen’s life that He uses to affirm them.
1. Expecting your teen to have a devotion to God that you are not
cultivating within yourself.
When I talk to Christian parents, it’s obvious that they want their teen to have a thriving, dynamic, genuine, life-giving faith. What isn’t so clear, however, is whether that parent has one themselves. When it comes to the Christian faith, most of the time what we learn is caught and not taught. This means that even if you have the “right answers” as a parent, if you’re own spiritual walk with God is pathetic and stilted, your teen will unconciously follow suit. Every day you are teaching your teach (explicitely and implicitely) what discipleship to Jesus looks like “in the flesh.”
What are they catching from you? Are you cultivating a deep and mature relationship with God personally, or is your Christian parenting style a Christianized version of “do as I say, not as I do”?
While having a healthy and maturing discipleship walk as a parent does not garauntee your teen will follow in your footsteps, expecting your teen to have a maturing faith while you follow Jesus “from a distance” is an enormous mistake.
You are a Christian before you are a Christian parent (or any other role). Get real with God, share your own struggles and hypocrisy with your entire family, and maybe then God will begin to use your example in a positive and powerful way.
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