Preparing Your Teenagers for College
group magazine: March-April, 2003
How will your kids survive the transition from high school youth group to college life?
by Dan Lambert
I see youth ministry from three distinct angles. I’ve been a youth minister for more than 20 years, I’ve been a professor of youth ministry for eight years, and I parent three kids. In all three roles, I have the same goal—I want my teenagers to own their faith in Jesus Christ.
But every year, when new freshmen stream through my classroom door, I can tell many of them left high school unprepared to face the harsh marketplace of conflicting beliefs and values they encounter at college. They don’t thrive because they haven’t yet owned their faith.
Many youth ministers recommend their grads attend a Christian college for a year or two to gain confidence in their faith around like-minded students and teachers. But if your seniors aren’t prepared to continue growing in Christ after high school, then they’re just as likely to experience a crisis at a Bible college as they are at Big State U. Believe me, I’ve seen more of it than I want to. So, what can you do to prep your students to hang on to their faith post high school? Use the following five questions as tools to evaluate what you’re doing.
1. Are our teenagers in love with Jesus Christ or with our youth group (or the way we do things here)?
I’ve seen it over and over again. A college freshman arrives on campus confident in his faith, but is quickly plunged into crisis because his Christian foundation was inextricably tied to his youth group experience.
The typical profile: He’s been a youth group member since sixth grade and attended Sunday school and the Wednesday night meeting every week. He was in a small-group Bible study Tuesday mornings before school, and he regularly attended retreats, lock-ins, and summer mission trips. He had many opportunities to recommit his life to Christ.
His youth pastor and adult leaders always told him how to handle his doubts and how to deal with tough situations at school or at home. In seven years he’d been away from the youth group only when his family went out of town on vacation. But now he’s a college freshman living in a dorm and taking 15 hours of classes. His new roommate, new friends, and even his professors are throwing new ideas and challenges at him so fast his head is spinning. He’s wondering what he really believes. Worse, he feels like he’s lost himself.
The antidote to all this is an owned faith. Early on, kids need to be aware that they’re part of the larger body of Christ and that their faith doesn’t depend on their home church. I recommend encouraging kids to attend fewer youth group activities so they can visit other churches (yes, you read that correctly). If you’re threatened by the thought of your teenagers checking out another church or not coming to youth group, then you’re fostering unhealthy connections to you and your church.(1)
In college, young people need to know how to evaluate churches so they can choose one to attend regularly. They also need to know how to find Christian friends and how to continue to mature without relying on you. Christ spent much of his earthly ministry preparing his disciples to grow and build a church without him around. He gave them the Holy Spirit as a guide. Your kids have that same Holy Spirit today. They need to learn to depend on it, not you.
• Have juniors and seniors visit other churches’ worship services at least one Sunday morning every other month.(2) They can go in pairs or as a group. Connect with them when they return, and discuss these questions together: What was your experience like? How was the worship different? What did you get out of the sermon/message/ homily? What did you learn about the church? Ask them to pick up church literature that will help them gain insights into the church.
• Once a month invite people from your church to tell your kids about the faith challenges they faced when they left high school for college or a job. Don’t recruit speakers who had smooth spiritual transitions.
• Team with other ministries in your area to create a Youth Leader Exchange Week once a year. Have the leaders teach your class or meeting time just as though they were in their home environment. Afterward, ask kids to ask questions about the differences they experienced.
• Lead your teenagers in a detailed study of Acts and the epistles to learn how the various first-century churches are described. Make a list of your findings, and for each item on the list answer this question: “Should all churches everywhere do this, or does this describe how they did it in their culture?”
2. Do our young people know how to think critically about biblical truth?
One very frustrating day in one of my youth ministry classes, I asked my students what the Bible teaches about premarital sex. They all eagerly agreed the Bible taught that it was wrong. When I challenged them to find Scripture passages to support their answers, they floundered badly. Quickly they were quoting verses about sexual immorality.
“What is sexual immorality?” I questioned.
“Having sex outside of marriage,” came the response.
“How do you know that?”
I was hoping for an intelligent discussion on God’s design for sexuality, or at least evidence of critical thinking using scripture. What I got was a series of “proof texts” they’d been spoon-fed but had never really thought about.
Too many of us in youth ministry tell our kids to memorize Scripture verses so they can quote them whenever they’re questioned or tempted. After all, that’s how Jesus defeated Satan’s temptations. Plus, there’s that verse somewhere about how God’s Word never returns void. But memorizing Scripture is not the same as thinking about it or understanding it. We need kids who think biblically—and that means they must know how to understand Scripture in varying contexts and circumstances.
• Teach your kids to debate(3) and you’ll foster critical thinking skills. Here’s how. For each teaching theme you plan, form two teams of three teenagers and assign each team a contrary position to research and later present (make sure you or some other adult is able to help). Then plan a meeting time for the groups to debate.
• Invite people in your church who have strong views on a topic or a theological truth to present their viewpoint to your group. Challenge your kids to ask questions or raise objections that could stump the speaker.
3. How intentionally do we develop leaders?
I was in our school cafeteria for lunch recently and noticed a crowd gathering around the deli bar. Since I was in line for a cold turkey sandwich myself, I tried to diagnose the holdup. The ham and the turkey trays were both empty, and everyone was waiting for them to be refilled.
“Does the kitchen staff know they’re empty?” I asked. A few students looked at me and shrugged. Others stared straight ahead as if the trays might replenish themselves.
“Did anybody say something to the kitchen staff?” I asked again. “Ummm, no?” came the quizzical response. “Don’t they just have a way to know?”
Leaders don’t wait for the deli trays to magically refill. They get someone to bring the meat! Unfortunately, too many “leadership” students have learned that leading requires nothing more than carrying out others’ plans.
We develop leaders by providing opportunities for students to play key roles in all aspects of church life. Their ideas must count—your committees must include them, your program plans must be formed with their input, and your ministry vision must be influenced by their sense of God’s voice.
• Plan time with your kids to brainstorm ways they can enhance an existing church ministry or create a new ministry idea. Find the right resource people to help them plan, research, and carry out their idea. The rigors of organizing a new ministry effort will produce new leadership abilities.
• Work with church leaders to open a seat on every board or committee for a youth representative. Some people will object, claiming young people don’t have the knowledge, experience, or commitment to serve in this way. Point out that this idea offers adults in the church a great avenue for discipling and mentoring teenagers.
4. How much do we expose our young people to the arts?
I’m embarrassed by students who think that Petra is classical music, or that I Kissed Dating Goodbye is classic literature, or that Space Invaders is classic art. Every year I hear freshmen complain that the words in the textbooks are too hard to understand, or express amazement that The Pilgrim’s Progress doesn’t end with Christian’s conversion.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the fact remains that today’s teenagers know little of music, literature, painting, and movies that debuted more than two years ago. In our (valuable) quest for cultural relevance, we can feed this aversion to the classics.
I’m not talking about turning all our kids into English majors—I’m urging an emphasis on expanding their minds. We want passionate Christians who create, critique, or teach poetry, digital media, sculpture, and dance. The arts need redemption—your kids can help.
• Lead a study of Wesley’s hymns or of Augustine’s Confessions or any other composition more than 100 years old that’s important to you or your church’s tradition. Invite an English, music, or art teacher to your group to discuss what makes a work timeless and important.
• Organize a creative arts festival for your church or your area. Encourage your young people to create entries that express their relationship with Christ in any artistic way.(4)
5. Do we actively encourage gifted young people to consider ministry as a career?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my ministry is meeting with prospective college students. The admissions department usually sends them to me when the student expresses curiosity about majoring in youth ministry. I’m amazed at how many times the student or their parent tells me that their pastor discouraged them from going into ministry. This is frustrating, misleading, and dangerous.
I hear everything from “My youth minister said I should major in psychology instead” to “I’ve been told I should major in something practical in case ministry doesn’t work out.” I also hear especially bright students say that people tell them they shouldn’t waste their brainpower on ministry. Ouch.
The fact is that all Christians want to attend a great church. That means that churches need great leaders. Instead of talking students out of ministry because of low salaries, endless demands, horrible personal experiences, and frustrating church politics, remember that God is calling people to this life.
• Host a panel discussion of current and former pastors. Ask them to discuss their call to ministry and the challenges they faced to follow that call. Ask them to offer advice to young people who may be experiencing that same call.
• When possible, accompany your students and their parents on college visit days. Listen to admissions counselors make their pitch, and arrange visits with professors who teach specific ministry disciplines. On the drive home, ask teenagers and their parents about their observations and questions.
Secular university or Christian college? It really doesn’t matter as much as what they learn from you right now.
Dan Lambert is a longtime youth minister, and an associate professor of youth ministry at John Brown University in Arkansas.
36 Ways You Can Love Your Kids
by Jeff Korhorn
1. Go to their school events.
2. Visit them at lunch.
3. Invite a student to breakfast or dinner.
4. Invite their family over for dinner.
5. Invite them and their friends to do something with you.
6. Send them an email.
7. Send them a greeting card.
8. Remember their important events.
9. Remember their names.
10. Remember what they said.
11. Maintain eye contact with them.
12. Listen to them.
13. Be interested in them.
14. Ask their view on things.
15. Find something to appreciate in them.
16. Offer to help them with a struggle or challenge (then do it).
17. Pray with them.
18. Tutor them.
19. Ask for their help.
20. Ask how their week went.
21. Give them public credit for a job well-done.
22. Brag to their parents about them.
23. Give them real responsibilities.
24. Give them room to fail.
25. Give them the tools to succeed.
26. Say, “I love you.”
27. Be honest.
28. Be vulnerable before you ask them to be vulnerable.
29. Sit by them.
30. Smile kindly.
31. Be excited to see them.
32. Give them the truth.
33. Play with them.
34. Work with them.
35. Open your home to them.
36. Invite them to minister to you.
Jeff Korhorn is a youth pastor in Indiana.
1. By the way, have you ever told your kids that even though other churches do ministry differently, that doesn’t automatically make them wrong? Too many kids have even been taught that their church does ministry “the right way” or “the way Jesus did it.” These attitudes contribute to the crisis of faith college students experience.
2. If you’re part of a local youth ministry networking group, this church-swap idea should be no problem to arrange. If you’re not, find one in your area to hook up with. Just go to the National Network of Youth Ministries site at www.YouthWorkers.net and click on Find a Network Near You. Or go to First Priority’s site at www.fpoa.org and click on Where Is First Priority?
3. For coaching on how to teach your kids to set up and conduct a debate, go to Debate Central on the Web at http://debate.uvm.edu.
4. For a deeper look at involving your kids in the arts, read Bryan Belknap’s article “The Artist-Friendly Youth Group” in our September/October 2002 issue. If you’re a subscriber, you can find the article on our vast back issue archive at www.groupmag.com. Just click on Back Issue Archives, then input your subscriber number (found on your mailing label), then click on the September/October 2002 issue, then click on the article.