The Church is experiencing a crisis. Young Christians are leaving the Church in large numbers during their college years, and our efforts to address the problem have been inadequate. I suggest we stop teaching and start training. In yesterday’s post I outlined a simple model (using T.R.A.I.N. as an acronym) to help describe the difference between training and teaching. Teaching is about imparting knowledge; training is about preparing for battle. If we want to adequately prepare students for the challenges they will face in their university years, we need to test them to expose their weaknesses, require more from them than we think they can handle, arm them with the truth (and teach them how to articulate it), involve them in the battlefield of ideas, and nurture their wounds as we model the nature of Jesus. Today I want to focus on the second step in this training process: requiring more from our students than we think they can handle.
In my first year as a youth pastor, after taking over for a very popular minister who moved out of state, I struggled to find my identity as a leader. Worse yet, I was already over 40 and felt like I might be too old to be accepted by a room full of teenagers. I’m sorry to say my early season of youth leadership was defined more by games and pizza than effective training. Sadly, this seems to be common in other youth ministries as well. Many youth leaders appear to be more interested in entertaining than they are in training. It wasn’t until I watched my first graduating class walk away from Christianity in their freshman year of college that I woke up and changed direction. I began to train as I am describing this week, and I raised my expectations dramatically.
Students are far more capable than we typically believe. Many are already engaged in difficult courses of study as they attempt to qualify themselves for universities around the country. Some are taking “honors” courses and “advanced placement” classes. They are willing to work hard when they think there is a need or a tangible goal. Yet when it comes to youth ministry, we seldom require or challenge students to engage the material this passionately, and we rarely express the need, or set the goal. When I work with youth groups, I begin by demonstrating their inadequacies and establishing their need for improvement. Once this is clear to the students, they are more than willing to do whatever it takes to improve their abilities. They become eager to learn and train.
I’ve learned to teach beyond what the Church thinks students can handle. In fact, I teach the material from Cold-Case Christianity in precisely the same manner whether I’m teaching a room full of people my age or a room full of junior-highers. It’s the same information-packed presentation, regardless of age group. I will admit this requires me, as a trainer, to develop a strategy for communication capable of engaging young people with complex material. I try to take a robust approach that’s interactive, relevant, personal and visual. But I never underestimate the ability of my audience; they can handle whatever I’m teaching if they understand what’s at stake. When I first began my time as a youth pastor, my sons and daughters were 12, 10, 5 and 4 years old. None of them were old enough to be in my ministry, but they sat with me each week as I taught high school students. I was amazed to find they had mastered the material by the time they were in high school themselves. Even though I was teaching my students at a college level (to raise the bar for them as teenagers), my elementary aged children were grasping it as well. You’ll never get more from your students if you don’t expect more. Raise the bar and see what happens.
When our students have been properly tested and challenged so they understand their need, you’ll be surprised to see the passion and willingness they’ll demonstrate as they seek answers. Test your students and raise the bar.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.