"We adults can help youth reshape their thinking by putting a name to their experience that will help them see how God is at work."
Thought, Word, Act
A long time ago I heard the notion, "Thoughts lead to words; words lead to action; action leads to habit; habit leads to character." Thoughts and words are basic to our humanity, basic to the ability to express our observations, feelings, and experiences. Thoughts and words also help shape our faith. One of the issues that stands in the way of “faith-shaping” is our failure to use faith language to describe an experience.
Even as adults we do not always recognize, much less acknowledge to ourselves and others, how Christ is at work in our daily lives. A first step is to recognize God’s ways with humanity, and then put those thoughts into words for others to hear. Articulating our faith helps us to shift our perspectives and form the lens through which we observe and live.
Guiding Teens with Faith Language
As youth leaders we must help our youth create their own faith lenses, by raising their awareness of ways that Christ is present. It is our obligation to help youth practice using faith language to describe what is happening around them. Faith language matters…. especially when culture constantly challenges our faith. Practicing faith language can be done in multiple ways, but here are three that come to mind:
We can lead by example
We share our own stories of God’s faithfulness with the youth, hoping that they will recognize similar times in their own lives and use the vocabulary of faith to describe them. During my last call, one of the activities done on a regular basis was “On the stage with…” Every six weeks or so during youth fellowship, Jr. and Sr. Highs and adult sponsors would gather on the stage in our fellowship hall to hear one youth and one adult share part of their faith journey. We always took volunteers and discovered that once this had been done a few times, even some of the more shy members of the group wanted a turn.
The two people would be determined a week or two out, and they would choose a particular passage of scripture or a song (sometimes secular) that had meaning to them and how it helped them through a difficult time. The role of the adults was to formulate questions to ask the group after each story: “When have you had an experience like Jill’s? How did you handle it? Where did you see God in the midst of it? What helped you get through it? How did Jill’s scripture passage speak to you?” The sharing on these evenings was rich with faith talk and inspiring to all.
We can name actions with Faith Words
When we use faith words with our youth, their own actions and observations become sharper in ways that may have not occurred to them. We adults can help youth reshape their thinking by putting a name to their experience that will help them see how God is at work.
One memory I have is of Tim, who professed to be a skeptic when it came to faith issues and who felt attending Sunday worship was not important, though his parents made him come. One Sunday he came up to me after worship, very excited to share that he had gone to the hospital the day before to visit James, a member of the youth group who had been hospitalized. While he was there, two other youth from our group came into the room. He felt good about the experience. I said, “Tim, the three of you were being The Church to James. You did a good thing.” By naming the faith action he took, Tim’s perspective changed and an exciting experience was shifted in his mind to a deed done in Christ’s name.
We can teach teens to articulate belief
We should always be inviting our youth to articulate what they believe and modeling how that sounds. Use faith words deliberately. As you plan with the youth: “What do you think God is asking us to do?” As you end a day on your mission trip: “Where did you see Christ in someone else today?” Before you close with prayer at the end of youth fellowship, invite reflection: “This past week, how has God moved you to do something in God’s name? Where will you especially need God’s presence in the coming week?”
Our prayer is for the youth to become more attuned to how God is working in their lives and are able to articulate their thoughts in faith language. May their actions reflect this new awareness and may it become habit-forming and shape their character into all God intends them to be.
Jann Treadwell is a retired certified educator in the Presbyterian Church (USA), 2010 Educator of the Year for the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators, and author of “Unbound: The Transformative Power of Youth Mission Trips."
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