The tween and teens years are a pivotal point in the faith journey for young Christians. It’s when children’s beliefs separate from their parents’, like seeds carried from a flower on a breeze. And like seeds, those beliefs need the right conditions to flourish. Here are four strategies for growing faith in your tweens and teens.
Each spring, you can find egg carton halves filled with potting soil on my kitchen windowsill. My mind fills with expectations as I plant seeds in these ideal circumstances. When those seeds sprout inside our home, the baby plants are safe from an untimely frost or a brutally hard rain. It makes me smile to watch them grow. Every year, I find it hard to know when they are ready for me to transfer them to the outside world of my garden. Even with the effort I have invested in protecting them throughout their early days, they are still vulnerable. And I don’t want to botch their further growth.
Plants are not the only things that grow in my house. A quick slide of my thumb over the photos on my phone and I am transported back in time to round preschool faces, blanket forts, and lisping, squeaky voices. Once little people, now they look me in the eye or tower over me on long stilt-like legs, their voices low. These children of mine are growing up quickly. And it can be hard to know how to best prepare them to handle the outside world.
It wasn’t that long ago my kids trusted their parents implicitly. They didn’t have any doubt we knew best. Seemingly overnight, they grew minds and feelings all their own. They are growing into their own people, and that growth can be awkward. This transformation was subtle, and sometimes I long for ‘the good old days’. I wasn’t expecting all I’d have to weather with my kids. The rollercoaster of moody moments, family outings met with zero enthusiasm, and feeling like my ideas and perspective are ‘passe’. Nonetheless, wisdom whispers in my ear. “One day, right now will be your ‘good old days.’” So I am choosing to embrace this short season with budding adults living in my home.
What Matters Most?
Time is of the essence. And I grapple with the question of what matters most. At the end of the day I want so much for my children. I want them to be independent, responsible adults who are successful at whatever they do. At the same time I want them to make a difference, enjoy life, and have healthy relationships. But what I want most for my children is Jesus. I want them to experience the awe-inspiring power of the gospel as they allow it to permeate every aspect of their lives. That isn’t too much to want, is it?
Yet in the world we live in, it often feels like it is indeed too much to desire. It feels like all of hell is against these children of mine. And quite frankly, it is. Satan is seeking to devour them.
A Good Desire to Protect
It is tempting to allow my imagination to wander to thoughts of how lovely it would be for them to live forever in the safety of our home, only receiving the influences we allow. However, that would be as unnatural as allowing my egg carton seedlings to grow into 6-foot tall sunflowers on my windowsill. As a mother of one tween and two teens, my role is to continue to curate a relationship with them that started years ago. One in which their faith in Jesus can grow and where God’s Word is demonstrated as a valuable, life-changing catalyst for that growth.
Jesus, a Master Storyteller, explained life in a way that not only makes logical sense, but is easy to remember through His parables. In Matthew 13, He explained four different outcomes when the seed of God’s Word is sown in a person’s life. Understanding these four things can help as we seek to plant the truth of God’s Word in the hearts of our children.
1. FIGHTING OFF THE BIRDS
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them… When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path” (Matthew 13:3b-4,19).
“You do realize Mom—everyone I go to school with thinks you must be an absolute idiot to be a Christian,” my son told me. He stands alone as he decides whether what his dad and I have taught him is true. It is hard not to take his doubts personally. Simply because we believe the gospel is a truth worth basing your life upon, isn’t enough for him anymore. Most of his peers have already decided the Bible isn’t true. And there have been some teachers thrown into the mix who present convincing arguments as well.
Meeting Them Where they Are
Watching him grapple with doubt has been a terrifying experience. There have been loads of late-night conversations. Being available and open to a teenager who wants to play devil’s advocate is exhausting. But he has never needed anything from his father and me more. If we are not the ones to take the time to care, listen, and ‘get into it’ with him, Satan will certainly line someone up who will take our place.
Saying, “I will look into that” when I don’t have a succinct answer to his question is a way of living out the grace of God to him and helping him understand God’s Word. Meeting our kids where they are—wherever that may be—and spending the time it takes to help them understand God’s truth is one of the most worthwhile investments we can make. As we stay committed to loving them through their doubts and questions, we build a relational bridge to a faith that is becoming their own. By doing so we give the seed a good chance of taking root.
2. GROWING ROOTS
“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away … As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately received it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21).
Living out my faith in front of my kids and inviting them into my personal struggles has been helpful as they learn to grow their own roots. It is easy to think of my teenagers as bigger versions of the elementary school kids who used to rumble around my house. And that is exactly how they act sometimes!
In reality, they are growing emotionally and are able to process things about my life with me. It takes some discretion to execute this, but I have been able to share biblical principles with my kids simply by sharing what I grapple with.
Being an Example
When I was hurt by a friend, I shared how I was wading through the conflicting emotions of forgiveness. This entire year has been difficult. And I have shared how disappointed I’ve felt about cancelled plans. I’ve told them how I don’t understand why God would allow things to turn out as they have, but that I am trusting He knows better than I do. They could relate and shared how they, too, were frustrated. I encouraged them to continue to exercise their muscles of faith in God’s sovereignty. We were able to uplift each other by looking for the good in our circumstances.
Teaching my kids that feelings need to be processed but should not dictate our life choices is a counter-cultural concept. Modeling for them how to shift to a surrendered reliance on God gives them roots for a faith that will transcend circumstances and grow them deeply in the soil.
3. PULLING UP THE WEEDS
“Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them … As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13:7, 22).
This third kind of soil in Jesus’ parable was full of thorns or weeds. Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with literal weeds in my garden and figurative ones in my life! The cares, busyness, and affairs of this world can take precedence over God’s Word. They can threaten to choke it out before it even has a chance to take root in our children’s lives.
Help Them Set Boundaries
Evil is plentiful, and keeping tabs on what teenagers listen to, watch, and allow to influence their lives can be a demanding job. But it is worth our time. They often do not have the discretion to know what social media, the internet, and television will do to their hearts and sensibilities. So we need to help them set boundaries.
Some of the most subtle weeds are the ones that flower and look good. Often, what we could value as beneficial pursuits can turn into weeds when they make our family so busy we do not have the time for each other. Sports, music lessons, and other extras can turn parents into activity directors and chauffeurs instead of life-giving influencers.
Show Them How to Prioritize
If we do not want our children to value basketball over God, we must show them that priority by choosing when and how much we allow them to play. Teaching our kids how to make choices that give precedence to God, church, and His Word is a vital way to teach our children to weed out things that might choke the priority of loving God from their lives.
4. FOLLOWING THE TRUTH
“Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear … As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:8-9, 23).
The last kind of soil Jesus included in His parable was the kind in which I started the seeds on my windowsill—the good stuff! When the seed of God’s Word lands on this kind of soil, it is heard, understood, and fruit is the result. Life change occurs!
Be an Example
I have been a church planter for the past 14 years. If I have learned anything in seeking to disciple people, it is this: I cannot control anyone. These once tiny ones who are turning into adults inside my home are no exception. Sometimes I wish I could. But—if I could—control would be all that would be occurring. As a result the faith I so desperately want to grow within them would not be real.
I cannot force my children to be ‘good soil’ who always receive God’s Word and allow it to impact their choices, endeavors, and relationships. However, as Ruth Graham used to say when people asked her about how she passed her faith on to her children. “You can’t teach your children to enjoy spinach if every time they see you eat it, you gag.” What I can do is live out a testimony in front of my teens by sharing how God has worked in my story.
“Did I ever tell you about how God led me where to go to college?”
“I knew I was supposed to marry your dad when…”
“Did you know I almost missed my dream job because I was being stubborn, but then God showed me…”
My kids are at an age where they are not far away from making major life choices. As a result, they are interested in hearing the stories behind mine.
“Can you tell me how you and Dad knew you were supposed to adopt?” one of them asked out of the blue. When we were adopting, they were too young for us to share that calling with them. But now they were ready for the miracle of that story. And I was happy to fill them in.
Sharing Your Journey
Imparting my faith journey to my teens is a powerful, non-threatening way to share the life-changing message of God’s grace. While my kids may have been along for many of the twists and turns of God’s plot line for me, they have only recently become mature enough to understand how God has been tenderly growing me along the way.
In his book, “Crazy Love,” Francis Chan warns believers of the danger of thinking we are inherently the ‘good soil’. All of our stories have ugly parts where we did not allow the truth of the Bible to take root. Being real with my kids about those times shows them God is able to forgive, redeem, and transform, no matter what I have walked through. These kinds of conversations take belief in God from a Sunday morning commodity to an everyday way of life.
The Impact You Have
One day, my 11-year-old daughter opened up to me as we walked along the river. “One of my earliest memories is when we were at someone’s house and I was being taken into a playroom by a babysitter. I think I was about 2. I turned around and saw you begin to lead a small group. For as long as I can remember, I have always thought of that picture in my mind as what adulthood looked like: leading Bible studies.”
I wanted to sob, but I played it cool. “Is that still what you think?” I asked.
“I know being a grown-up involves a lot more now, but that is still a part of my picture,” she said.
God is Doing the Work
I smiled. There is an immense amount of comfort in knowing that for every time I have lost my patience, temper, or my very mind, there have also been instances when my kids have been along to see the gospel bear fruit in my life. They have witnessed the love of God impact their parents and it has not been lost on them.
I have no doubt there will be difficult moments for them in the days ahead. However, I also imagine great joy as I still get to be a part of their growth. I look forward to hear the stories of how God is planting the seed of His Word in their lives.
Moms of teens and tweens. How have you cultivated the soil of your children’s hearts? What advice or insights would you pass on to moms entering this season of parenting?
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