Recently, one of my new adult leaders asked me, “Why don’t we talk about the Holy Spirit more with our high school students? It seems like we’re very focused on Jesus.”
Truthfully, this is a pretty fair assessment of my high school ministry: It is very Jesus-focused. Here’s why:
I spent the last year researching what students in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (the denomination in which I currently serve) believe about Jesus. What I learned from this national study was that 56 percent of students surveyed (all of whom were active in local congregations) either did not believe or did not know Jesus was God. Additionally, 58 percent either believed it was possible to be a Christian without believing in Jesus or didn’t know if Jesus was crucial to the Christian faith. This means that many of today’s church kids don’t know or understand why Jesus matters – to their faith or their lives.
According to Kenda Creasy Dean in Almost Christian, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), an “alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness,” is quickly replacing our traditional, historical religious traditions. While the guiding beliefs of MTD involve God, Jesus is absent. As a result, Dean suggests “Christian spirituality requires a particular kind of conversation that reinforces the church’s unique understanding of who God is in Jesus Christ. To state it bluntly: Conversational Christianity requires Jesus-talk, not just God-talk.”
Since they’re still transitioning from concrete to abstract thinking, from a developmental standpoint, young teens need to hear and talk about the parts of their faith that are most concrete. What’s more concrete than Jesus?
While the Holy Spirit is an important part of the Trinity on whom we rely for guidance, wisdom, and prayer, there is something dangerous about overemphasizing the Holy Spirit to teens at the expense of Jesus. Overemphasizing the Holy Spirit often results in emotionally volatile teens having intense experiences with God, during which they “feel” his presence (ie, the Holy Spirit). This spiritual high is all fine and good until eventually, life happens and those warm, fuzzy God feelings disappear. When those feelings evaporate, so does the faith of teens taught to equate the presence of God with them.
Overemphasizing the Holy Spirit often results in teens who won’t (or can’t) make their own decisions because they’ve been taught instead to follow the guidance and promptings of the Holy Spirit. For teens who are still developing in every way, it’s far too easy to mistake friends, significant others, and even parents for the Holy Spirit. It’s far wiser to teach teens what Jesus did. Knowing what Jesus did gives teens concrete examples to follow in any situation.
Make no mistake. We talk about God and the Holy Spirit in our high school youth ministry, but not nearly to the extent we intentionally talk about Jesus.
According to theologian Carl Braaten, the Christian faith “stands or falls with what it knows about Jesus of Nazareth”. As a result, what I want my students to leave our high school ministry with is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus.
Jen Bradbury has been in youth ministry for 11 years. She’s the youth director at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. Her writing has appeared in YouthWorker Journal, The Christian Century, and Immerse. She blogs at ymjen.com