Early teen years seem to me to be some of the most challenging years for the spiritual lives of children. It's important to remember that their brains are not fully developed even though, for many of them, their bodies are looking more and more adult. (Are kids maturing physically at younger ages these days...it sure seems that way to me...must be the hormones in the milk and meat!) This is a phase of life in which the changes evoke a powerful temptation for them to feel insecure and to continually compare themselves to their peers. Plus...their normal drive to individuate from their parents is gaining strength, so they often don't feel inclined to lean into the love and support of their folks regarding this inner struggle.
I have seen some kids sail through this time...physically taxing activities are a healthy and good outlet for some of this angst. If a young teen can find an extra-curricular positive challenge that they enjoy, it can really help relieve a lot of inner pressure...music, sports, dance, theater, summer camps...these things can teach them many values and skills that will translate well into the responsibilities of adult life. A wise, loving and fun-filled youth group, whose leaders validate the challenge and journey of each kid, can also become a haven for them and create a healthy distance from their parents direct oversight. Hillary wasn't all wrong when she said that "it takes a village to raise a child"...our children need spiritual "aunts and uncles" and older and younger "brothers and sisters," as well as their parents, to become well rounded individuals.
However, there is one thing that we discovered that helped and impacted spiritually our young teens more than anything else. This thing ended up being worth more than a thousand Sunday School lessons or a hundred youth retreats...in terms of helping them get into a better spiritual frame. This thing is a "mission trip" away from the comfort zone of home in order to love and serve hurting people from another culture and...that involves elements of rigor, adventure, prayer and risk. To see, touch, serve, love and share Jesus with people, old and young, who have such difficult daily lives and, who are often terribly oppressed, leaves a lasting imprint on a tender young teenage heart--especially if she/he fell in love with Jesus as a little child. (They will also often see the astounding difference that Christ has made in the lives of some of the local people who live in those same conditions. Sometimes they also see "real time" miraculous answers to their prayers. This kind of experience exerts, by nature, a gravitational pull on a young teen's soul away from their self-absorption and will often cause him/her to feel more alive than they ever have in their life.
Through the years, I've watched 100's of kids return from such trips marked and branded with the vivid memories and experiences with God that they do not easily shake off or deny. They return with a different and deeper kind of spiritual encounter than what they regularly experience on a fun-filled youth retreat...for which there is also a proper place and purpose. Encourage young teens you know to sign up for such a short-term trip. They have become commonplace, thank the Lord, in church communities all over the world. It's an investment that has truly amazing returns on many levels.
A VOICE OF HOPE
Michael Sullivant's Blog
I am a child of God, husband, father, grandfather, spiritual father, author, speaker and hope coach.