Youth live in transition between childhood and adulthood, so youth ministry always has the potential to pull them in either direction. Too often, it tugs toward childishness. We offer really sophisticated day care. We compete with entertainers. But the Christian life doesn’t tend toward prolonged naiveté; it leads to maturity. Any ministry, including youth ministry, should pull toward adulthood, where meaning and romance and grief and deep communion with Christ are found. Whenever we have the chance, we should call youth forward into Christian adulthood.
That goal sounds abstract, but it has a clear, biblical shape. The Bible says what Christian maturity looks like, and it could change our lives and ministries. Here, let’s dive into just one passage about maturity, Ephesians 4:11-16, then apply it clearly to ministry to youth.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, ESV)
Thinking With Jesus
For Paul, steadiness of mind is a primary mark of Christian maturity. Childish Christians are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes,” while mature Christians have attained to “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13-14, ESV). In other words, intellectual community with the faithful Son of God, whose faithfulness ensures our steadiness, contrasts with having an untethered mind, moving from master to master and doctrine to doctrine. Mature Christians are steady in mind through Christ, and childish Christians are unsteady.
There’s more. Mature Christians are steady in mind, but they are not stubborn in mind. They are the people who speak “the truth in love,” who “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15-16, ESV). Mature Christians experience steady, discursive intellectual growth along the way of love.
The contrast between childish Christianity and mature Christianity is not a contrast between childish motion (tossed to and fro) and mature stasis (or stubbornness), but between two kinds of motion:
- childish, disempowered tossing, and
- mature, directed growth.
We’ll find this mark of Christian maturity in members of most congregations, when we look for it. They may not be the smartest or most bookish church members, but their minds become a little more like Jesus’ every time we talk with them. Fads don’t affect them much, but new insights demonstrably change their behavior. They are eager to learn and understand, and once they’ve learned something, they’re slow to throw it away. They treasure truth like lovers and they talk about it with one another. But they aren’t stubborn-minded.
They’re the octogenarians who can change their minds about eschatology if it brings them closer to Jesus, but who recite the creeds with the nonchalance of an old, familiar friend.
They are mature. They’re beautiful. We should be like them.
But I don’t think we should respond to Paul’s description of maturity primarily as a prescription or outcomes document, outlining a project and its means of assessment (though it may serve that purpose). Rather, we should respond to it first as something desirable. Steady-mindedness for maturity in Christ isn’t just another thing to do; it’s an incomparably beautiful way to be, and it’s available to us in Jesus.
When we receive steadiness of mind from Jesus, we can cut through clutter, chaos, and serial intellectual subservience to find peace. We find a peace of mind that’s bigger than our minds because it comes from Jesus: a peace that passes understanding.
When we receive steadiness of mind from Jesus, we can experience vivacious intellectual growth and consistent communion, together. That combination–intellectual vivacity with stability–can be rare. Without losing wonder, learning, growth, or joy, we gain intellectual peace, confidence, and stability.
When we receive steadiness of mind from Jesus, we can become part of a diverse intellectual community that isn’t dependent on us, bound together by him.
What way of thinking could be more complete and beautiful?
Steady-minded Growth: Learning to Think with Jesus
We have clear markers to keep us on the path of Christian maturity. If, on the one hand, we find ourselves changing ideas too rapidly, always agreeing with sermons and newscasts, then we know that we are not yet thinking with Jesus. We’re being “tossed to and fro.” On the other hand, if we find ourselves stopping, not growing, becoming stubborn with our ideas, we likewise know that we are not yet mature. We have not learned to “grow up in every way into him.” Thinking with Jesus steers between unsteadiness of mind and stubbornness of mind on a path of steady growth.
Avoiding both unsteadiness and stubbornness can be difficult. Most of us habitually make one intellectual error or the other. If we fear brittle fundamentalism, we willingly veer toward having unsteady minds, usually in the name of love or kindness. If we fear faithlessness, we hunker down and avoid mysterious questions or tough judgment calls, usually in the name of courage or salvation. By thinking with Jesus, we can wend a way between these errors.
Thinking with Jesus keeps us from unsteadiness because he remains himself: unchanging, perfect through time, uniting all things, making them whole and sound. We can hold onto him.
Thinking with Jesus keeps us from stubbornness because his thoughts are higher than ours. We’ll never run out of things to learn about him and with him. With Jesus, even the simplest questions can contain depths upon depths, ready to explore. We cannot become content with what we know and also stay with Jesus, because he is beyond what we know.
So when we find ourselves in stubbornness or unsteadiness, it is our job to repent. We need to go back to where Jesus is, to think with him.
Repenting from error isn’t the end. Rather, it clears the way for the beginning of growth. After repenting, we can begin the activities of Christian maturity. In our passage, these are “truth-speaking in love” (Eph. 4:15, ESV), and seeking “the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13-14, ESV).
If we do not talk about the truth with people we love, according to the rules and patterns of love, saying what we believe to be true, and testing it with one another, then we will not become steady-minded.
If we do not always strive to better understand how the Christian faith unifies all things and is itself a unity, or how Jesus is fully man and fully God, united for us and uniting us with the Father, then we will not become mature.
We must practice these things.
Finally, we need to remember: Christian maturity must be our goal, but we cannot seek it alone. It is the whole church’s purpose, working together. It is why Jesus gave us to one another: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain… to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13, ESV). Our work is not done when one person attains maturity, but when we all attain maturity. We’re meant to grow up together, and we need one another to succeed. Working together, speaking truths in love together, churches can steer between both stubbornness and intellectual unsteadiness.
We’re meant to help each other. And we’re meant to help our youth too.
Inviting Youth to Think With Jesus
Perhaps you imagined a circle of eager forty-year-olds during this description of Christian maturity. But the steadiness of mind I’ve described is available to Christians from the age of reason on. It’s for almost all ninety-year-olds, almost all nineteen-year-olds, and it’s for some nine-year-olds too. My mission is to invite youth into Christian adulthood, so I’ll end this post with reflections for that age.
You see, the only reasons not to adopt the urgent and beautiful challenge of inviting youth to think with Jesus are poor or drastically insufficient. When we think youth are “too young” for Christian maturity, for example, we only betray our unreflective acceptance of an unnecessary American adulthood myth. Worse, we betray a condescending and dehumanizing forgetfulness of the beauty, complexity, and opportunity of youth. They are capable of more than we can conceive.
No, custom and condescension are radically insufficient barriers for this important project. Christian maturity is too vital and desirable to keep from our youth. We must eagerly invite them into it.
Cultivating Young Minds: Avoiding Errors and Setting Goals
How do we invite them to think with Jesus? In every godly way that we can, at every time we can. Below, I will describe two errors that youth ministries often make in that effort, and two goals that every youth ministry should adopt in order to invite its youth to think with Jesus, steady-minded and mature.
Error 1: Enforcing Ideas
Much of our youth teaching aspires to a small and pitiful goal: ensuring that our youth’s minds contain ideas (or something like ideas) that are traced to or descriptive of Christianity. This goal falls far short. The mind is more than an idea-container, and unless it’s formed to seek truth in love in companionship with Christ, any ideas that we place in it are liable to be lost. Ideas can be forced into people’s minds, and behaviors like agreement can be demanded, but steady-mindedness and Christian maturity cannot be enforced. Those results can only spring from a real relationship between freed students and the God who sets them free.
In fact, when we enforce ideas—even Christian ideas—we increase the danger of our students becoming people who are “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.” By enforcing ideas, we train them to accept new ideas because they hear them from powerful sources. It may seem to work now, while we are in power, but unless our youth become people who are steady-minded, they may change their minds as soon as they are under new authority. By enforcing Christian ideas, we prolong childish Christianity.
Error 2: Devaluing Truth
Perhaps a worse error, however, is neglecting the truth. We should not enforce agreement or submission to Christian ideas. Neither should we regard Christian ideas as God’s treats for nerds, while the rest of us play and talk about our feelings. God’s truths are great, infinitely explorable, and meant for everyone. They aren’t toys for the intellectually curious; they are vital medicine for fallen humans. Youth ministry should always point toward God’s truth, even without forcing students to act like they agree with us about what it is. Acknowledging that we may disagree about truth, youth ministry should always start with the premise that coming to the truth (sharing the mind of Christ) is desirable, possible, and important.
Goal 1: Discussing Unknown Truths
Instead of enforcing agreement or ignoring truth, we should regularly engage in meaningful, free discussions with youth. We should strip away the things that make them want to play mere intellectual games or parrot our opinions, then ask them deep questions and hear their honest attempts at answers. We should join them in the hard work of finding truth, recognizing that the work of speaking truths in a community of love is worth more for their minds than received conclusions could ever be worth.
By helping them fall in love with good questions and desire satisfying answers, we can begin to habitually point them toward “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” By helping them form well-considered opinions through hard (but accessible) intellectual work, we will help them avoid being “tossed to and fro.”
Of course, all this will not ensure their maturity, because nothing we do can ensure it. Unless they add personal communion with Christ to these habits of truth-seeking in community, their steady-mindedness will have no solid grounding. If they join themselves to Christ, however, these practices will put them firmly on his path.
Again, these practices aren’t for “the smart kids.” Anyone can discuss. Steady-mindedness in communion with Jesus is the proper inheritance of all Christians, not an intellectual elite, and it’s the church’s job to offer it to all her members, youth included.
Goal 2: Forming Desire
But perhaps the most important thing that youth ministers can do to invite their youth to think with Jesus is to nurture a desire for thinking with Jesus. If youth desire Christian maturity when they leave us, then we can count on them to pursue it without us.
Remember: Desire isn’t formed by programs or projects nearly so much as it is formed by images, impressions, stories, relationships, and role models. So, some of our primary goals as youth leaders must be:
- to make Christian adulthood seem as wonderful to our students as it is,
- to introduce them to people who are steady-minded and mature in Christ, and
- to publicly model a lifestyle devoted to Christian growth.
Their imaginations should be shaped through stories, songs, and pictures that place the mature life that Jesus offers at the pinnacle of human attainment. They should meet elders whose minds have been made peaceful by Jesus and hear stories of martyrs and missionaries and Christian leaders who have finished the race. And they should see us asking questions and discovering new answers in the context of trusting faithfulness. We must help them want to be mature.
Better Storytellers; Better Culture-makers
By becoming good storytellers and culture-makers, and by immersing ourselves in the riches of the church, we can do it.
We have a responsibility to turn our youth toward Christian maturity before they go. The responsibility is not a burden. It is a thrilling vocation—one of the most thrilling there is. We may, with God’s help, show our youth Jesus’ fullness of life. We may help them find peace and a whole life of growth. We may lead them by the hand into communion with Jesus. We may help them become steady-minded, mature in Christ.
That goal, friends, is better by far than the cost of any efforts, however awkward or difficult.
Let’s invite them into Christian adulthood.