“How was your day?”
“What did you do today?”
“…Well, can you give me a little more?”
“When is dinner going to be ready?”
Teenagers are difficult. I should know—I am one. Unfortunately, the conversation above is an actual transcript of many, many (brief) interactions between the them and us of my two-teen household. Maybe you can relate.
You are probably already well aware that you can’t control your teen. They are still utterly dependent on you, yet you can’t follow them to school and make their decisions for them. Biggest of all, you can’t have their relationship with God for them. That doesn’t mean your attempts to get to know your teen as a living, feeling human being are in vain.
While psychologists have long debated the extent to which nature and nurture influence child development, the influence of parenting undoubtedly great. Wherever your teen is at spiritually—whether they’re studying the Bible or not, whether they claim they believe in God or not, whether they give you more or less than two-word answers—you can lead them spiritually by adopting these three habits.
1) Vulnerability: Share your sin
5 This is the message we heard from Christ and are reporting to you: God is light, and there isn’t any darkness in him. 6 If we say, “We have a relationship with God” and yet live in the dark, we’re lying. We aren’t being truthful. 7 But if we live in the light in the same way that God is in the light, we have a relationship with each other. And the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from every sin.
1 John 1:5-7 (GW)
2 Dear brothers, even when I first came to you I didn’t use lofty words and brilliant ideas to tell you God’s message. 2 For I decided that I would speak only of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. 3 I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. 4 And my preaching was very plain, not with a lot of oratory and human wisdom, but the Holy Spirit’s power was in my words, proving to those who heard them that the message was from God. 5 I did this because I wanted your faith to stand firmly upon God, not on man’s great ideas.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (TLB)
2 My brothers and sisters, I did not pose as an expert with all the answers.
1 Corinthians 2:1 (VOICE)
First things first, you’ve got to let your teens know all your junk. You really expect them to trust you with biting shame and their naked inner self if they don’t even know the person beckoning them to spill their guts? And I’m not saying you should sit your teen down and tell your whole life story at him or her for a whopping two hours. One, your teen does not have the attention span. Two, you can’t just be vulnerable once and call it a day. Vulnerability needs to become a daily inclination.
Walking in the light is what enables you to have a relationship with God and with your teen. Sure, God already knows everything about you, but it’s different if it’s coming from you; that’s what makes it a relationship. In the second Scripture, Paul describes how he taught the Corinthians—not with “lofty words and brilliant ideas”—but by strictly speaking about Jesus and the Cross. It means Paul inspired these people by sharing his life with them, his mistakes, his weaknesses, every despicable detail, because through Jesus’ sacrifice, he was set free from the guilt and the punishment of his sin.
By regularly opening up with your teen about your junk, you’ll kill two birds with one stone: revealing the real you will encourage them to let down themselves, and you two will get closer, and by “not pos[ing] as an expert with all the answers.” You will help them to place their faith in God, not in you or any other flawed human being.
2) God-focus: Share your faith
18-20 So let what I’m saying sink deeply into your hearts and souls. Do whatever it takes to remember what I’m telling you: tie a reminder on your hand or put a reminder on your forehead where you’ll see it all the time, and on the doorpost where you cross the threshold or on the city gate. Teach these things to your children. Talk about them when you’re sitting together in your home and when you’re walking together down the road. Make them the last thing you talk about before you go to bed and the first thing you talk about the next morning. 21 That way you and your children will be blessed with long life and abundant crops upon the ground the Eternal promised to your ancestors, for as long as there’s a sky above the earth.
Deuteronomy 11:18-21 (VOICE)
14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:14-16 (MSG)
Do you spend more of your time planning vacations, shopping and looking for that new car or thinking about how to influence your teen spiritually? Texting them Scriptures? Sharing what you read about in your time with God with them? Eating dinner together as a family? The first Scripture says to “do whatever it takes to remember what I’m telling you.” In the context of this article, it means doing whatever it takes to get your teen thinking more about God.
Sharing your faith in general is a good habit to pick up. Wherever you are, wherever you go, let your neighbors, friends and co-workers into your life. Are you hiding under a bucket? If you aren’t working to get your family more focused on God, you aren’t going to do it outside of the home either. So start with your teen. As the second Scripture sums up, “by opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.”
One cool activity my family and I occasionally do (and should do more often) is pray together. We go on a hike or to a park, sit down and take turns praying about whatever is on our mind. Even my eleven-year-old brother joins in. I remember times when a friend has been really sick or not doing well, and my family got together and focused our prayers on that individual. What spiritual hobby can you introduce to your household?
3) Repentance: Share your growth
9 I am happy now. It is not because you were hurt by my letter, but because it turned you from sin to God. God used it and you were not hurt by what we did. […] 11 See how this sorrow God allowed you to have has worked in you. You had a desire to be free of that sin I wrote about. You were angry about it. You were afraid. You wanted to do something about it. In every way you did what you could to make it right. […] 13 All this has given us comfort. More than this, we are happy for the joy Titus has. His spirit has been made stronger by all of you.
2 Corinthians 7:9, 11, 13 (NLV)
Ultimately, you’re going to give your teen their best chance of becoming a Christian by living a life dedicated to repentance. Think about the sins you need to change. As with vulnerability, repentance—turning to God—is a way of life, not a one-time occurrence. Your teen is going to be really confused if you confess your sins to him or her and yet do nothing to fight to be different. Honesty without change is worthless.
Be warned: if you ever have the misfortune to play my mom and/or me in any board game, you will probably get injured on some emotional, mental or physical level. At a family reunion, she turned her entire family against my dad until they were chanting obnoxiously and endlessly. Another time, I leaped over a couch to grab a spoon in Spoons, causing the remaining spoons to fly sky-high and terrorize patches of the players’ exposed skin. It gets pretty gnarly with us.
Just a week ago, my mom told me she was determined to change. She started by studying out love in the Bible and journaling to discover why she feels the need to win everything and put others down in order to accomplish that. At first, I was like, “Why would you need to change that? That’s just who you/we are.” But my mom described to me how she sees that she can really hurt people by being overly intense. It’s not always funny; it can be destructive. And now I want to change and learn to consider how I affect others—her longing to grow compels me to grow, too.
16 Be careful of how you live and what you believe. Never give up. Then you will save yourself and those who hear you.
1 Timothy 4:16 (NIRV)
For those of you who are serious about changing the dynamic between you and your teen, and further, inspiring them to build their own relationship with God, the most important thing is to never give up. Even if you think your teen will never want to change or study the Bible, there is always hope, so long as there is life. So keep at it by growing in these three areas!