Systems or the Savior: How Are We Developing the Next Generation’s Faith?

I remember asking “Jake,” one of my former high school students, to articulate his faith for me. It essentially broke down to being in church his whole life, “walked the aisle” as a kid, and got baptized. What Jake told me led me to believe he really didn’t sincerely surrender to Jesus; he simply didn’t want to go to hell. His dad was a deacon, and he was a “good kid.” Jake was “in the system,” but had he trusted Jesus as his Lord and Savior?

Systems or the Savior?

I believe denominations are helpful but not crucial to the body of Christ. I’m an ordained pastor in a large evangelical protestant denomination, and it’s easy to get used to “the way things are done” and slowly start to only function in that system. Moreover, pride can undoubtedly creep in, and you begin to think your system’s way of doing things is the best or only way to do ministry. Complacency is a scary place to find yourself. I continue to be a part of my denomination because of the undeniable stance on the authority of Scripture and its high view of missions. But I also have seen amid all the “systems” people treating Christianity as a checklist and the belief they are set for eternity. In the good moments and the struggles, I have often considered this fact: are we connecting students to a system or the Savior? What are we really producing?

Questions and Answers

Again, I believe systems are not inherently wrong in and of themselves. Yet, after talking with Jake, and many since then, the theme that keeps coming back is this: what we believe is the core and “that’s just the way things are going to be.” Hear me clearly, the core convictions and teachings of the Bible are not up for debate. The virgin birth (Matthew 1), Jesus’ sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21), substitutionary atonement (Rm. 5:8), the bodily resurrection (Luke 24:5), His imminent return (Mt. 24:36), and the sufficiency of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16) are non-negotiable.

But I wonder if someone ever made it safe for Jake to ask questions and work out his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Teenagers today are asking challenging questions, and that is okay. They are being raised in a different world than you and I did. We must embrace their questions and help them see Jesus. Contemporary apologist and youth worker Sean McDowell once said, “My doubts drive me to find answers and also to rest in God’s grace. As a church, we must make space for people to doubt. In fact, we should invite it.”

Recently, ministry leaders of mine spoke to about 100 students in a conference setting. Afterward, about a dozen of those students wanted to dialogue with them. So, they pulled up a couple of chairs and, for two hours, let these high school students ask any questions. What did these ministry leaders do? They made it safe for these students to ask questions.

Equipping Parents

I also think about Jake’s parents. They were great people who truly wanted what was best for their kids. However, after spending time with his parents, I wonder if they had ever truly equipped their kids in the faith. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “that is why we pay you.” Many churched parents are also a product of the system they were raised within. Go to church, don’t get in trouble, and say, “Yes ma’am and no ma’am.” Again, not bad things to teach to our kids, but that is not New Testament Christianity. We don’t worship a system—we embrace the Savior.

Students crave and love authentic relationships. This is the main reason that group of high school students was so grateful for my ministry friends. They showed willingness, and they truly cared about them. My challenge to parents is the same. Be intentional with your kids and your own faith journey. Walk with Jesus and allow them to see you pursue Jesus.

How We Can Help

At the end of the day, we must seek to model what a genuine walk with Jesus looks like. One time, a middle school student shared with me his struggle with connecting real life to the Bible. “Pastor Daniel, the disciples didn’t wear pants, and they never played Minecraft,” were his exact words. You got to love the awkwardness of middle school students. But what he was communicating was a desire to know what it truly means to follow Jesus in his context. Students desperately need people in their lives that will invest in them and model for them what pursuing Jesus is all about. This is what students like Jake need in their life more than anything. Systems are helpful, but they should never replace the Savior.

Posted on September 3, 2021

Daniel’s heart beats a little bit faster when you mention the next generation. He believes they are the Church of today and have can have an incredible impact for the Kingdom. After serving the local church full-time for 12 years in student and family ministry, Daniel is currently a full-time writer/editor with a non-profit ministry and a bi-vocational student pastor at a church in Hermitage, Tennessee. He has been married to his wife, Emily, for 14 years, and together, they have two kids. He enjoys cheering on his beloved Vanderbilt Commodores and loves spending time with his family.
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1 Comment

  • In some parts of Evangelicalism, Jesus was rarely taught and the Gospel was reduced to something to be obeyed. They were infatuated with St. Paul and preached on proof texted epistles every Sunday. This caused problems, in that people growing up didn’t have any example to follow. Jesus said “follow me” and “go and do likewise.” I guess that wasn’t sufficient to work its way into the sermon. I’m glad ministry leaders took questions, because I have never seen it. I had to go to a liturgical church to finally hear Jesus taught, and that there was room for questions and doubt.