The Critical Teenage Years

John, the beloved apostle, once wrote words that Christian parents cherish: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 4). Over the years in Christian work, I have heard the testimony of parents as to how their children are doing as they approach adulthood. Sometimes the report is satisfying; many times it is otherwise. The story often goes something like this: “Johnnie is a good boy and is doing well in college. We had hoped that he would share the same values as we [his parents] have about the assembly, but at least he’s saved and attending a nice church . . .” Often the words are spoken wistfully with a sort of bitter-sweetness. During the formative years, Johnnie apparently absorbed enough truth to bring him to Christ, but not too much more. One wonders why not?

As to children walking in the truth, the question itself suggests: How much truth and what sort of truth? Admittedly, it is not the church but the home that has the primary responsibility for the training of children. But the church can support the parents, and have a life-changing impact on the family. What can church elders do to make sure the critical teenage years are actively building into teens the lifelong desire to “walk in truth?”

Some Disclaimers

Obviously the church is limited by the scruples and values of the parents. Small churches have limited budgets and can’t provide extensive (expensive) opportunities for things like parenting classes, and the elders’ time is limited. Then too, worldly attractions like sports and electronic technology exert a powerful influence, and peer pressure at school can be intense. As one elder lamented: “We can’t compete, and I’m not even sure we’re supposed to try.”

When we factor in the differences in the personalities and temperaments of kids, the socio-economic backgrounds from which they come, the values and influences of the extended family and close friends, etc., many leaders retreat into what seems the safest answer: “We just do what we can, and hope for the best.”

Now the purpose of this article is not to take issue with any of this, much less to imply that a child who is “saved and attending a Christian church” is not praiseworthy. But glance back at the words of the parents: “We had hoped that he would share the same values . . .” There’s the rub. Is the best that parents can expect in this matter of walking in truth a hope, even a praying hope? I think not.

Biblical Principles

A famous proverb says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6). General guidelines cannot be pressed into guarantees, but they do shed light.

For one thing, the word “train” means, “To coach in, or accustom to a mode of behavior or performance.” Coaches don’t just lecture, they involve the players in practice in order to “accustom” them to the desired mode of behavior. Is the church involved in training young people in this sense? It should be!

Also, the text does not say, “in the way he would go,” but “in the way he should go.” Those involved in the training process must be convinced from Scripture of two facts; that left to him self, the natural man will neither seek nor follow the truth, and that God has given a revelation of the truth, the way that we ought to go. Is the regular Bible teaching in the church not only faithful to God but also relevant to the needs of the people? Are there opportunities to discuss and practice truth under the watchful eye of “coaches?”

Elders are charged with the feeding of God’s flock (Acts 20:28). This involves both the theoretical (teaching) and the practical (training), and the Scriptures are filled with instruction about both. Consider the two great lines of truth developed throughout the New Testament: individual or salvation truth, and corporate or church truth. On the information side, elders can provide teaching through a book like Romans, so that the believers will understand salvation truth: the doctrines of God, sin, salvation, sanctification, security and obedience. Books like Acts or Ephesians can provide wonderful studies in matters of church truth.

So much for profitable teaching, but what about the training? Paul reminds Titus that the Christians are to be “zealous of good works,”(2:14), and to “maintain good works, to meet urgent needs.”(3:14). Thus the church must be a place where older, gifted believers work toward “the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry . . . ” (Eph. 4:12). And it is right here that elders must make wise and sometimes difficult decisions.

Getting Practical

The following questions are offered to stimulate discussion and hopefully action. I’ll also point out where some hard choices may be required.

First, take a look at the quality of Bible teaching provided weekly, a big part of the spiritual diet of the flock. Are the major doctrines of the faith being taught? Are young believers developing a grasp of the content of the Bible and a growing knowledge of the individual books? Is there a good balance of interpretation and application? Is there a “down to earth” quality of the ministry so that young minds can follow the reasoning?

The answers to these questions may call for changes in ministry subjects. Additionally, elders may need to place greater emphasis on the ability, experience and credibility of invited speakers-and less on who has open calendar dates. In some places, large amounts of money flow out to distant works and workers while local ministry is mediocre, because “there can be costs to securing truly qualified speakers.”

Second, take a look at who is receiving the teaching. Are families (especially teens) hearing the Word together and are they being challenged to discuss it at home and in small groups if available? Few things can be more disappointing to a speaker who has labored long and hard in preparing a message that is needed by the church, only to have much of the congregation (and often all of the teens) dismissed for Sunday School just before the message. There’s nothing wrong with Christian education for children, but elders need to consider that while parents discuss the morning message on the way home from church or at the dinner table, the children (especially the teens) are left out and therefore disinterested.

For this reason, in some assemblies (our own included), as a child reaches the threshold of the teenage years, they will be sitting with their parents to hear the message, and opportunities will be provided later to discuss it. The elders want at least 6 to 8 years for children to be hearing what we believe, and why we believe it – both in salvation truth and in church truth – before they head off to college.

Finally, ask what opportunities are available in the church for practical service and living out the truths being learned. This need not be expensive or complicated. Involving young people in setup and serving at chapel functions, giving testimonies or devotionals on informal occasions; sitting in on leadership discussions, opportunities to assist in visits to sick folks, or shut-ins, are all golden opportunities to talk over Scriptures and how they are being applied. Just yesterday a father told me about a letter his daughter had written to someone in the public arena protesting a distortion of Scripture, and sharing her faith. That father is rejoicing that his child is walking in the truth. She is 12 years old.


As training of teens progresses, both in the home and in the assembly, parents should be replacing hope for their children with solid evidence that a child is sharing their values in spiritual matters.

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