It has been over two decade since the Search Institute released their framework of “developmental assets,” a set of skills, experiences, relationships, and behaviors that enable young people to develop into successful and contributing adults. The more of these assets young people acquire, the better their chances of succeeding in school and becoming happy, healthy, and contributing members of their communities. When it comes to the assets that support strong, thriving, enduring faith, being rooted in community would be close to the top of my list.
The support structure of solid relationships does more to support and encourage growth in faith than any other single factor I can identify. Students that are surrounded by nurturing and multidimensional relationships have an immense advantage on the road to thriving faith. That said, in our hyper-connected culture it can be ironically difficult to connect meaningfully to life-giving community. We tend to opt in for countless shallow digital connections and neglect the kind of face-to-face and heart-to-heart soul supporting friendship that is slow to develop and difficult to maintain. The early church leaders described such beautiful unity and profound connection that defined the Jesus movement, but it can seem kind of foreign to our experience of casual and superficial relationships. Peter encouraged one early community of faith with these words: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10) I love this: you weren’t always a people, but now you are the people of God. Not individuals, but a community; a beautiful union of beautiful people being remade in the likeness and image of God. This reality is something that can anchor your soul. If you push your roots down into community, you will find true strength. Here are a few aspects of community that teens seem to struggle with:
- Multi Generational Community – This is a complicated issue, but we need to talk about it. Teenagers often neglect relationships with people above and below them, they know how to relate to people in their “tribe,” but they lack the skills to relate to other generations. There is something missing when your community of faith only includes people from your generation. There is something shallow, something lacking, when you don’t have the diversity of voices from other generations. Not everyone is in the same place, and not everyone is in the same stage of life. We have segregated our ministry environments into age groups for good reasons, but this has some drawbacks as well. It provides very little opportunity to do life alongside adults (even older adults) that follow Jesus. We cannot learn from them, and they cannot learn from us. This is not an easy problem for us to solve, but we need to imagine creative solutions. We need to find places where people can interact across the generations, enriching our community in meaningful ways. I want to build a culture where we serve alongside people from different generations.
- Multi-Tribal Community –When you are a child, your world is impossibly small. Children are very self-centered. They quickly include mom and dad in their tribe, because they really need their parents. For a long time, your world is pretty small. Your world consists of you and your family. Then you go off to school and your world gets a little bigger. By the time you are a teenager, you might have a firmly established tribe of other teens that are like you. When you grow and develop, you end up leaning into that tribe to establish your autonomy from your family of origin. Yet when you really mature, your world gets even bigger. You can move past your self-centered world, even your tribal identity, and begin to embrace a larger chunk of humanity. This is one of the marks of spiritual maturity: when your community goes beyond your tribe. When Jesus chose his twelve disciples, he intentionally selected people across a diverse spectrum of cultural and political tribes within Judaism. For example, Simon the Zealot likely hated and resented Levi the tax collector. There were so many barriers that should have prevented them from connection, but they became united in Christ anyway. Things that divide tribes in the cafeteria and in the hallways should not divide once you step into the church. This is a family where such things are irrelevant because of Jesus.
- Multi-Dimensional Community – the other element that I think is essential to community is multi-dimensionality. What I mean here is to have people above you, investing in and pouring into you, to have people alongside you supporting and encouraging you, and finally to have people below you that you are investing in and pouring into them. Having the right people around you makes such a difference. Learning to relate to others on different levels is one of the hallmarks of maturity. This is not automatic, it is something you seek out, develop, and a skill you need to learn.
- Mentors investing in you – Learning to be invested in, to receive guidance and correction and inspiration from people further along in their spiritual journey is a skill we need. Everyone wants mentors, but this generation seems to have an unhealthy attitude about what a mentor is supposed to do. Be careful not to allow a sense of “entitlement” to creep into this relationship. Be willing to be the one that does the work. You are the one that wants to learn, you should be the one pursuing the relationship. If you want good mentors, you need to understand that good people are busy people.
- Friends alongside you – Learning to lock arms and live alongside others is another essential skill. We all have friends, but I mean something different than just having any friend. This is someone that gives you strength and helps you be a better version of yourself. It is a friend of the soul.
- People you can invest in – Having people that you are actively investing in and intentionally helping can make such a huge difference in your spiritual development. Who are you pouring yourself into? Who is looking up to you? You will grow more through this kind of relationship than any other. When you learn to be a contributor and not just a consumer, you are moving toward a new level of maturity.