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Three Ways to Teach Teens to Think Theologically

Teenagers notoriously fall on the receiving end of some pretty uncharitable characterizations. But in my experience, not all teenagers are automatically lazy, apathetic, aloof mooches mindlessly scrolling on their phones. Some teenagers are actually interested in engaging with more of life’s complexities. Is the church ready to help?

Some stereotypes are true. My freshman daughter will sleep until ten thirty if not roused from her slumber. She loves Marvel movies and texting her friends emojis and memes. Junk food is her friend. There are certainly undeniable elements of her teenager-ness. But not all teenage stereotypes are accurate; she is not lazy, apathetic, or aloof and she certainly isn’t mindless. If I assume all teens lack spiritual interest or motivation, I’d never get around to taking teen discipleship seriously.

As parents, pastors, youth leaders, and adults tasked with discipling the next generation, we must recognize that a desire to grow in godliness can indeed be developed alongside a teenager’s love for sleep, junk food, and emojis. Stop patronizing teenagers and take them seriously. Invite them, like the Apostle Paul invites Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:7, to think, “for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”

Teenagers are quickly becoming adults. Starving them from Truth and gorging them on games isn’t helpful in the long run. We can’t pacify them with watered-down, youth-sized versions of biblical teaching and counsel and expect them to develop adult-sized appetites down the road. Teenagers, when charitably given the opportunity, can exceed our expectations and grow in spiritual maturity. Whether from the pulpit or our own kitchen tables, here are three ways we can teach teenagers to bend away from theological ignorance, laziness, and immaturity, and teach them to think theologically:

1. Make Theology Approachable

Theology isn’t rocket science; don’t bill it as such. Our family recently visited a church where the pastor said in his Sunday sermon: “There’s a word I’m going to teach you that you won’t remember.” He went on, “It’s a theological term we don’t use in Christian circles or small groups often. In fact, only [Billy Jones] probably knows words like this.” The congregation chuckled. I cringed. The word that followed wasn’t unfamiliar; it was a common theological term that didn’t take a seminary degree to understand.

I glanced at my two teenagers sitting sandwiched between me and my husband and stifled the urge to lean over and ask them if they knew the meaning of the word. If they didn’t, I’d teach them at lunch. Unlike this pastor, I don’t find theological ignorance funny or cute. The pastor’s comments were likely an innocent, albeit misguided, effort at humor. But to many teenagers (and frankly, people of any age or maturity) theology already appears intimidating. Offhand remarks like this one reinforce the misconception that theology is inaccessible to the common church attender. It needn’t be.

When we view theology as for-the-seminarian-only, we remove the burden of responsibility that 2 Peter 3:18 places on every believer’s shoulders to “grow in the grace and knowledge (emphasis mine) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Teenagers need to be encouraged to make every effort to supplement faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge (2 Pet. 1:5) by learning to think and reason responsibly with Scripture as their guide. Help teenagers see that theological understanding isn’t just for seminary students; make it approachable. Help teenagers see that theological understanding isn’t just for seminary students; make it approachable. Click To Tweet

2. Make Theology Practical

At the dinner table, I recently asked my two oldest children if theology matters in their daily lives. My daughter asked if this was a trick question. “No. It’s a real question. I want to know if you find theology genuinely necessary. If it matters to you, why?” I asked. She explained that theology (which she was able to articulate as the study of God) matters to her because it shapes how she sees the world around her, helps her navigate relationships, and teaches her how she ought to live. She’s 14 years old.

Learn from Jesus, who asked his disciples at least three times in the book of Matthew, “What do you think?” (Matt. 17:25, 18:12, 21:28) before he explained a parable or offered them instructions. Jesus understood the disciples’ need for tangible practice in learning to think rightly. Teenagers are smart. Give them opportunities to practice thinking through their own challenges. Let them talk through problems and ask prompting questions as they learn the process of applying biblical wisdom. Their natural questions are a hands-on lesson in practical theology.

Why is it theologically important not to skip out on church for a basketball tournament? How have you prayerfully arrived at the unpopular decision to say “yes” or “no” to your teenager’s latest request? What does Scripture say about the controversy in the latest televised political debate, and how can she compassionately engage in dialogue the next day at school?

Don’t expect teenagers to know intuitively how to piece together their understanding of Scripture and knowledge of God’s commands to faithfully arrive at wise conclusions. When they need help, take the time to sketch out a roadmap and patiently connect the dots. Give them opportunities to practice by asking questions. “What did Jesus say about how we should…? How do you think the New Testament might advise followers of Christ on….? Why is the Christian’s response to this situation unique from that of the world?” Make theology practical for your teenager, and they’ll be far more likely to value the thought process.

3. Make Theology Transformative

Solid theological thinking should result in a changed heart. 2 Peter 1:8 says that faith supplemented with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love, keeps us “from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Knowledge is helpful and good only when it’s transformative. The study of God and an understanding of his Truth should lead to ongoing sanctification and progressive righteousness that is evidenced by abundant fruit of the Spirit.

The more your teenager knows God, the better she should know how to love and obey him. The more she understands herself, the more she should appreciate God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice for her sin. Because God is good and kind, merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, the study of this good news should increasingly change the way Christians think about the world, respond to people created in God’s image, and follow Christ. While knowledge does not equal love, it should cultivate an increasing devotion to God and gentleness toward others.

Thinking theologically should lead to serving God and others. As teenagers learn to think biblically about the world they live in, God will use their faith and obedience to spread the gospel, build up the Church, and bring glory to his name. The discipline of thinking theologically is not a dispensable elective for the teenager. It’s a joyfully essential life skill for the growing, committed follower of Jesus who desires Christian maturity and the advance of the gospel of Jesus.

Taste the Fruit of Theological Thinking

My teenage daughter’s theological interest is observable not only in how she asks questions at home, but also in how she lives out her faith in her public school. She loves her friends by praying often for their salvation, finding ways to speak to them about Christ, and engaging with their hard questions. She plans to lead a summer Bible study for several curious unbelievers where she’ll address their hesitations and introduce them to the gospel.

Simple theologically-minded conversations around the table have sparked some impressively robust questions about sin and suffering from my middle-school-aged son who is quick to notice hurt in his friends and desires to comfort and encourage them with real truth. Thankfully, these same conversations prepared him for the day when a confused and opinionated classmate confronted him on the seeming foolishness of his unpopular Christian beliefs. Rather than stutter and stammer, he was able to kindly and fearlessly explain his reasoning and the trust he has in God’s word. Theology tangibly matters. By God’s grace, when teenagers are equipped to become theological thinkers, the fruit can taste extraordinarily sweet.

Whether you’re a Christian parent striving to raise your teenagers as followers of Christ, or if you are a pastor, a Sunday School teacher, youth leader, or friend who loves and prays to see the fruit of spiritual maturity in a teenager you know–let’s agree to dispose of the fallacy that all teenagers are unengaged or unteachable when it comes to thinking theologically. They’re actually not. They’re often just spiritually immature victims of many adults’ disappointingly low expectations. Let’s do more than think about changing that.

Lindsey Carlson

Lindsey Carlson is the mother of five children and has served alongside her husband in pastoral ministry for fourteen years, currently at Imprint Community Church in Baltimore, Maryland. She enjoys teaching and discipling women through writing and public speaking, but most often through the context of the local church. She is the author of Growing in Godliness: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Maturing in Christ.

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