Over the last 25+ years I have had the privilege of ministering to over a million teenagers and equip tens of thousands of youth leaders to to build Gospel Advancing, disciple-multiplying youth ministries. During this time I have written twenty books either to teenagers or about teenagers. Some would even consider me an "expert" on reaching and discipling the next generation.
And then something strange happened...I had kids. And, now, those kids are teenagers. There's nothing like raising two teenagers to help you know what works and what doesn't when it comes to discipleship.
As a father of a 13 year old girl and a 17 year old young man I have had a mini-awakening about what it actually takes to disciple teenagers. Suffice it to say, I may have to rewrite a few chapters in a handful of my books. Raising and discipling two teens is a trying and exciting experience that my wife and I are continuing to learn from every single day.
For decades, down deep in my spiritual subconscious, I think I had a "bowling" philosophy of discipling teenagers. I thought that, if I rolled the truth ball straight down the lane of their lives, there was a good chance of getting a discipleship strike in the hearts of my kids.
After all, that's where most of the arrows are pointed on the youth ministry lane. Read that book, follow that program, grow them "God's way" and there's a good chance of bowling a solid game with your teenagers.
And my wife and I have tried to do that with our kids. We've gone through great programs and great books with great insights. We've used discipleship curriculum and our very own Dare 2 Share evangelism training tools with our kids. We've had prayer walks, long talks, late nights and, yes, verbal fights. Along the way we hit some strikes, a few spares and plenty of parental gutter balls.
And it's all been a really good process. But, since our kids turned into teenagers, discipling them has been less like a down-the-middle straight line bowling approach and more like a late night pinball game in an 80's arcade. I feel like we are persistently hitting buttons trying to keep the ball in play, trying to get their love for Jesus and others at a record high.
And, when we fall short (which happens quite often) we reach into our pockets and drop in another proverbial quarter to keep on playing. My wife and I won't stop banging on those buttons until our kids are all that they can be spiritually. We are no pinball wizards but, by God's grace, we are getting to our goal.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means seizing the moment in the car or after a movie or before a softball game to "hit the buttons" that will keep their love for Jesus in play. It means taking full advantage of those times where they want to talk or have a problem and tying in a spiritual perpective. It means normalizing conversations about God stuff in real life so it breaks down the barrier between the "secular" and the "sacred" and let's them see how a God view impacts every single thing every single day.
I thank the Lord that our kids love Jesus and have a heart to reach the lost. Yes, they have their challenges (just like I do) but the overall battle for their hearts is being won by Jesus.
In the future I'm sure there'll be exciting wins and painful losses. But, as long as the overall trajectory of their lives is more about Jesus (and less about the lesser things), then that's what I call a good day at the arcade.
Taking a pinball approach to discipling teenagers, rather than a bowling one, builds a deep trust in the Lord and a dogged determination to win their hearts and minds for Jesus. It may be less linear than bowling but it's far more exciting.