I get emails each month from parents whose teens are leaving the church or being swept away by a false version of Jesus and the gospel. Most of these parents seem to be well-intentioned believers who are baffled at the outcome of their teenager’s faith. In many cases, their teen was a standout church kid–complete with AWANA pins and VBS nametags from years of outstanding work!
There are so many variables when teenage faith gets shipwrecked (ultimately, God knows the one in each case) but overall, the parents I talk to all say the same thing: We were definitely “doing” church, but I’m not sure my teen was ready to stand for Christ on their own two feet. It happens in the church like it happens in the car all those years. Kids ride in the backseat while parents drive them around, and, the same goes for their faith. They follow mom and dad, obey all the rules, but don’t end up developed much further. Once the teen is on their own with decision-making, the parents find out the hard way that their beloved son or daughter has little clue about how to make it on their own. Sure, they know enough Sunday school answers to get by, but they don’t know how to put theology into practice. Like a lioness who never teaches her cubs how to hunt for themselves, many parents spoon-feed their teens for six years without ever challenging them to skin their own meat — theologically, of course.
Where Do We Start?
In this list, I’ve compiled ten critical topics for the modern teen. It presumes you will address essentials, including (but not limited to) the gospel, so don’t miss that. Also, here’s fair warning that reading is required if you want to gain wisdom here. I’ll have recommended resources at the end of each listed topic. Do your family a favor and start a theological library if you haven’t already.
1. How to identify a biblical church?
Does your teen know how what a biblical ecclesiology looks like? You may be thinking, “too many big words…” Well those are words you need to know about. Ecclesiology is basically how the church is supposed to structured according to the Bible. Like shopping for a used car, if your teenager doesn’t know what to look for, they’re likely to get swindled by some deceptive salesmanship. Choose either 9 Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever or The Master’s Plan for the Church by John MacArthur. Challenge your teen by asking them: Can you name at least five priorities of a biblical church?
2. How to identify a biblical church leader?
Abusive leaders are everywhere — that’s obvious today. Study 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and discuss it at the dinner table for the week. Ask questions like, why does it matter for a pastor to be those things? What are some dangers that can occur if a pastor doesn’t match that list? Both books above will nail this one for you, but just in case, try Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch. Read Part One (the first six chapters). It could save your family from years of pain.
3. Christological heresies & other dangers in modern music movements
Music isn’t just about music these days. It’s a gateway to the famous teachers and personalities who lead movements. Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, and other “apostolic” celebrity bands are all teaching things that no biblically-minded parent would want their teens to believe. These groups started under (and continue to submit to) the leadership and influence of false teachers such as Bill Johnson, Kris Valloton, Lou Engle, Shawn Bolz, Heidi Baker, and many others. They teach kenotic theology which holds diminished views on the deity of Christ. This includes the belief that Jesus did His miracles as just a man in right relationship to God…not as God. Based on that, they teach a long list of other dangerous doctrines. They also charge a hefty tuition to their schools that “teach” people how to foretell the future and do miracles. This movement makes itself sound amazing and attractive, but it’s theological poison. Try a short book called, Defining Deception by myself and Anthony Wood. It has enough truth to arm you for the battle ahead and enough footnotes to keep you up at night watching the dangerous practices these teachers will put your teenager through if they get their hands on them.
4. False gospels to avoid
It’s important to major in what is true, but can be helpful and sharpening for young people to know how to spot fakes. Kids like to ask “why” when they’re young. I think we still do as adults. Get your teen educated on why the prosperity gospel is a sham even if it looks like the way to live like LeBron James in the church-world. Show them why other versions of Christianity are not actually Christian. Analyze the basic beliefs of Word of Faith, New Apostolic Reformation, Mormonism, and Catholicism. Watch the DVD, Clouds Without Water II by Justin Peters.
5. The assault on marriage, gender, and biblical manhood and womanhood
Every parent wants their teen to marry the right person but too many are not well-versed on what that looks like. Teens should be provided with a roadmap for understanding why gender is binary and why we can be firm in our theology while still flexible with people. Loving them doesn’t mean we sacrifice truth. For parents who are serious about gaining wisdom to guide their teen, this may mean that instead of watching Netflix, reading books and watching teachings like our FUSED series at For the Gospel. Teach them about gender roles and God’s design for husbands and wives. Many adults are confused because they were not taught at teens. You get one chance to guide them. Try any of these: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Woman by Wayne Grudem and John Piper; The Grand Design by Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock; Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating; Disciplines of a Godly Young Man by Kent Hughes and W. Carey Hughes; Disciplines of a Godly Woman by Barbara Hughes; Ethics for a Brave New World by John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg.
6. The sufficiency of Scripture
Teens are in a process of discovery and questioning things. They may hear a friend or famous teacher say things like, “God spoke to me” or “God spoke to my heart” or “I feel like God said.” This can be confusing for a teen. Help them know confidently that if God told someone something, they wouldn’t “feel” like He did, they’d know He did. Teenagers need help to understand why the Bible is enough for knowing God’s voice. They must be equipped to know God’s word is God’s will. Those who learn this at a younger age are ahead of the curve in today’s church world. Read Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung; Found: God’s Will (short book) by John MacArthur; Our Sufficiency in Christ by John MacArthur.
7. The holiness of God
God is holy, not a homeboy. He isn’t some “it” in the sky or a casual deity who lets everybody into heaven because they donated to the Salvation Army at Christmas. Teenagers should be taught why God is holy, what that means, and how they should live in light of that truth. Study The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. That will give you talking points.
8. The sovereignty of God
Rebel hearts need training. Learning and applying truths about the sovereignty of God teaches that I am not in control, the world is not in control, and even parents are not in ultimate control! God is. Calm and assertive Christian teens are that way because they know God is sovereign. They go about their business, trusting and obeying. When fears come, they know who hold the future. Choose a book like The Sovereignty of God by A.W. Pink or The Invisible Hand by R.C. Sproul.
9. The depravity of man
When our hearts get help on this topic, a humility comes over us that crushes pride and creates a dependency on God. Help your teen understand their sin and inability to satisfy the wrath of God outside of Christ. They are a sinner and hopeless without Him. Teach them how to admit deficiency and declare dependency! Make sure you’re doing this yourself too. Read A Small Book About a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience, and Peace by Edward T. Welch; The Vanishing Conscience by John MacArthur.
10. Cultivating an eternal perspective
A 5-inch screen is all the perspective most teens end up with by age 15. Most don’t know a lot about biblical money management, missions, or making their lives count. If you want your teenager to have the tools they need to live with an eternal perspective, nurture their perspective on eternal things! They need to be taught about things like global missions, local church ministry, generosity, taking risks for God, and the importance of carrying on what faithful men and women started long before us. Several books can be helpful here such as Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper; Managing God’s Money by Randy Alcorn; The Daring Mission of William Tyndale by Steven J. Lawson.
What is the most essential ingredient not on the list? Your life. Teenagers can smell a fake from 100 miles away. It may be wise to tackle this list yourself while you’re at it. And remember, a list like this doesn’t guarantee your teen will not struggle in the world today or even go prodigal. Prayer will always be your #1 weapon. When paired with your own faithful witness, you can trust God knowing you’ve done your best.