“The tongue has the power of life and death.”
Proverbs 18:21 NIV
Consider that statement for a moment. Your tongue, your speech, has the power of life and death within it. I sometimes wonder if God shouldn’t have given us that power, because we are very skilled at abusing it.
We’ve all chanted about sticks and stones when someone said something unkind to us, but we also all know that it isn’t really true.
Words do hurt. Words can leave emotional scars and burden our minds for years.
However, words can also heal. They can encourage, empower and inspire. “Words of Affirmation” is one of Gary Chapman’s five love languages because words can be a powerful expression of love.
Words, simply put, have an amazing capacity for good or evil. Everyone should be careful and wise about wielding that power, but those of us who work with teenagers must be especially so.
The Importance of Speaking Life to Teens
Being a teenager is incredibly difficult. I sometimes hear people wish they could go back to their high school years. Personally, you couldn’t pay me enough to be a teenager again.
Think of it like this: There’s a giant maze, about the size of a football field, in the place where my family vacations every year. To complete the maze, you have to find your way to four stations in the center, punching a card you carry at each one as proof of your navigational skill.
Every year, my kids want to do the maze. Every year, I think it’s a great idea. And every year, I end up exhausted and irritated trying to find my way out. Each station is raised above the maze, so my wife and I try to use that height to plot a course from where we are to where we need to go next.
It usually works fairly well until we’re about halfway along our path and get lost. Even with a plan, things look very different from inside the maze.
Being a teen is a lot like being in that maze. Decisions about which path to take have to be made from inside — no hovering above it to see which one leads to a dead-end and which one leads the right way.
Add in friends, family and cultural influences trying to tell them which way they should go, and things can quickly become overwhelming.
In this wild time of decision paralysis, identity crisis, peer pressure, family conflict and more, students are exceedingly impressionable. We as student pastors must be careful during this time to speak life to them instead of death.
A lot of death gets spoken over our teens, and it isn’t a new thing. It happened in my teenage years, and it probably happened in yours.
Instead of teens being encouraged, built up and inspired to lead, more often than not, they hear the following: They’re lazy. They’re selfish. They’re trouble. They’re whiny and spoiled. They are tearing down the church from the inside. They don’t want to worship, they just want to party. They don’t pray, they daydream. They don’t read their Bibles, they play on their phones. They don’t listen to teaching, they reject it because of their arrogance.
Before entering ministry full-time, I spent five years teaching high school English. I learned something during that time that all of us must remember: If you tell a teenager that they are lazy, selfish and troublesome long enough, they’ll become lazy, selfish and troublesome.
I’ve seen it happen. I’ve taught students with horrible behavior or self-esteem problems and learned why after watching two minutes of interaction between student and parent.
But the opposite is also true: If we speak life to our teens, they will become full of life. I’ve seen that happen, too.
I once taught a student with a terrible record of behavioral issues. In the first few weeks of school, he was a nightmare. All he wanted to do was shoot basketball and make his teachers’ lives miserable.
Things got so bad one day that I took him into the hallway. He expected an office referral, and I planned to give him one, but by God’s grace, I changed my mind.
I told him that my sister had taught him the year before. and I knew from her that he was better than this. I moved him to the front of the room and reminded him every time he messed up that he could be better.
Soon, this student who wanted nothing to do with school was volunteering to read Shakespeare and passing with a B.
The teenagers lost in the maze just need and want someone to take them by the hand and guide them through. There are plenty of things around them that will guide them into dead ends. We must guide them on the right path and that begins with being careful to speak life.
How do we do this? How do we as student pastors speak life to our students effectively enough to help build up a new generation of passionate, committed Christ-followers? Here are a few possibilities to consider.
1. Praise them often. Teenagers eat up praise from the people they look up to. I’m convinced that “Words of Affirmation” is every teenager’s love language. Praise them as often as you can — not to blow up their egos but to show them that you really are paying attention and you really are in their corners. You saw a student reading her Bible alone? Praise that. You saw one showing kindness to a new member of the youth group? Praise that. One student volunteered to pray? Even if he stumbled through it, mixed up some words and made everyone giggle, praise that. Let them know that you see them trying and you think they’re doing a great job.
2. Be gracious in discipline. We’ve all been there. Unfortunately, teens are still teens and we have to rein them in sometimes. When that moment comes and you have to reprimand or discipline a student, make sure he knows you aren’t doing so because you hate him or because you think he’s a terrible human being but because you know he can be better. Remind him that Christ set the example and the Spirit empowers him to be more like Christ. Again, make sure your students know that you are in their corners, even in discipline.
3. Defend them against unkind words. As covered earlier, people speaking death over our teens is more common than it should be. Defend them from that. If you hear someone perpetuating the lazy, selfish, troublesome teen stereotype, gently remind them that most teens aren’t truly like that. Encourage them to see the good that teenagers are capable of, both in God’s kingdom and in the world. Ask them to pray for the teens they know and to be a guiding hand as they navigate those difficult years. We must be careful about how we speak to and about our teens, and we must lead and encourage others to do so, as well.
4. Be okay if they don’t look like you. Too often, adults expect teens to grow and mature into miniature versions of themselves. Let your students know that you don’t expect that. As they mature in their faith, they might not gravitate to the same style of music you like. They might not prefer the version of the Bible you read. They might not readily accept some of the conventions you were taught to follow. As long as your students are pursuing Christ and aren’t outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, let them know that they don’t have to look like you. She’s finding her way. He’s becoming who God wants him to be. Praise Him for that together.
This might seem like basic stuff, but the fact that the Scriptures contain so many warnings about the power of the tongue is evidence that we must guard our speech carefully, especially as we try to lead teenagers in some of the most confusing times of their lives toward the God they desperately need to know. Build your students up. Point them to Christ with word and deed. Speak life.