How True Heart Change Happens
I’ve spent the last several months immersed in the world of teenagers. As a paraprofessional at our local high school, I log almost 40 hours a week with students from a variety of races, economic levels, and family structures. We live in the conservative Bible-belt South, which makes my observations of them that much more surprising and interesting.
One word I use to describe the generation of teens I work with is untethered.
Why am I telling you, leaders who work with children, about my experience with teenagers? Because childhood is the time to anchor kids so that they will not become teenagers adrift, untethered to anything other than their own desires, fears, and the influence of society.
Remember, many of the kids I encounter have church exposure and at least a cultural understanding of Christianity. Yet many are in a freefall of disrespect, self-love, and rationalization.
To be tethered is to be restrained, within a limit, by a bond, and to an anchor. What should our children be tied to, and how can we help the children in our churches and homes to be tethered?
It starts by recognizing that rules and discipline can naturally limit bad behavior but that what we’re really after is heart change. Transformed hearts is a much more challenging goal. Instead of conformity, we need to work toward bonding.
I engage with many young people whose parents work long hours. Other students bounce from one parent’s house to another. Some live with grandparents or other extended family. Some of them, as young as 16, live exclusively with boyfriends or girlfriends. Every struggling teen I’ve talked to is somehow disconnected with the adults in their lives.
As you work with children who may face these same issues sooner or later, recognize the importance of relationship. They need to be tethered to the heart of a stable adult who cares about them, and they need to be tethered to the heart of Jesus.
Missing the Mark
It is important to teach kids God’s Word—to teach them the fruit of the Spirit, the Ten Commandments, solid theology, the books of the Bible, good manners, and to treat each other with respect. But if those things aren’t founded on deep relationships, if kids don’t ultimately understand that Jesus wants to know and love them, all the good stuff you’ve taught may be overshadowed by the pressures of life. It really does come down to love.
“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). If kids grow into teens who think the goal is to keep the rules rather than know Jesus, we’ve missed the mark.
Kids and adults obey whom they love and trust. Fear of consequences stretches only so far. “The Bible says so” becomes an unsatisfactory answer in the face of challenges and need. Only a loving heart can speak to a needy heart, and Jesus does that through us.
Yes, the Bible tells us God is love, but we as people show that love. We’re His skin. We have the opportunity to love real kids with real needs. Programs don’t disciple people; people disciple people.
The Ultimate Prize
Tethering kids’ hearts to truth means tethering them to Jesus’ heart through relationship. One day I noticed my son standing with an older man in our church, their heads bowed together. I realized they were praying. This gentleman had recognized my son’s need and took the time to care for him through prayer. These kinds of relationships are what will keep my son connected to the church and ultimately to God’s heart.
By all means go to children’s leaders’ conferences, spend time picking just the right curriculum for your group, plan crafts. But don’t lose sight of the ultimate prize: tethering a child’s heart to Jesus with bonds of love through the experience of caring relationships. That is the church, after all—hearts connected to one another through the unifying power of the Holy Spirit. That is how true heart change happens.