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Refocus on Jesus

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I always started off the school year with great intentions. This would be the year I was going to really get involved in youth group. This would be the year I was going to buckle down and study the Bible every night. This would be the year I was going to go on a mission trip. This would be the year I was going to focus—really focus—on Christ.

Sidelined intentions

But even with the best of intentions, something would inevitably get in the way of my commitment to concentrate on God. One year I came down with mononucleosis, aka “mono,” which took me out of commission for several weeks. I fell so behind on schoolwork that when I finally returned to the land of the living, I put all my energy into studying textbooks rather than Scripture.

Another year I caught the acting bug and joined the drama club. Performing in plays was crazy fun, but I had underestimated the amount of time it would take to memorize lines, learn blocking, and rehearse with my fellow cast members. By the time I got home from play practice, ate dinner, and did my homework, I dropped into bed without mumbling so much as a “Hey, God” before my head hit the pillow.

My junior year I joined the cross-country team, which was great for me physically, but really did a number on my spiritual growth since the coach had us logging miles and lifting weights both before and after school, not to mention running at meets on weekends. When I had a smidge of down time, I usually opted for naps over youth group activities. Though I eventually learned how to keep other things in my life from trumping Christ, I must admit, it took some time.

Fitting it all in
If you are brutally honest with yourself, how central is Christ in your life? Do you carve out special time for God, do you fold Him into your everyday activities, or do you squeeze Him in when you have a moment here or there? As a teenager, your life is full of deadlines and distractions, expectations and engagements, conditions and caveats. There are classes and quizzes, papers and projects. Sports often fill up the days—everything from tennis to track, swimming to soccer, basketball to baseball. You may take dance classes or piano lessons, gymnastics or karate. You may be involved in chess club, theatre, or the debate team.

The social stuff—attending school banquets and sporting events, going on dates, and hanging out with friends—all takes time, too. Plus, you may have a part-time job. Your parents may ask you to help out around the house, run errands, or babysit your younger siblings. And let’s not forget the chunks of time that social media and texting suck out of your day. Bottom line: life as a teenager is incredibly hectic. Sadly, it doesn’t get easier in adulthood.

No putting off Jesus
Jesse Wood, lead pastor at Naco Christian Church, located on the Arizona/Mexico border, says that Jesus must be the priority throughout life, and that includes time as a busy student. “Putting Jesus off until later in life when things slow down devalues Christ and sets a bad precedent because all of us who are no longer students know that life never really slows down,” says Jesse.

Dan Hampton, director of Christian Education at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church and School in Avon, Indiana, recognizes the hectic nature of teen life, which is why he’s very intentional in the way he runs the youth ministry program—allowing the students to come and go as they please. “During marching band and swim seasons, for instance, I know I’m not going to see a chunk of my kids at youth group events,” says Dan. “But they always come back because they know this is a safe place to go . . . to read God’s Word and hang out with friends.”

A spiritual “dry spell”
Busyness isn’t the only thing that can get in the way of our relationship with God. We also are bound to experience spiritual “dry spells” when we don’t feel God’s presence. Lane Bonney, a freshman at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, describes these dry spells well.

“We all go through times when we feel like we’re in a [spiritual desert]. We almost get bored with following Jesus, and lose all excitement we once had in living for Him,” says Lane. “We hit a stage where we aren’t motivated. Scripture doesn’t move us anymore, church services don’t affect us, and we can’t hear Jesus speaking to us.”

It’s important that we persevere through those dry spells, because that’s when we grow in our faith. Lane says that for him, remaining in God’s Word has carried him through and has even caused the times when God’s presence is palpable to feel even sweeter.

Summer Cox, who graduated high school in 2014, says that she struggled with her faith following her parent’s divorce. “I did other things to fill that void,” recalls Summer. “I became lazy in my relationship with God.” That laziness is certainly something that resonates with all of us from time to time. “The good news,” says Lane, “is that when we do come back, Jesus is still there with open arms.”

Special events and everyday living
Jesse says that students’ passion and pursuit of their relationship with Jesus often rises with special events such as retreats or mission trips “They participate in one of these events and get pumped up as they break out of their routines and are reminded of how great it is to be close to Jesus,” says Jesse.

Having said that, Jesse also notes that youth leaders should be careful not to rely too heavily on emotionally loaded events that can leave students feeling ill-equipped to move forward in their faith when the ambiance is less romantic. In Joshua 4:1-7, “God commanded the Israelites to make a memorial pile of rocks from the Jordan to serve as a reminder to how He had worked to bring them into the Promised Land,” says Jesse. “It can be helpful to have things which remind us of a time when we experienced God powerfully. This might be [something as simple as] a random pile of rocks.”

Staying focused on faith
Cassidy Cerny, an eighth grader from Avon, Indiana, stays focused on God by doing her best to eliminate distractions. This starts with her phone. “Instead of having my phone right next to my bed at night, I plug it in downstairs,” says Cassidy. “Then I can talk to God without interruption.”

Summer agrees that the easiest way to concentrate on Jesus is to narrow her attention. “The world can be so distracting, but when I just take a few moments of the day to shut the world off and focus on His love, it makes a huge difference,” says Summer, who likes to reconnect with the Lord via music. “I can truly feel the Holy Spirit in me when certain songs bring me to tears.”

Making God the priority

Jesse says that youth must remember that a relationship with the God of the universe is better than a dating relationship, and even better than being the valedictorian.

“While I do not think these things are mutually exclusive—you can certainly have a great relationship with God and be the valedictorian—Jesus must always be the priority when a choice needs to be made,” says Jesse, who suggests that students prepare for life by developing habits and priorities, and remembering that Jesus and His kingdom are worth the effort. “Each student will have to learn to maintain their relationship with the Lord in unique ways based on their interests, gifts, and callings.”

For Mitchell Brown, a senior from Melbourne, Florida, that calling is through witnessing. “I invite people from my football team to join me at youth group,” says Mitchell. “If I see someone going down the wrong path, I make a special effort to invite them.”

Some teens feel overwhelmed by the time commitments that come with various youth activities, service learning projects, and mission trips. That’s understandable.

“For a while, I felt like there was not enough time [to do it all],” says Summer. Then she had a revelation. God didn’t need her to be constantly busy. He just wanted her to talk to Him.

Honoring Jesus
Jesse emphasizes that our relationship with Jesus can be pursued in any non-sinful activity. So while there is no substitute for reading Scripture, praying, and engaging in Christian fellowship, Jesus is honored as we strive for excellence in academics and sports. Jesus is honored when we preserve purity in our relationships. Jesus is honored when we share the gospel with our classmates, teammates, colleagues, and neighbors.

“Focusing on Jesus does not necessarily mean pulling away from the world. Rather, it oftentimes means engaging the world for His glory and His mission,” says Jesse.

This kind of mentality means that Jesus not only can, but should, be the focus of every activity (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Christy Heitger-Ewing writes from Avon, Indiana.

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