Teaching Youth to Shine

“Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” (Philippians 2:15)

Guest author:  Steven Turner

Made in the image of God, we are created to shine.  In our ministry to teens do we equip them to shine or give them the bushel to hide their lights?

I started asking this question because of something that happened at school. (I teach at a public high school)  Recently, a senior asked me to fill out a standard reference form that guidance counselors use to prepare college recommendations.

I have filled out countless forms, and I have begun to grow frustrated at the number of students for whom I can only give a mediocre reference.  This particular form asks for three adjectives that come to mind when you think of the student.  By now, I hate to think how many times I’ve used “friendly”, “outgoing”, “responsible”, “polite”, and other variations of the same.  But the most difficult part of the form says: “List one major contribution this student has made in your class. Be as specific as possible.”


I struggle with nearly every reference form to find what I would consider a major contribution, and I began to wonder how the students would respond to this question if asked.  I created a sample reference form to give my ninth grade Leadership class. I did not duplicate the form exactly, but I explained that when they become seniors they would give a similar form to several of their teachers. I asked them to choose one of their teachers and to fill the reference form out for themselves as if they were that teacher.  I wanted them to see that in four years, most students can learn to be respectful, responsible, and cordial, but they need to learn how to stand out in a positive way.  I expected the question about one major contribution to stump them, and I hoped that it would motivate them to stand out in all their classes.

It turns out my students had a question that would stump me–”What if we haven’t had any opportunities to contribute to a class?” These students had only been in their high school classes for a few months, and they only had a limited number of classes to reflect on, but the question still made me stop to think.   As a teacher and a youth minister, do I give my students opportunities to shine or have I convinced them that doing what you are told and following the rules is the goal?

I have struggled with this idea before.  Several years ago I informally adopted the story of Esau selling his birthright as a sort of guiding story for dealing with behaviors in our youth group.  I tried to convey the moral of the story that Esau was so concerned with immediate gratification that he lost sight of the big picture and foolishly gave up a blessing even greater than he could imagine.  It is a great moral lesson, but it troubled me to realize that I was using God’s word as a tool for behavior management.

Teenage behavior can drive even the most patient youth worker–or teacher–crazy.  We have been able to describe this behavior for a long time now, but only recently have we been able to understand some of its roots in brain development.  The frontal lobes of the human brain serve to mediate some of the more primitive and impulsive behaviors that originate in the lower structures of our brain.  Today we believe that these frontal lobes do not fully develop until young adulthood on either side of about age twenty-four.  A classic case study in the role of the frontal lobe occurred over one hundred years ago.  A railroad foreman named Phineas Gage suffered severe brain damage when an explosion sent a tamping iron through his skull.  Records show that prior to the accident, Mr. Gage was a level-headed responsible man, capable of effectively leading his work crew daily on the railroad.  After the accident his behavior was described as impulsive and rational and this previously even-tempered individual could not control his emotions.

What happened to cause this dramatic personality change in Phineas Gage?  The connections between the more basic structures of his brain, primarily the limbic system responsible for basic drives and emotions, were severed from the more complex structures of the frontal lobe that regulate these behaviors.  Emotional, impulsive, irrational—does this describe any teenagers that you know?

Even understanding where theses behaviors come from, we are much too quick to control and suppress them than we are to teach teenagers how to self-regulate and perhaps even utilize their natural tendencies to shine in their world.  I am not suggesting that we should ignore bad behavior or shirk our role as adults in guiding students toward good choices.  I am suggesting, and I speak from experience, that sometimes we make behavior the point and spend too much time relying on extrinsic factors to turn our teenagers into something easier for us to deal with.  We love a teenager that will simply do what they are told.

So if we spend too much time trying to control teenage behavior, then what should we be doing instead?  We should help teenagers unleash their behavior in a way that will benefit our world for the glory of God and that will set them on the path to live a life worthy of the calling they have received. (Eph. 4:1)

In his 2009 book, Drive, Dan Pink suggests that the “carrot and stick” model of motivation has served humanity well for the last few centuries, but today, a new model has begun to emerge.  This new model indicates that our intrinsic desires of autonomy, mastery, and purpose have a much greater capacity to drive us toward excellence.   Our traditional system of rewards and punishments help us to shape the behavior of others into what we desire, but providing a framework for youth to exercise autonomy, mastery, and purpose can help them to become what God desires of them.  I have taken a little liberty with Pink’s description of these three motivators, but this is what I think they look like in the context of youth ministry.


The obvious way to help our teens experience autonomy is to give them real choices and allow them to exercise some level of control over the direction of their lives.  I find two examples from the Bible that best describe autonomy.  The first is found in Mark 15, when Jesus chooses to “make no reply” to Pilate.  Sitting in the seat of defendant, most of us would think that opening our mouths to proclaim our innocence the only choice.  This is the opposite of autonomy—to be compelled by the world toward a particular action.  The second example would be the Apostle Paul writing incredible words of hope and encouragement even while suffering unto death in chains.  That is autonomy, the ability to live the freedom of the Kingdom even in the face of imprisonment in this world.  The ways of the world take our autonomy away and we are bound to acquire more, driven to the next best thing, forced into retaliation, backed into deception, oppressed into misery, and pushed into anger.  We need to provide opportunities for students that help them experience the abundant life of Jesus by claiming the autonomy and freedom in this world that comes from giving it away for the sake of the next.


The Bible describes the human drive for mastery as inherent within its first few chapters when God gives “dominion over the earth.”  Pink uses the example of learning to play an instrument to illustrate our desire for mastery.  It is not the external reward that drives our behavior; it is the internal desire for mastery.  The perspective that youth are the future of the church has the potential to undermine this drive.  For many ministries, sports have become enemy number one.  But sports offer youth the opportunity of mastery.  Student athletes are not expected to lay in wait for their moment to shine once they grow up and mature.  They are on the field, expected to perform.  Our expectation toward youth in the church should offer this as well; teens should be allowed to actively exercise their faith amidst the entire church family as a matter of expectation not exception.


We read in Proverbs “where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Pr. 29:18)  One of the most effective ways to channel the impulses of teenage behavior is to help them discover the vision that God has for their lives.  Our efforts are much better spent helping teenagers understand the purpose of their lives and actions than trying to manage the particulars of their behavior.  Students are much more likely to live up to their God given potential when they work toward a higher purpose than when they get caught up in the dos and don’ts of behavior.  Again, I do not advocate giving teenagers free reign to behave however they choose, but given the choice of a disruptive youth making a difference in the kingdom of God and a well-behaved teenager afraid to rock the boat, I prefer the former.

Steven Turner is a youth minister and high school teacher in Charlottesville, Virginia.  He blogs at http://www.apotofstew.blogspot.com