Holy Tension

Originally published March 15,2010. 

As part of our Lenten observations this year, each week (including Easter) a teen is teaching an object lesson to the church.These teens are the recipient of years of children’s sermons, particularly at Advent, so I thought I would create a little holy tension in them by proposing they teach the church family in a way they were recipients of when they were younger.

The volunteer the first week was a new member to our group and not the recipient of those children’s sermons.But he volunteered to do the first week, much to my surprise.He experienced lots of holy tension as he set the stage for the following weeks as well as being new to the church family.What would inspire the “new kid” to volunteer for this project at all--and for the first week?I thanked his parents because their impact was obvious.Yet still what drew the “new kid” to this challenge?


For the second week, a longtime teen in our church volunteered.He too was nervous to do this as he’s on the shy side.Still he willingly volunteered.The holy tension only grew in him as his spot in the Sunday morning lineup got bumped as our worship band went in another Holy Spirit-led direction.He waited through song after song after prayer after song for his time to teach.Yet when he finally had his turn, he wowed the church family with his depth of teaching and a personality that few have seen.This was quite a memorable day for Randy, which became more memorable by experiencing the amount of holy tension that he did.

My definition of holy tension is nerves, often created due to a challenge, that create a spiritual marker in a teen’s life as a memory when reliance on God was needed and God showed Himself faithful.Holy tension is found in favorite Bible stories--maybe this is why they are favorite Bible stories.When the friends of the lame man saw that the house Jesus was in was full, their love compelled them to the rooftop as an access to Jesus.They experienced holy tension as they opened up that roof and lowered their friend.When Ananias was told to find Saul, he experienced holy tension.Wasn’t this the same guy who wanted to kill all Christians, thus himself? Yet God had spoken and he had to go, nerves and all.When Peter got out of the boat to walk on water, he had holy tension and then a great memory.For those few moments, he actually walked on water.If he hadn’t moved on that tension, he never would have experienced something so memorable.Randy has had many memories from his 17 years in our church yet his Lent teaching will be one of the stronger ones he retains as he experienced a lot of holy tension that day.And to this I say, amen.

A commonplace for holy tension is on a mission trip.When that teen has been asked to dig a latrine hole and the boys in the group didn’t really attempt but she did and dug out most of it (true story), holy tension was there and this is a strong memory for her.When a teen is asked to lead worship for a youth meeting, holy tension is created.It is when that holy tension is no longer recognized in that worship leader that you have an ego problem with that leader.

Another commonplace for holy tension is at altar calls or times of commitment.If a teen just needs to lift his/her eyes to make a commitment, not a lot of tension is created.But if something more is asked of him/her to make this commitment, holy tension is created--memorable holy tension.The danger here as we’ve all seen too often is when that holy tension changes into manipulation.When you are the one planning, plan the right holy tension for those commitments.

To simplify, here are three reasons why you should provide times of holy tension:

  1. To create an awareness that God is alive and actively working in their lives.
  2. To provide opportunities that shows that God is faithful.
  3. To provide memories which will be spiritual markers.

Truth is holy tension generally happens by either Holy Spirit-led opportunities or when a challenge has been purposely planned.The Holy Spirit-led opportunities are ones I’m continually grateful for.They are also random.For me personally (and maybe you), I have to continually work on my Type-A-personality-driven heart to not miss them.As for planning the challenges, this is something I do purposely plan at my church and something I challenge you to plan.Here are some ideas to help you plan this way:

  1. Live in your holy tension and let it be known.This is not something just for teens.Recognize the times in your life when you experience holy tension and then share your stories.More importantly, share your current stories.Our personal holy tension stories from our teen years have already made their way into many of our teaching moments.Also share your current stories.
  2. Ask good questions often—those questions that make you go hmmm.Jesus did this I believe hoping to create that holy tension in his listeners.
  3. Expound on teachable moments.Those are the Holy Spirit-led opportunities.When you see one, highlight the holy tension.
  4. Create challenges for your teens to experience holy tension.If possible, personalize these challenges as often as you can.
  5. Demystify failure.Failure is a part of holy tension--recognize it as so.Failure does produce tension.With some insight and guidance, that tension can turn into holy tension.The danger is to minimize the failure and miss the teachable moment.

John Ortberg, teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, formerly of Willow Creek, had this to say about the importance of demystifying failure:“Teach that failure is essential to learning. And it's not the same as competence. I read a study involving a pottery class. They divided students into two groups. One group would get A's by making one really good pot. The other one would get A's by making 50 pots, no matter what they looked like. Guess what? The students in the 50-pot group made the best pots! They'd make one and it would be no good. And they'd make another one, get a little better. They'd make another one, get a little better. They just kept learning how to make better pots.

“The one-pot group put all this pressure on themselves over one pot, but they never learned how to make a pot well because they didn't fail enough.”(Leadership Journal, January 1, 2004)(Side note:How much do your overachieving-and-stressed-out teens need to receive this message?)

Take a moment to remember the memories of what has happened in your last year of youth ministry.Do you see now in hindsight these times of holy tension for individual teens or for your entire group?Do you see times that were Holy Spirit-led and just happened?Also do you see times where you purposely planned holy tension?Holy tension is a great tool in the spiritual formation of teens.Now that it is identified, continue on.