Every summer, four banana yellow buses crawl up the foothills of the Colorado mountains to the Grand View Hotel in Manitou Springs—home of one of Summit’s summer conferences. Hundreds of students pile out onto the hot pavement, their faces transpose the raw and wild emotions of excitement, apprehension, and longing for meaningful connection. Their eyes search for someone to welcome them into an unfamiliar environment; warmth runs down their spines as they focus on the smiling face of their small group leader. These young adults make me wonder about the lives of the thousands of younger students Summit serves through our Bible curriculum. I wonder what their eyes are searching for when their feet hit the pavement at their Christian school, ready for another ordinary day. At the end of each year, I stare at the number of students Summit was privileged to serve, and it cannot capture the uniqueness of each student’s story and the amazing things God wants to do in each of their lives.
I long for our students to embrace a biblical worldview and live like Christians. As a parent, teacher, or someone who interacts with students, I’m sure you also long for your student to thrive:
- Parents want their children to have the best friend group, neighborhood, and youth group.
- Teachers want their students to have the perfect classroom environment, curriculum, and discussion questions.
- School administrators want to equip students with key resources, teachers, and a healthy school environment.
It’s easy to get worried about if we are providing the right sorts of programs for students, thinking if we just implement the right program or buy the right tool our students will turn out okay. Our hope can wrongly fall onto student programs to transform the lives of students. We forget that forming students happens primarily through relationships. Certainly, programs can be a vehicle for important relationships but they aren’t ends in themselves. The way you interact with your student one-on-one has more to do with their spiritual formation than you may realize.
Programs can be a vehicle for important relationships but they aren’t ends in themselves
Christian researchers have found that students who hold a thriving biblical worldview have three things in common: convictions, character, and community.1 Interestingly enough, these three things are most influential in a student’s life when they are relationship-centered over and above being program-centered.2
Students who thrive have unshakable convictions.
Convictions are the result of a worldview. The ideas you believe in become convictions, and the convictions you act on become habits. Habits are patterns that form a way of life. Convictions and ideas lay the tracks that your life runs on. Your ideas and convictions about the world are sometimes called a worldview. Your worldview has real consequences—good and bad.3 If we want students who have unshakable convictions, we need to teach them a worldview that can handle all of the difficult questions and experiences they will have.
There are a lot of books and programs out there that teach students a biblical worldview. However, it is easy to go wrong thinking that propositional knowledge is enough for students to form convictions. For an idea to change into a conviction, a student must choose to believe it and make it their own. Teaching students “the right answers” does not guarantee that they will hold a biblical worldview. We need to create environments that are optimal for encouraging students to form beliefs and convictions.
If we don’t understand how students come to believe things, they won’t listen to us. The environment you provide through your behavior has as much to do with whether your student forms convictions as the coherence of the ideas you teach them to hold.
Think about it: When you were in school, all the information you learned didn’t happen in a vacuum, it happened in a classroom environment. In high school I had a very patient, kind, and brilliant math teacher who held us to high standards. My friend had a quick-tempered, harsh, and condescending math teacher who told her she was stupid. Students performed exceptionally well in the kind teacher’s classroom despite their natural abilities because the teacher created a safe place for us to learn that information. Students in the mean teacher’s classroom did not perform as well. Our experience hearing information has as much to do with our uptake of a belief as the information itself.
When we are teaching our students, it’s important to remember that how we behave will determine where their attention goes and what information they deem valuable enough to consider. Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder offer in their book, Rare Leadership: 4 Uncommon Habits for Increasing Trust, Joy, and Engagement in the People You Lead, very practical advice for habits you can learn in order to build an ideal environment to meet student needs. We’ll be exploring some of their ideas in this article Most importantly they talk about what it practically looks like to obey Jesus when he says in Matthew 22:37-40 (ESV):
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
We can be so focused on what programs we want our students to go through in the next year as they learn and grow, that we completely forget to ask the question, what does it mean to love my student as myself during this season?
Thriving students have strong character.
Character is our spontaneous embedded responses to our relational environment, behavior that is automatic and flows from the heart.4 When most people face a decision involving their character, the decision for how they should act has usually already been made before they respond. This automatic response is a result of the character traits we learned from those around us and the values of the groups we are a part of.5
Students who have the type of character that is aligned with a biblical worldview often report having deep and loving relationships: positive Christian friendships, impactful mentors, and strong healthy families. The people they closely identify with embody the character that these students also demonstrate. These relationships help students learn that it is possible to live in a way that is coherent with their beliefs. The relationships we form are important for forming a strong character and are ultimately made with people who are embodying values from Scripture and emulating Jesus.
Ultimately, Jesus is our ultimate example for what a healthy character looks like. Jesus always acted like himself no matter the situation
While healthy relationships can help to form strong character, unhealthy and shallow relationships can easily corrupt. Unhealthy relationships can cause us to lose touch with our Christian identity as followers of Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus is our ultimate example for what a healthy character looks like. Jesus always acted like himself no matter the situation: During criticism, when engulfed by crowds, when deserted and abandoned, and when surrounded by close friends. When our identity is found in Christ, our character will be strong when we behave like ourselves.6
Thriving students have deep relationships formed by love.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that, “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to believers.”7 C.S. Lewis also commented on the importance of community stating that, “to the Ancients, friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”8 Both Lewis and Bonhoeffer are correct: friendship—particularly Christian friendship—can be so joyful that it returns life to our souls and teaches us what it means to live virtuously. Unfortunately, this sort of trajectory-altering friendship is hard to find today.
Scientists say that our brains are able to process information faster and more effectively if we have a strong group identity, emotional attunement to others, and attachment to others. In fact, these relationships can help our brains function at up to six-times faster than the normal speed. Each of these relational connections causes the brain to speed up because of one thing, love. Our brains are literally designed by God to help change us through love.
Our loving community with God and others is key to developing strong character and strong convictions
Unfortunately, a lot of churches and Christian communities are not marked by love. They are environments with low joy, shallow relationships, and weak communities. Unless we learn that love and joyful relationships are what transform us, then it will be easy to become malformed. Our loving community with God and others is key to developing strong character and strong convictions. We all need a community of like-minded people to help us learn what it means to embody our convictions and behave with strong character. We need them to remind us of who we are when we fail, and encourage us to keep on living life the way God has asked us to.
Helping students thrive in their Christian life and embrace a biblical worldview has a lot more to do with how you interact with students one-on-one than you might have thought. If you’re struggling with how to begin loving and enjoying your students in ways that will help them grow in their faith, I would encourage you to take the time to reflect on God’s joy toward you. Here are a few scriptures that express God’s joy for his people:
I hope that your students can experience the joy and love that a Christ-centered community can bring and that, through that community, they are able to form strong character and deep convictions about Jesus’s way of living.