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Helping them to decide
For young Christians considering what life-goals, study-choices and career-options to pursue, the demands of personal dreams and public interests are joined by the responsibility to please God and to serve his kingdom. They might see this as one more complication, but it can be the key to good choices and to life-fulfilment. This article is intended to equip youth workers to help older teenagers consider (and hopefully adopt) some ground rules to keep them on track through the coming years of important life-decisions about study and work. The three ground rules are ‘Never live a double life’, ‘Always know who the Boss is’, and ‘Get to grips with guidance’.
Never live a double life
Anyone who has been in youth work for any length of time can remember breakthrough moments (and disaster moments). I remember one such breakthrough when, quite on the spur of the moment, our leadership team of volunteers and young people decided to create an exam prayer board. Each weekend, through the exam period, we would put out a flip-chart. Each young person signed the chart giving the dates and times of the exams they would be sitting that week. We would then transcribe the scrawls on the chart into legible type and photocopy a sheet so that everyone could take it away and pray for their friends. The young people loved this initiative and it unified the group.
One of the difficulties we face as we help young people (and their families) to appropriately consider the future is the way the modern world views faith. In the pre-modern past, faith and life were completely integrated both in the individual and in the wider society. (The existence in the UK of a State Church, headed by the Monarch with Bishops chosen by the Prime Minister is a throwback to this old way of living.) But modern changes in ways of thinking and of viewing the world led to what sociologists and theologians call the privatisation of faith. Faith was relegated from something central that influenced everything to just one particular (and not very important) part of your life – the religious bit. While individuals were allowed to enjoy their faith in this private sphere, the other aspects of life – like work, study, good citizenship – were freed (!) to carry on without the oversight of faith. Today this may be changing again – some sociologists now talk about a post-secular world or a re-enchanted one.
The first step on the road to helping our young people make good life decisions is to help them to see that their spiritual life must be completely integrated with their Monday-to-Friday working life; nothing is as complicated as trying to live a double life. A simple idea like an exam prayer board can help young people integrate their faith into their wider life.
Always know who the Boss is
There’s nothing worse than directions you’ve lost confidence in. If after ten minutes you decide you can’t trust the list of – ‘turn left’, ‘over the mini-roundabout’, ‘past the Green Man pub on your left’ – instructions that your friend scrawled on the back of an order of service, then they are worse than useless. You’d be better off balling them up and throwing them out of the window (into a rubbish bin, of course) and then just following your nose, than you would be if you tried to half follow them, or follow them except where you think they’re wrong, or follow them except where you have a better idea.
Similarly, there’s no point asking for God to be involved in life-choices if there’s not the willingness to trust him and submit to his authority all the time – not just when it seems reasonable or happens to agree with ‘what I thought and wanted anyway’.
One possible definition of a Christian is ‘someone who respects the Lordship of Christ in their life’. If young people (or older youth workers, for that matter) are to make good life-choices they need to recognise that Christ must be the authority for all areas of life – not just for habits of church attendance or personal morality. That we live in a society where authority is a dirty word only makes this issue more important. The radical Christian claim is that true freedom only comes when we submit our lives to Christ, the Lord of all.
One way of understanding this is through the concept of calling. Our word ‘vocation’ has its roots in the Latin word vocare – to call, but in today’s terminology ‘a vocation’ is only applicable to certain kinds of work or career. However, every subject a Christian studies, every job a Christian does, and every career path a Christian follows should be a ‘vocation’ in the sense that if we are not called to it we shouldn’t be doing it. The Bible makes it clear that God called people to be craftsmen, soldiers and musicians quite as frequently and clearly as he called people to be prophets, priests and prayer warriors. God is calling and has callings for everyone. Young people need to be attuning themselves to hear God’s voice calling them whether they are considering a lifetime of ‘full-time Christian ministry’ or of employment in retail or catering. The way to find our vocation is to learn from God what he has called us to be and to do.
But God’s calling to us only has power to direct our lives if we are willing to submit ourselves to his authority. A Christian who wants to find his vocation will need to pay humble attention to God’s authority as it is transmitted through the Bible, through the Church and its leaders, through the wisdom of others (particularly elders) and through God’s quiet personal word spoken into his life and conscience. Once this decision to submit to authority has been made whole new horizons will open for the young people along with the great joy of knowing that God is with us and guiding us and, better yet, that he is able to redeem even our mistakes and our failings.
Get to grips with guidance
The final ground rule helps young people to translate a desire to integrate their faith and a willingness to submit their lives to God’s plans into concrete choices, decisions and actions. Implicit in all that has gone before is the confidence that God is able and willing to guide us as we move through life. But to hear God’s voice and accept his guidance in important areas requires a robust and certain understanding of what guidance is and how it takes place. If not the young people could end up in trouble. Although choices and decisions made about work and study are spiritual decisions it is still important not to slip into dangerous super-spirituality.
I will never forget the uncomfortable experience of sitting in front of an interview panel for the School of Medicine at Birmingham University. I was a wannabe medical student and during the interview the relevance of my Christian faith to my desire to study medicine came up. That was the beginning of the end for my medical aspirations. Not because the interview panel were anti-Christian but because they saw what I couldn’t see, namely that there was a gap between my ‘spiritual’ desire to be a doctor and serve as a medical missionary and my actual academic interests and aptitudes – I was clearly a natural humanities student struggling to stay afloat in the sciences. Looking back, I thank God for their experience and wisdom.
I’ve never regretted the fact that I didn’t become a doctor. I think at that young stage in my life I had become a little super-spiritual. I wanted to serve God and had had a real experience of calling from him – still one of the most profound moments of my Christian life. Because this calling had taken place in the context of someone talking about medical mission in Africa I had jumped to the conclusion that this was God’s calling for me. In my zeal I glossed over (and persuaded other people to do the same) many other indicators that showed clearly that medicine was unlikely to be the right career for me.
We must be careful to teach and model patterns of guidance and decision-making that take account of the many ways that God speaks to us and leads us. The kind of robust and safe understanding of guidance that we must lead young people into takes account of much more than just subjective spiritual experiences. It must also take heed of instructions, negative and positive, that are found in the Bible. It must take heed of the limits placed around us as Christians – there are things that a general consensus within the community of faith will tell the young people are simply out of bounds in terms of life and career choices. It must take heed of the examples of lives lived in submission to the call of God that the Bible, church history and Christian heroes of our own times make available. It must choose to think carefully, clearly and responsibly about what the calling is and how best to achieve it. It must heed the wisdom of others with greater experience and discernment, regardless of whether they work within the secular sphere (like a careers counsellor or a teacher) or within the church like a pastor or an elder.
If we can help young people, under the authority of Christ to draw as many of these things as possible into their search for the right direction for their lives we can be confident that they will be blessed and that their lives and especially their working lives will be blessings to others.
I’ve been working in youth ministry for long enough to have had the privilege of seeing former ‘young people’ go on to take their place in the nation’s work-force working variously as teachers, government economic advisors, missionaries, retail salespersons and even chart-topping recording artists. And I know that God does not grade their career choices in the way the world around them does. Instead, he rejoices with all who have responded to his call and are using their unique gifts wherever he has placed them.
Let us pray that from the young people we are now working with a committed generation of called Christians will grow to please God and to influence every facet of society – serving their fellow workers and their companies as human resources officers; planning and constructing comfortable homes for people as architects and builders; forming just laws for the vulnerable of the country as politicians; healing people as nurses, paramedics, and doctors; fighting for truth and creating uplifting entertainment as producers and performers in the media and sport.
Jonathan Brant is based in the UK