Defining Choices

Facing obstacles that can hinder spiritual growth in today’s youth

By Bill Helmlinger

In the spring of 2004, I was a sophomore in High school and baseball season was just getting started. I started in two games before the weekend came. But that weekend, I decided to go to a youth conference called Acquire the Fire in Indianapolis instead of playing baseball. That decision was one of the first times I faced an obstacle in my life that would help define who I was going to be. That decision was one of the few times I chose God during High school. Sadly, when I returned from the conference, I found myself out of the starting lineup for the rest of the season because I chose God over baseball. Even worse, my replacement never played outfield before. Talk about the ultimate gut check! Coaching strategies like these send powerful messages to our youth. The messages often discourage faith formation.

Fast-forward 15 years. I serve as the youth pastor at First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana where I see youth of all ages faced with various obstacles in their lives. I recently polled the youth at First Mennonite about the obstacles they feel hinder them from truly following after God. The answers they gave were not surprising. One of the major obstacles in a teenager’s life today is being too busy. Areas that take their time include sports, extracurricular activities such as band, choir, and dance, and screen time on cell phones, computers, TV, and game consoles. I only have space to address sports and screens.

Teens can play organized sports all year round if they wish. Many students to whom I minister participate in fall, winter, and spring sports. Over the years, a few played in multiple sports in the same season.

Wednesday was once considered a reserved night for spiritual activities and was known as “church night,” but the practice no longer exists in our community. That does not mean church is closed on Wednesdays, but that schools no longer block it out from scheduling practices, games, and other school activities. If you were to ask someone in their fifties, they would tell you that there weren’t even practices held on Wednesdays for any sports when they were in school.

When I played baseball in high school, we practiced every night right after school, but there were never any games scheduled on Wednesdays. Just this past spring, one of the local schools had twenty scheduled sporting activities on Wednesday nights. Twenty! Youth are faced with the decision to either go to the game or come to youth group. Let’s just say few, if any, choose the latter. The reasons vary, but some fear losing playing time or being looked at awkwardly for choosing church over sports. Club sports, which take place mostly on weekends, removes Sundays as a day reserved for God.

When we eliminate Wednesday and Sunday, the faith and spiritual growth of youth suffers. Options to teach youth the word of God and involve them in ministry become very limited. If parents place more of an emphasis on sports, dance, or music over church, then they send a powerful message. Youth may conclude the priority of church in the spiritual life of their parents is also low. As a result, church can acceptably take second place to sports in a youth’s mind. Their need to achieve success at sports overshadows the need to grow spiritually. I have asked youth many times, “Do we practice our faith the same way we practice our sport or our instrument? Does our lifestyle reflect devotion to the God we claim to believe in and serve?” As parents, what precedent do we set?

The use of entertainment electronics, especially video game consoles, consumes our time. The majority of youth today play games, whether on a gaming system, cell phone, or computer. They spend a lot of time in front of a screen playing games.

I went into the local schools last year during lunch to hang out with youth. One of the things that  consistently dominated the conversation was a game called Fortnite. Fortnite is a third-person shooter game that has realistic weapons like Call of Duty with the amazing graphics of Halo. If that description makes no sense, that’s okay. It just means you are not a gamer.

This game is played by so many youth and talked about so much at school, that most kids know about it whether they have played it or not. I am a part of two different youth ministry groups on Facebook that have youth pastors from all over the nation talking about how often their youth play this game.

I asked a student about Fortnite during lunch. He told me that he played until midnight the day before. How does he study for school? How does he get chores done at home? How would he ever have time to spend with God, praying and reading the Bible?

The time we spend on our devices drastically affects our spiritual posture, how we take care of ourselves, and how we treat others. The negative effect of excessive screen time affects adults as well. Just as youth can be ineffective at school, so can adults be ineffective at home, at work, in church, and in relationships.

As parents, we need to be proactive in setting family guidelines for participating in sports, extracurricular activities, and screen time. Kids need models that demonstrate access to the Word of God and participation in ministry are more highly valued than sports or screen time.

We struggled with these issues in our home. It required me to make some drastic changes in the atmosphere of our home. It meant getting rid of my Xbox, which was taking time from family and work. We decided faith and family needed greater time and focus. When we removed distractions, we provided greater opportunity to follow God and allow space for wonderful things to happen.

Take time to consider personal faith and the faith of our children. Are there any obstacles that hinder spiritual growth? I encourage you to be proactive if something needs changed. Remember, God is present to help solve obstacles like sports, extracurricular activities, and screen time. However, getting God’s help typically requires us to recognize the problem and then seek God for a way forward.

Bill Helmlinger is the youth pastor at First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana.

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