Intro comment: We were asked to contribute an article for the Association of Christian Schools International, so this one is geared towards educators but we wanted to share it with you too! Check out Part 1 first HERE!
Because of how we process life as adults it’s easy to think we must first KNOW, then we start to DO what we know, and then we naturally, even subconsciously begin to BE who we know we should be. But early development progresses in the reverse order. First we start BEING like the people we see. We are internalizing and reflecting the minutia. Our mirror neurons are firing like crazy and everything from facial expressions to attitudes become a part of us, without any understanding of the “why” behind it. Then we start DOING more overt things like the person we are mirroring. As children we then begin to make the conscious choice to act like mommy, daddy or the superhero on TV. Then, after years of that process unfolding we finally begin KNOWING. Our capacity for understanding why they do what they do increases and with our minds we know how to make judgements and decisions like our mentors even when they aren’t there to show us the way.
We’ve got to incorporate that process into a young believer’s understanding of God. As our students mature, they may be able to grasp intellectual concepts about math, science or english, but it seems that spiritual development takes on a different timeline. Maybe we tend to offer them the framework of ideologies before the foundation of who God is, or more accurately “how” God is, is fully developed.
Building a strong foundation of knowing God begins with mirroring. As youth pastors we discovered that giving young people an opportunity to mirror God by serving the poor, laying down their own desires for another, making sacrifices by “taking up their cross” to follow Jesus brought about a change in attitude and heart that endless preaching and teaching hadn’t even come close to. Inviting students into action, into mirroring within their physical bodies the stories of love, sacrifice and mystery that God embodies, seems to be such an important step in the process of spiritual development. It’s not sacrifice for the ego’s sake, it’s practice, almost like muscle memory, for the obedience that faith requires in the more mature years. At Heartwork, we have seen students who have previously been self-absorbed tweens or teens sell their video games, sleep on the floor, eat beans and rice for a week straight and take cold showers, all as “empathy challenges” designed to engage their minds, emotions and bodies in mirroring our extravagantly generous God. We’ve seen this invitation to love sacrificially like Jesus does soften even the most disillusioned hearts.
Challenging young people to spend themselves for others, as described in Isaiah 58:10 seems counterintuitive when we can’t get them to do their homework or clean their room. But they are truly capable of so much. We just have to start in the right place. Inviting them to mirror God in their actions, with their whole beings may be that foundational piece to build upon. We are created to be like God. It’s in our bones. From Jeremiah 22:16 to James 1:27 God calls us to action on behalf of the marginalized. Defending and caring for the poor and distressed is considered a pure form of acting out our faith. Maybe it’s not only because he wants us to care for them on his behalf, but because it’s an integral part of how we actually get to know him. Whether it’s serving in a local shelter or giving part of their spending money to international relief and development, there are so many things students can do to participate in Kingdom redemption even now while they are young. It’s not only practice for when they have greater resources to give, it’s foundational, action-oriented faith that challenges the cultural norm of self-focus and entitlement. And standing up to that monster called entitlement is always a good thing.