As church and ministry leaders, spiritual formation is what we care about most! Discipleship and spiritual formation are intimately linked.
Spiritual formation is the life-long process of allowing our will, thoughts, and behaviors to become like those of Jesus from the inside out. Spiritual formation is revealed in our actions, desires, and words, but it occurs in the heart, mind, and soul.
As we look to our next generation—Gen Alpha is growing up with our Generation Zers—there is no time to waste in developing healthy and effective spiritual formation practices. It’s our call as leaders to pass on what we know to our next generation, and learning what it really looks like to walk with Jesus is where we need to start.
Spiritual Formation Is Essential for Next-Gen Ministries
Spiritual maturity is not bound by age or physical maturity. However, we often fail to treat our youngest brothers and sisters as filled with the same Holy Spirit as we mature folks. This doesn’t mean that our seventh-graders will have the same Scripture-reading or prayer experience as a 25- or 70-year-old. But it does mean that Jesus is just as capable of being near to them, transforming them, and giving them purpose.
Our failure to teach spiritual formation and actively disciple our students will leave them high and dry when they inevitably grow in emotional or physical maturity. By then, your kids will have turned to every other avenue to get answers to the very valid questions they’re asking. Google, their friends, and TikTok will have authority over you, their parents, and the Bible—unless they’ve learned that Jesus is real, trustworthy, and actively shaping their lives.
Culture is a terrible witness to the vision and power of Jesus. The world is already forming your teens’ spiritual lives; you must teach them how to counter-form. Therefore, spiritual formation isn’t something that happens casually—it needs to be intentional, accessible, and powerful.
So what do we do? How do we use our Sunday morning, Wednesday evening, and other 166 hours in a week to spiritually form our students? I have three suggestions and three blindspots for church leaders.
How to Integrate Spiritual Formation into Next Generation Ministries
Be Honest and Intentional
I’ll be honest—for many of our churches, following Jesus looks like a pretty boring deal. Life looks pretty much the same, and many Christians aren’t raving about the radical joy, power, and life that’s supposed to come with real faith. So what gives? Why is life with Jesus valuable at all?
We need to teach our students that life with Jesus offers something seriously powerful, and they need to actually experience it. Something beyond the cool worship nights or the bonfire high (although those are tools of spiritual formation, too).
Create time in your regular meetings and in-between meetings to invite your students into spiritual formation practices and tell them what’s happening. We don’t pray because “it’s the rule,” we pray because we get to talk to God. And what’s more than that is that he talks back.
Explore that relationship often with your students—how do you enter into the presence of God, and how do you hear from him? Share openly and often about your own experience to show students what spiritual maturity has in store for them.
Spiritual formation is something we have to practice. Fortunately, Scripture and church tradition provide us with an incredible number of ways to meet with God, hear from him, and act in his power. Introducing the next generation to the dynamic relationship Jesus offers begins with exploring more than informational Scripture reading and structured prayer.
God makes himself available to us through movement, nature, music, discussion, silence, formational Scripture reading, confession, service, fasting, obedience, studying—the list continues. Connect the dots with your students. Teach them what the presence of God looks and feels like, and where to find him.
Partner with Them
There is a lot of non-Christian spiritual opportunity out there right now. But we need to let young people wrestle with freedom and hearing from God in their own minds, lives, and souls. We get to be with them (we must be with them), but we need to trust the Spirit is doing something in them that is unique and holy.
Mentorship and intentional discipleship are perhaps the single most valuable spiritual formation tool for all believers, especially the young ones. Walk alongside your students in friendship to shepherd, encourage, and support them as they explore what God has in store for their lives, now and in the future.
Next-Gen Spiritual Formation Blindspots
In pursuit of strong youth groups and next-gen programs, we can make some missteps as leaders, even with great intentions. Here are three common ones to look out for.
Focusing on the Behavior as the Ultimate
Our fruit as Christians is how we know that our faithfulness is in the right place. However, focusing on behavior modification as the primary indicator of spiritual maturity misses the point. The process of sanctification is just that—a process. When we skip the intimacy of n being with Jesus and jump right to being like him and doing what he did (i.e., being perfect), we miss out on what gives us the power to behave rightly.
Releasing control of your student’s behavior and focusing on their inner life and relationships is a big deal. But we get to grow in our own spiritual maturity when we trust the Spirit’s work in the lives of our students.
Removing the Mystery of God’s Spirit
The work of the Spirit is what causes the life transformation we’re longing for in our next generation. Yet, how we teach our students to follow Jesus often removes that power. When behavior becomes the primary focus, then your student’s strengths become the primary power. They miss out on the surrender, faith, and miraculous work of the Spirit. Like we’ve talked about, releasing the quantifiable change in your students is scary. But we need to create space for slow, mysterious, supernatural work; this is the way of Jesus.
Neglecting Your Volunteers, Staff, or Personal Spiritual Formation
Our fast-paced culture often leaves us neglecting our own spiritual formation, in addition to the spiritual lives of those we’re inviting to mentor and lead our students. Skipping the spiritual formation of your staff and volunteers leads to burnout, bitterness, limited capacity, and immaturity. Even before your students, you and your staff require spiritual support and community. You’re longing for a next generation full of passionate, deep, resilient disciples. Your student ministries are prime gardening spaces to nourish their spiritual formation—don’t trade that essential, messy, powerful work for simple behavior modification, “palatable” messages, or hustle culture. The future of your church depends on a bought-in next generation, and the future of the world depends on their real relationship with Jesus.
Victoria Greenwald is a spiritual formation and ministry coach bringing intimate revival to American churches, one leader at a time. Through ministry team and individual coaching, Victoria helps leaders walk in their unique callings from a place of intimacy so that they can make the Kingdom impact they’re desperate for. Connect with her victoriagreenwald.net or on Instagram @victoria_greenwald.