Along my back fence my neighbor recently planted four evergreen trees. They’re not tiny saplings, but not fully mature either. They appear to be teenage trees purchased and planted with the hope that one day their towering full-grown splendor will adorn the boring fence we currently share. Today is not that day.
As I pour my bowl of cereal I look out across the backyard. My neighbor’s four recent investments look wilted. Droopy. Approaching hopelessness. The once thick, hearty leaves appear sparse and brittle. It’s the summer and the ground is dry. Has she watered them? As I ponder the potential impending loss of those four, sad, twiggy, little teenage trees, I wonder why my neighbor hasn’t spent more time cultivating the growth of her vulnerable new plantings. And then the answer hits me: because it’s easier to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.
There’s an important parenting lesson to be learned from my backyard neighbor’s malnourished landscaping. With plants, cultivating growth takes time and intentionality. With people, exponentially more so. As a parent raising actual teenagers, I’m familiar with the temptation to drift into a hands-off, watch-and-see, hope-they-grow form of parenting stewardship because raising and discipling teenagers is hard work. But just as planting fragile young trees and leaving them to wither in dry dirt isn’t productive or advisable, neither is overlooking the responsibility of discipleship in the life of my teenager.
When my daughter placed her hope in Christ, by grace, through faith, she began to grow and change by the power of the Holy Spirit. This progressive work of being made more and more like Christ is called sanctification and it is a process that takes a lifetime. As a follower of Christ, my daughter is called to continually grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18) until she is conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). As a co-laborer with God, I am privileged to help cultivate godliness in the life of my teenager and to witness her growth and increasing maturity in Christ.
If you are the parent of a teenager, here are three ways you can cultivate your teen’s growth in godliness:
1. Keep an Eye on Growth
Don’t assume your teenager is healthy and growing; watch for telltale signs. Ephesians 2 places your teenager into one of two categories. She is either dead in her trespasses and sins, following the course of the world (v.1), or she’s been saved by grace through faith and been made alive together with Christ (v. 5). If she has believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, then you should clearly see evidence of spiritual growth and new life by way of progressive heart change.
In Matthew 7:16-17 Jesus says his disciples will be known by their fruit. Every healthy tree bears good fruit; every diseased tree bears bad fruit. Born again teenagers will bear good fruit—for God (Rom. 7:4). Is good fruit present? Do you see evidence of the fruit of the Spirit? Does your teen’s life look different than it did before professing faith in Christ? Help your teen learn to identify what spiritual fruit looks like by applauding it in their life and in the lives of others. Be quick to celebrate evidence of Christian growth and maturity in your teenager
2. Make Room for the Roots to Grow
The prophet Jeremiah writes, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jer. 17:7-8). Learning to trust God takes time. Are you helping or preventing the formation of these roots of trust in your teenager? To answer this question, consider how you encourage or allow your teenager to spend his time.
Is your teen weighed down by copious amounts of schoolwork? Overscheduled with team sports and extra-curricular activities? Consumed by social media? Is he glued to video games, earbuds, or an iPhone? While these may be completely common ways to spend time, they’re not necessarily helpful to the teen attempting to grow in godliness. Consider teenage Jesus, at the end of Luke chapter 2, who at the age of 12, was in the temple “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Youth did not prevent Jesus from prioritizing his Father’s work and knowing him more. And Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (v.52).
Clarify for your teenager that the ordinary means of Christian growth in wisdom and maturity come by seeking to understand God through his Word. Parents can clear a path to such growth by removing some of the common obstacles. Busyness, boredom, and lack of direction frequently get in a teenager’s way. Don’t overschedule your teen. Help her learn to manage her schoolwork and responsibilities in ways that leave room for Bible reading, church attendance, and Christian fellowship. Establish healthy boundaries for how much time she should spend on social media, television, or rest and relaxation. Then, encourage her to form a plan for how and when she’ll study the Bible and challenge her to practice accountability with a trusted Christian friend or mentor. Make room in your teenager’s life and schedule to encourage her roots to grow deep.
3. Water the Soil
Growing roots need to be able to locate living water. Your teenager doesn’t need you to have all the answers or to solve all of his problems. He needs you to point him to the source of living water that never runs dry. In John 7:37 Jesus cried, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
Show your teenager what it tangibly looks like to turn to the Lord and drink from “the fountain of living water” for his every need. Live openly before him, honestly admitting weakness, confessing sin, and pleading with God for help. Read and pray Scripture with your teen. Praise God regularly and specifically for providing you with his Word and his Spirit to face the days’ trials. Teach your teen to avoid spiritual malnourishment by humbly planting your own roots by the streams of living water and inviting your teen to do the same.
Whoever Is Wise
I’m not sure how my neighbor’s scrawny teenage evergreen trees will look a year from now. I’ll just have to wait and see. It’s not so easy to patiently wait on growth in your teenager. Will she pull through the heat of her teen years and emerge with thriving Christian maturity? Years from now, will he grow into a strongly rooted oak of righteousness, planted in the Lord? Lord, may it be.
In Hosea 14:8-9, the Lord proclaims, “It is I who answer and look after you, I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit. Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them…” All life and growth ultimately depend on God’s great mercy.
God is the creator and sustainer of each teenager’s life. He plants. He waters. He gives the growth. And this good news gives me hope. As you obediently work to disciple your teenagers—tilling the soil, plucking weeds, and cultivating godly growth—you can rest assured you’re not the Gardner. The Lord can be trusted to answer your prayers, to look after you and your twiggy teenagers. And if he so desires, he is fully capable of turning your teenager into a full-grown, mature oak of righteousness whose life bursts with the godly fruit of Christian maturity, beautifully adorning the world God created. Start cultivating your teen’s growth today.
Lindsey Carlson is the mother of five children and has served alongside her husband in pastoral ministry for fourteen years, currently at Imprint Community Church in Baltimore, Maryland. She enjoys teaching and discipling women through writing and public speaking, but most often through the context of the local church. She is the author of Growing in Godliness: A Teen Girl's Guide to Maturing in Christ.
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