Creating habit-forming communities (Part 1)

Steven Johnson Image Steven Johnson | Aug 5, 2009

“Today I woke up and everything in the world was black or white.”

I bet none of our blog entries or journals has ever started with something like that. After all, we live in a world of color that daily fills our eyes with the complexity around us.

As youth workers, it can be easy to forget that many of the students we serve daily live and think in a world that’s in many ways still black and white. Research shows that during adolescence a person’s brain develops skills needed in making decisions, processing information, and processing emotion. [[Eisenberg, Nancy, Amanda Cumberland, Ivanna K. Guthrie, Birdget C. Murphy, and Stephanie A. Shepard, “Age Changes in Prosoical Responding and Moral Reasoning in Adolesence and Early Adulthood,” in “Journal of Research on Adolescence, 2005. 15(3), 235-360.]] Until the time adolescents move into abstractly thinking about themselves, others, and concepts at 14 to 15, they think concretely because the frontal lobes of their brain are still maturing. ((See Steinberg, Laurence and Amanda Sheffield Morris, “Adolescent Development,” Annual Review of Psychology, 2001. 52:83-110, 91; and Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne and Choudhury, Suparna. “Development of the Adolescent Brain: Implications for Executive Function and Social Cognition.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2006), 47:3/4.)) The frontal lobes of the brain are responsible for “regulating aggression, long-range planning, mental flexibility, abstract thinking, the capacity to hold in mind related pieces of information, and perhaps moral judgment.” ((Bower, Bruce. “Teen Brains on Trial.” Science News, Vol. 165, Issue 19.))

Briefly, this means that concrete thinkers see life choices in two categories: right or wrong. Even once students move toward abstract thinking, black and white categories can still exist within their understanding of the world around them because their frontal lobes are not completely developed until around 20 years old. ((Beckman, Mary. “Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain.”, Vol. 305, Issue 5684. July 30, 2004.)) Joined with the multi-faced masks that students put on, discipleship can be a daunting task for many youth workers. During this time of transition and learning, it is important that youth ministries are creating a habit-forming environment instead of a rule-obeying environment as they learn what it means to follow Jesus.

Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with rules. Rules allow people to understand what is right and wrong, what it means to obey rules and the consequences of breaking rules. But the problem with rules, as N.T. Wright stated at a recent lecture, is that they “keep you in an immature state” and that they will ultimately not be enough to help us learn to govern ourselves. ((N.T. Wright, “Learning the Language of Life: New Creation and Virtue” at Lake Avenue Church on 2/26/2009))

Creating a culture of rule-keeping makes students think in terms of “good” vs. “bad.” Students become more concerned with being “good” than being a true follower of Jesus. This type of lifestyle becomes exhausting to students because there is no room for failure and grace. Rule keeping can also lead to confusion. For instance, what happens when two rules come into contradiction? At some point rules just fall short because situations might call for something greater: habits.

Stay tuned as we flesh this out more in part 2 of our post series...

Steven Johnson Image
Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is currently serving as High School Director at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Washington. He is a 2009 MDiv graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a concentration in Youth, Family, and Culture. Steve also speaks at local youth conferences and is passionate about helping teens encounter God, see themselves as a vital part of the church, and train them to manifest the Kingdom of God.

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