Archive for category: Ministry

Biographical Study: Nathaniel

20 Oct
October 20, 2014

More than you ever wanted to know about the briefly mentioned Nathaniel of the New Testament! This is a paper I recently wrote with the goal of creating a biography using primarily scripture on Nathaniel. It was challenging, as he is only mentioned twice in scripture, with one of those two times simply being a list of people.


Biographical Study: Nathaniel

New Testament Orientation I

By Matthew McNutt


One of the challenges on writing a biography about Nathaniel is the lack of information about him in the New Testament. He is only directly mentioned twice in the Bible, both times in the book of John (chapters 1 and 21), with very little information about him revealed. The passage in John 1 is the one, of the two, with the most detail, with Nathaniel’s call to follow Jesus described over the course of five verses. The reference in John 21 is simply a listing of those present after the resurrection at the third appearance of Christ. No direct involvement of Nathaniel is recorded other than his presence.

Scholars believe there is a case to be made that the Bartholomew mentioned briefly in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the book of Acts, is in fact Nathaniel. Through careful examination of the scriptures and extra-biblical historical sources, a compelling case can be made that the Nathaniel and Bartholomew mentioned in the gospel accounts is the same individual. It is not unusual for individuals in the scriptures to have more than one name, and it is interesting to note that the name Nathaniel does not make an appearance in any of those four books.[1]

Through using commentaries on the gospels and Acts, as well as scholarly articles, this paper will attempt to both make the case for Nathaniel and Bartholomew being the same individual, and having accomplished that, communicate what is known directly of his life and death. Of course, if he was in fact one of the twelve apostles, we can have a broad view through the New Testament and specifically the gospels of his activities at large as a part of that group, however, this paper will focus only on those events in which he is named as a participant.

Two Names, One Man


Readers are introduced to Nathaniel in chapter one of the gospel of John. He is a man from Cana, with his name meaning “God has given.”[2] While there is no direct reference to Nathaniel being called to be one of the twelve apostles, it can be assumed that his invitation to follow Christ is recognized in the beginning of John to establish just such a relationship. While Christ would formally recognize the twelve later in His ministry, John’s emphasis of Nathaniel’s call in chapter one points to a more important connection to Christ throughout His earthly ministry.[3] Nathaniel also seems to have a special place of honor in his early recognizance of Christ, calling Him the “Son of God”, and the “King of Israel” in verse 49.[4]

Some details to note about Nathaniel include that John connects him to Philip. Throughout the gospels each of the writers seem to consistently split the twelve into groups of four.[5] While they may vary the order in which the individuals are listed in each foursome, overall the three groupings are listed in the same order. It is most likely not a coincidence that the first group of four listed contains the most visible apostles throughout the gospel narrative, while the apostle consistently listed last is Judas Iscariot.[6] This would seem to indicate an intentionality in how Nathaniel is listed in this passage following Philip, establishing a relationship we will see repeated in the other gospel accounts if it is also accepted that the name Bartholomew is also referring to Nathaniel.

There are two other theories for who the name Nathaniel refers to, however, neither theory carries much support.[7] The first is that the reference to Nathaniel in John 1 is simply allegorical and that Nathaniel is simply an ideal disciple, hence the name chosen which means “God has given”.[8] However, this is unlikely because the story is told in such a literal way with no indication that it is some sort of story or example, but is in fact exactly what it seems to be – the calling of a literal man named Nathaniel. The second theory is that Nathaniel is another name for Matthew, since both names have similar meanings.[9] However, this also seems unlikely because of the pairing of Nathaniel with Philip, as well as the much stronger evidence for the alternate name Bartholomew.


Bartholomew is mentioned in four places in the New Testament scriptures; Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14, and Acts 1:13. In all four passages he is included in lists of Apostles present for different events or moments. What is interesting to note is that Bartholomew is not mentioned in the book of John, nor is Nathaniel mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke or Acts.

According to William Lane, what we have recorded as the name Bartholomew is not actually a name that people would be given. Instead, it is a patronymic (a name derived from the name of a father or ancestor) which literally means “Son of Talmai”.[10] It can be assumed that this Son of Talmai had an actual name in addition to this patronymic.

In addition, as previously noted, there seems to be a tendency in the Biblical authors to list the disciples in a specific order. While never defined for the readers, there seems to clearly be a pattern or hierarchy in listing the twelve. In John 1, Nathaniel is paired with Philip. Meanwhile, in Bartholomew is paired with Philip in all three of the synoptic gospels; Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14.[11] A similar pairing happens with Nathaniel being named immediately after Thomas in John 21:2, exactly in the same way that Bartholomew is named immediately after Thomas in Acts 1:13.[12]

While tradition can be a questionable source, coupled with the above information, it does add weight to the argument that Bartholomew is in fact Nathaniel. According to Ronald Brownrigg, “The identification of Bartholomew and Nathanael has been widely accepted by biblical scholars from the 9th century to the present day.”[13]

One Man

While it cannot be known for certain this side of eternity whether or not Nathaniel and Bartholomew were in fact the same man, the evidence to support that idea does seem strong. Consequently, while the only story specifically about Nathaniel in the Bible comes in the first chapter of John, readers are able to assume that he in fact becomes one of the twelve apostles. First, because his calling to discipleship was singled out and described, attributing a level of importance to Nathaniel. Secondly, because the name Bartholomew was included several times in lists of the apostles, making a strong case that Bartholomew was an apostle.[14]

The following biography of Nathaniel is based on the passages in which Nathaniel or Bartholomew are mentioned. As an apostle, it can be assumed that he was an eye witness and a participant throughout Christ’s ministry on earth. However, for this paper, only the instances where he is specifically mentioned as a participant will be included.



John 21:2 mentions that Nathaniel is from Cana in Galilee. In John 1:47, Jesus describes Nathaniel as a “genuine son of Israel – a man of complete integrity.” In John 1:48 Jesus mentions that He knew Nathaniel was under the fig tree earlier. Very little is known of Nathaniel before his encounter with Jesus. But the above comments do give some insight. The reader can know where he is from, what kind of community he grew up in and what its climate would have been. Nathaniel makes a comment wondering what good can come from Nazareth, referring to Christ – however, nowhere else is Nazareth spoken of in a negative manner, which leaves the question of why Nathaniel would say what he did. One proposed explanation? Leon Morris notes that Cana in Galilee was in close proximity to Nazareth, and Nathaniel’s comment may reflect nothing more than a small town rivalry.[15]

More significantly, Christ’s comments regarding Nathaniel’s character, combined with his activity under the fig tree paint a picture of a deeply devoted man of God. Frequently the fig tree would be used a symbol of home, a place where one would go for prayer, meditation and study.[16] Jesus pointing out His knowledge of Nathaniel’s time at the fig tree, as well as labeling him a “genuine son of Israel – a man of complete integrity”, something Christ would know far more so than any other lead the reader to confidentially identify Nathaniel as one known for his integrity in his family and in his community. He was a man of God who had grown up connected to the Jewish traditions for education and upbringing.


The Call. There are five ministry moments that mention Nathaniel as a participant by name in the scriptures. The first is a continuation of the discussion on John 1:45-49 in that it is Nathaniel’s call to discipleship, which eventually leads to him being named an apostle. There is some speculation that Nathaniel’s reaction to Christ’s words about the fig tree are due to Jesus using a phrase that would have had a connection to Jacob and his struggle with God.[17] Brownrigg claims that Nathaniel was reading about Jacob and his struggle while dealing with his own struggle over whether or not Christ was the Messiah; when Christ used language that hinted at that exact topic, it was all the confirmation he needed to know Christ’s identity. However, it is a bit of a stretch to come to such a specific conclusion when the text does not claim it. Leon Morris takes a much more cautious stance, simply pointing out the use of language that would have pointed to Jacob without drawing any conclusions from it other than that clearly Jesus revealed knowledge of something deeply meaningful and spiritual in Nathaniel’s life – such knowledge could not be had without God’s intervention, and so Nathaniel commits himself to following Christ and his involvement in Christian ministry begins.[18]

Choosing of the Twelve. The second ministry moment is recorded in Mark 3:13-19 and Luke 6:12-16; both authors describe the same moment, with different details. Luke mentions that Christ prefaced His choosing of the twelve by spending the night in prayer. Both mention Nathaniel by the name Bartholomew. In this moment, Nathaniel transitioned from a simple student of Christ to one of the twelve who would follow Him everywhere, benefit from a level of exposure to Christ and His ministry that would ultimately equip them to start and lead the New Testament church. More than likely, this was one of the most significant moments of his life.

Both William Lane[19] and Leon Morris[20] point out that this new group of twelve represent the people of the twelve tribes of Israel. Christ was directly claiming authority over the entirety of Israel in a way that both honored the past (the twelve tribes) while starting something new. Through their connection to Christ in this unique relationship they were given authority.[21]

The term “apostle” given to them by Christ comes from the verb translated “to send”[22], literally naming them messengers in His name, to carry the Good News throughout the world, and after His death and resurrection, to begin the New Testament church.

Jesus Sends Out the Twelve. The third moment in Nathaniel’s ministry life is recorded in Matthew 10. In this passage Jesus gives them detailed instructions, including the following:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

Nathaniel is specifically listed in this passage as Luke records the names of those sent out (Luke records him with the name Bartholomew). Matthew records Christ’s instructions to the twelve, and His warnings to them. This passage is also a beautiful commissioning of the twelve, empowering them for ministry. Bruner suggests the following outline for Jesus’ traveling instructions to them:[23]

  1. Where to Go in Mission (Not Here But Here), 10:5-6
  2. What to Do in Mission (Heralding and Healing), 10:7-8a
  3. How to Do Mission (Simply, Not Grandly), 10:8b-10
  4. With Whom to Do Mission (The Receptive), 10:11-13a
  5. How to Handle Rejection in Mission (Peace Retrieving and Dust Shaking), 10:13b-15

Back to Fishing. The fourth moment involving Nathaniel by name is recorded in John 21:1-14, after the crucifixion of Christ, the third time He appeared to the disciples. Six of the disciples, including Nathaniel, have returned to fishing. In a way, it paints a picture of hopelessness – these are men without a cause returning to what they know. After fishing for the night, they return empty handed only to have Jesus on the shore telling them to cast their nets again – at this point they have not recognized Him. It is only once their nets are overwhelmed with a massive haul that they realize His true identity. For this group of men, it must have been a powerful moment; it would still be very fresh in their minds how they fled Jesus in His moment of crucifixion. They are broken, feeling like failures, “men without a purpose,”[24] and Christ simply spends time with them, feeding them, and demonstrating to them His unconditional love. These actions in time turn this group of men who fled danger in fear at the time of His crucifixion into a group of fearless leaders who would all die for their faith.

The Upper Room. Acts 1:12-14, the fifth and final ministry moment in which Nathaniel is named. At this point, the now eleven apostles, the women, Mary the mother of Jesus and Christ’s brothers are following Jesus’ instructions to them to wait for the Holy Spirit’s arrival. They do so in the Upper Room, which some speculate to be the same Upper Room in which Jesus had celebrated Passover with the twelve – but this cannot be proven.[25]

Not much of significance is mentioned in this specific passage, other than their faithful obedience and patience regarding Christ’s commands. It is our last Biblical mention of Nathaniel, a man who has followed Christ from that first encounter until this one. The eleven do select a twelfth apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. This was a time for prayer, for preparing, for gaining strength before the whirlwind events that triggered the birth of the early church.


The scriptures do not record Nathaniel’s death. Like most of the apostles, very little was ever said about him in the Bible. Most of the recorded history focuses on the words and actions of a few, with the implied message that the rest of the twelve were just as involved but unrecorded for history.

Brownrigg records that tradition holds that Nathaniel served as a missionary, traveling as far as India, and finding his death through a brutal flaying at Albanopolis in Armenia.[26] Because of this traditional view of Nathaniel’s death, he is generally drawn with his skin over his arm and a knife in his hand.


Like many of the apostles, little is actually known of Nathaniel. If it is accepted that Bartholomew and Nathaniel are the same man it brings the total number moments in his life recorded in scripture from two to five. The reality is that gospels, and the New Testament as a whole, seem to only focus on a few of the twelve.

Yet even so, it should not be thought that Nathanael was in any way a minor player – Christ did not call him to be one of the twelve simply to fill a spot on the roster so His apostles had spiritual symbolism with the nation of Israel. Each one of those men were called with a purpose, to complete a vital team of men. As an apostle he had great spiritual authority and influence on the early church, as well as a critical missionary role. His time with Christ equipped him for ministry in a way none of us will experience on this earth. Under his leadership, as well as the other apostles, the early church was born and a movement was started that would ultimately spread throughout the world and change the course of history.

All because, to his astonishment, he encountered something amazing from Nazareth.


Brownrigg, Ronald. “Nathaniel.” Who’s Who in the New Testament. 2002.

Bruce, F.F. The Book of the Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988.

Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. Volume 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

Lane, William L. The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.

Morris, Leon. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Sproul, R.C. John. Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, Inc., 2009.


[1] Brownrigg, Ronald. “Nathaniel.” Who’s Who in the New Testament. 2002.

[2] Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995. 143.

[3] Ibid., 144.

[4] Sproul, R. C. John. Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, 2009. Location 281.

[5] Bruce, F. F. The Book of the Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1988. 40.

[6] Ibid., 40.

[7] Morris, The Gospel According to John. 143.

[8] Ibid., 143.

[9] Ibid., 143.

[10] Lane, William L. The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1974. 135.

[11] Morris, The Gospel According to John. 143.

[12] Ibid., 143.

[13] Brownrigg, Ronald. “Nathaniel.” Who’s Who in the New Testament. 2002.

[14] Morris, The Gospel According to John. 143.

[15] Ibid., 145.

[16] Ibid., 146.

[17] Brownrigg, Ronald. “Nathaniel.” Who’s Who in the New Testament. 2002.

[18] Morris, The Gospel According to John. 146.

[19] Lane, Mark. 132.

[20] Morris, Leon. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988. 145.

[21] Lane, Mark. 133.

[22] Ibid., 145.

[23] Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004. 458.

[24] Morris, The Gospel According to John. 760.

[25] Bruce, Acts. 40.

[26] Brownrigg, Ronald. “Nathaniel.” Who’s Who in the New Testament. 2002.

Short Term Mission Report Sunday

04 Sep
September 4, 2014

The other week we had our annual short term mission trip report Sunday where people from all the different mission trips our church sends out each year shared what God had done in them and through them during the mission trips. Over the course of the three worship services, Anna, Kristina, Lauren, Jessica, JD and Luke each shared (two students per worship service) about their experiences on the Costa Rica trip, Chicago trip, and Maine trip. This video is a compilation of all six students!

The First Grade Gift

03 Sep
September 3, 2014

Every year the first grade Sunday School class collects an offering to benefit student missions – I’ve been meaning to post this for a while now! This past spring they raised over a hundred dollars, came over to the student hour on Sunday morning, gifted it to the Costa Rica team and recited their memory verse on missions! It was a very cool morning; and fun for me because the signature from Noah on the above card they made for the family in Costa Rica our team was building a home for is MY Noah!

2014 Summer Missions Highlights

26 Aug
August 26, 2014

This is a video we showed this past Sunday in church highlighting our four student ministry summer mission trips from last June! I love doing these kinds of videos because we typically only have time to hear from a few students on a Sunday morning … which drives me nuts! There are sooooo many more stories; at least with this, using short audio snippets from the different student mission trip reports that happened outside of the worship services, 25 other students were able to be heard over the course of the video!

Cell phones on youth events?

27 May
May 27, 2014

A while back I wrote a blog post explaining why we don’t allow students to bring cell phones (or any other devices) on mission trips; you can read it here. I was actually surprised at the amount of conversation it triggered on Facebook and elsewhere. One of the reasons I feel that we are able to ban devices on our mission trips is that we communicate the heart behind it over and over … and we allow them on everything else.

The last thirteen years as a full time youth worker have been fascinating when it comes to technology. When I first started, teens almost never had cell phones. The only devices they had that were remotely portable were discman’s and Gameboys. We wouldn’t allow them on trips, retreats, etc., because we were concerned somewhat about what was being listened to, and far more importantly, the purpose of the trips were building connections and relationships and the devices really got in the way of that. It was an easy ban to enforce; discman’s seemed small at the time, but they couldn’t fit in a pocket, and even a cd wallet is still somewhat bulky. The same went for Gameboys; once you factored in the charger, cartridges, and other assorted gear, it wasn’t something that was easy to hide. So all in all, the rule had a good value (protecting the purpose of the trip) and was mostly easy to enforce.

Flash forward a decade or so … and these cell phones are more powerful than the computers we had back then. One small phone can access the internet, call, text, contain movies, tv shows, stream videos, house a massive library of music (and stream whatever is missing), as well as be a video game hub. It’s also teens’ primary camera (usually the only one), and socially, a must have device more important than just about any other possession.

More significantly, parents are used to being able to contact their kids wherever, whenever. I used to complain about this all the time; that didn’t use to be the reality, why are people so dependent on it now – but I get it now. Sending my older boys to peoples’ houses, events, activities, sports, etc., is unnerving at times and I feel better when I send a phone with them. If something is wrong, I want them to text or call immediately, not be looking for someone to borrow a phone from (payphones are virtually non-existent now a days). The reality is, when phones are banned from events, overnights, retreats – you name it – many of the parents tell their children to bring the phone anyway and keep it hidden.

Which is why we allow phones to everything (other than mission trips) now. Why have a rule that is incredibly difficult to enforce, that parents don’t buy into, and basically has the bulk of the group immediately violating it? It’s just not worth it. Talk about setting up for failure!

So we’ve changed the rule to say that kids are not allowed to use devices during any group functions; this includes the van/bus ride (we are together as a group!), any scheduled activities, meetings, after lights out, etc. The consequence being a warning, and then confiscating it (a system they’re very used to in school). Basically, they’re allowed to use them during the limited free time periods, and the rest of the time they need to be in their pockets, out of sight and silenced. The benefit? They can contact, or be contacted by their parents at any point, while we are still protecting our intent of group connections and relationship building.

Effectively Communicating the Gospel to Adolescents

21 May
May 21, 2014

This is the first paper I wrote as a seminary student this past fall; it was an intro to seminary class which was primarily focused on HOW to be a seminary student, as opposed to theological content. We had to write a 10-15 page paper to demonstrate that we had learned appropriate formatting and writing style for graduate level work. We were allowed to pick any topic we wanted to, so I decided to go with one that speaks to my youth pastor’s heart. Here it is:


Effectively Communicating The Gospel To Adolescents

by Matthew McNutt, September 29, 2013

Table of Contents 


American Church History

Faith in America During the Twentieth Century

Impact of World War II

Growing Up Without A Faith Influence

Adolescent Brain Development

Changes In Assumptions

Current Research

Adolescent Abstract Thought Processing

Current Adolescent Faith Research

Where We Are

Primary Influences

Religiously Committed Teens Have In Common




One of the challenges facing churches in general, and youth ministries in particular, is the alarming drop off rate of young people from church after high school. Depending on the studies referenced, the rates vary greatly, but regardless a large number of young people seem to graduate from faith when they graduate from high school. Which begs the question, was faith truly a part of their lives to begin with? Are our churches and families communicated the gospel message effectively to adolescents? Is it possible to improve in how we plant the word in young people, resulting in deep roots of faith that can weather the dramatic changes of adolescence and the college years?

This paper will draw on a variety of sources in an effort to answer these questions. It will start with a look at American church history to see how the home structure has changed over the years and the resulting loss of faith instruction in the house. From there it will transition to current research on adolescent brain development. For decades it was assumed the brain finished developing in the early teen years; recent research has revealed that it doesn’t finish maturing until age 25. How does this impact reasoning, decision making, and faith processing? Are we taking into consideration the unique developmental stage adolescents are going through in our communication styles? Finally, it will look at current student ministry research on adolescents and faith before coming to a conclusion.

Thesis Statement

Our current models for sharing the gospel with adolescents does not adequately take into account the changes over the last century in American culture, the unique challenges of developing adolescent brains, or current research on faith not only in young people, but their parents. Learning and adjusting ministry models based on that information can increase the effective transmission of the gospel to adolescents.

American Church History

Faith in America During the Twentieth Century

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Christian faith was a strong part of our American culture. Families were connected to churches. Fathers were the primary provider while mothers made faith instruction and conversation a priority in the home. Bible reading, discussions about God around the meal table, and going to church together were a significant part of passing on a tradition of faith. While the Bible calls husbands to be the head of the home and the leader in areas of faith, the reality in American homes was that mothers handled the bulk of the day to day transmission of faith to children.

War and economics had a dramatic impact on faith in America during the twentieth century. While World War I, known at the time as the War to End War, played a role in galvanizing faith, it was primarily a strengthening of our role as a Christian nation against the “godless hordes” of the enemy.

In the thirties, the economic crisis resulting from the 1929 stock market crash was unique in regards to faith in that unlike previous major financial upheavals, the church did not see an increase in membership. A subtle shift in dependence on God to self and government was beginning to manifest. In the past, this type of crisis brought people to the church in search of hope and help. However, with no real increase in congregation size the decreased giving that goes with a financial crisis, many churches were forced to cut programs, reduce mission programs, and in some cases, even lay off pastors or close completely.[1]

Impact of World War II

World War II, on the other hand, actually saw a significant increase in church attendance, membership and giving. By 1960, in fact, church membership rose to a high of 70% of the American population.[2] At first glance this would seem encouraging from a faith standpoint in spite of the circumstances driving the church growth, however, there was little spiritual depth or impact to faith in the increased membership. The reality was during that season of time in the United States, much of the national identity was found in a history of Christian roots when contrasted with the Nazi’s and the Communists. Patriotism was at a high due to the war, and good Americans had Christian ties. More specifically, good Americans had a church.[3]

Being highly connected to church did not translate to deeper faith. The seeds were planted during this time frame for what would eventually become several generations of Americans completely removed from the church. During the second world war, out of necessity due to the sheer volume of men involved in the armed forces, women entered the work force in strength. A cultural shift had begun. Even after the war, women remained in the workforce, out of financial necessity, and then eventually, to further develop the American middle class. Phyllis Tickle wrote in regards to this,

Once the female is occupied outside the home for a full working day, she suffers the same physical and mental exhaustion as does the male. What that translates to is the complete reorientation of the evening hours in the family’s life. The solidifying bond of a shared meal is often sacrificed, certainly, but more to the point for the Christianity of the Great Emergence, so too are the traditional time of family based religious instruction and formation.

When World War II broke out, the average American youngster, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, was possessed of a reasonable familiarity with Bible stores and a formative grasp of the religious and moral points contained in them … When the mother as principal storyteller and domestic rabbi ceased, bit by bit, to function in those roles, America’s younger generations became more and more untethered from the parables and prophecies, interpretations and principles that supported both the story itself and the consensual illusion that was based on it.

 The result, theologically … is stark. Each one of them [Protestant and Catholic churches], in dealing with Americans under fifty, is dealing in large measure with scriptural innocents …[4]

Growing Up Without A Faith Influence

What does all this mean? The impact of several national crisis over the last century has resulted in a significant number of individuals in the last several generations to grow up with little to no Christian exposure in their lives. Not only have they not attended Christian churches and organizations, they have not been exposed to faith at home. This has been further emphasized by a cultural identity that has moved farther away from its Christian roots.

This is significant in that many models of faith transmission, whether in the form of curriculum or outreach tools, are designed with levels of Biblical literacy assumed that just aren’t there for families that are not already regularly involved in a church. If the intent is to reach young people for Christ, it has to be taken into consideration that in all likelihood, they have had little or no exposure to Bible stories, structure, writing methods, or church traditions and cultural expectations.

Adolescent Brain Development

Changes in Assumptions

Up until recently, the assumption by professionals had been that the brain finished the bulk of its development in the first three years of life. After that point, there may be minor growth and change, but for the most part it was finished and any adolescent issues could be explained away as bad behavior and/or hormonal. The equipment able to scan brains at a detailed level was not used on healthy brains for fear of unknown possible risks, so consequently, the only detailed information on children’s and adolescent brains from actual scans were unhealthy brains – therefore, they were not considered to be impactful on assumptions for normal development.[5] In recent years, that has all changed.

Current Research

Having proven the safety of the equipment, as well as the development of new, more powerful brain scanning machines, all of the old assumptions have been tossed out the window. Medical science and health editor of The New York Times, Barbara Strauch writes:

Neuroscientists are finding that the teenage brain, far from being an innocent bystander to hormonal hijinks, is undergoing a dramatic transformation.

The teenage brain, it’s now becoming clear, is still very much a work in progress, a giant construction project. Millions of connections are being hooked up; millions more are swept away. Neurochemicals wash over the teenage brain, giving it a new paint job, a new look, a new chance at life. The teenage brain is raw, vulnerable. It’s a brain that’s still becoming what it will be.[6]

What we now know is that not only is the brain not finished growing and developing at three years of age, it doesn’t fully mature until the mid twenties, with the segment to finish developing being the impulse control portion of the brain. In addition, puberty has been revealed to cause massive changes in the brain, with surges of growth and solidifying of lifelong neural pathways. Neural pathways used form permanent structures while those left unused die off and are reabsorbed into the body. Ultimately, what this means is that an individual’s lifelong patterns of problem solving, thought processes, and ways of interacting with information are developed and solidified during the adolescent period primarily through experiences and opportunities.

All this to say, the adolescent brain is in a completely unique stage of development and needs to be recognized as having age specific needs and quirks. It should also shape how we teach and challenge adolescents as we can help mold how they interact and process matters of faith for the rest of their lives based on the opportunities they have during their adolescent years.

Adolescent Abstract Thought Processing

A significant part of the adolescent development process is the transition from concrete thinking to abstract thought. During the 1920’s Jean Piaget proposed a theory involving different stages of development for children regarding how brains process and understand information. Almost a century later, after much testing, his theory still continues to be accepted. They are[7]:

  • Sensorimotor period (years 0-2)
  • Preoperational period (years 2-7)
  • Concrete operational period (years 7-11)
  • Formal operational period (years 11 and up)

For this paper, recognizing the final two stages are significant. The concrete operational period is characterized by literal thought. The child looks at the world very two dimensionally – it’s in this stage of thought that a child will wonder how Jesus can fit in their heart. They are approaching a very abstract thought through a concrete, literal lens. With regards to faith, children accept the beliefs of their parents without question. It is a concrete issue in their minds; their mother and/or father said the Bible is true, therefore it is true.

With the onset of puberty and the surge of development in their brains, adolescents find themselves transitioning from that period to the formal operational period, primarily characterized by abstract thought. However, this transition does not happen overnight. It is a years long process of learning to think abstractly, to empathize instead of merely sympathize, to wrestle with thoughts of eternity and doubt. In the early years of puberty, an individual can be witnessed going back and forth between concrete and abstract thought.

For those sharing faith with adolescents this is an important issue because they are wrestling with ability to think abstractly for the first time in their lives. This change brings a lot of instability to a young person, especially as they find themselves for the first time questioning much of what they had always blindly accepted as truth. Sharing faith with them means allowing room for the discussion of doubts, for questioning, for affirming the struggles the young person is wrestling with. All of these developmental challenges the young person is facing must be taken into consideration as they present unique challenges in the transmission of faith.

Current Adolescent Faith Research

Where We Are

There are two research projects currently happening that are playing a significant role in the discussion of adolescent faith in the student ministry professional community. The first is the National Study of Youth and Religion, led by Dr. Christian Smith and Dr. Lisa Pearce. It began in 2001 and continues to track the faith development of adolescents and their families through in-depth interviews over the years as they continue to age.[8]

The second research project helping to inform where we are currently as a faith community in regards to adolescents is the Sticky Faith research project, conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute and led by Dr. Kara E. Powell and Dr. Chap Clarke. It was initiated in 2005, with results published in 2011.[9] While on a smaller scale than the National Study of Youth and Religion, the results were striking in their similarity and the combined efforts of the two research studies seem to reinforce each other’s results.

Kenda Creasy Dean summarized the results this way: “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith – but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. One more thing: we’re responsible.”[10] This research, and the resulting conversations about it, have stirred strong reactions throughout the Church and in major news outlets. Ultimately, there were five major findings in the National Study of Youth and Religion, which were further reinforced by the Sticky Faith research[11]:

  1. Most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise don’t give it much thought.
  2. Most U.S. teenagers mirror their parents’ religious faith.
  3. Teenagers lack a theological language with which to express their faith or interpret their experience of the world.
  4. A minority of American teenagers – but a significant minority – say religious faith is important, and that it makes a difference in their lives. These  teenagers are doing better in life on a number of scales, compared to their less religious peers.
  5. Many teenagers enact and espouse a religious outlook that is distinct from traditional teachers of most world religions – an outlook called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Dean defined Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as “a tacit religious outlook that is quite distinct from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any of the world’s major religions, helps people be nice, feel good, and leaves God in the background.”[12] In other words, while many in our country may label themselves Christian, the religion they practice does not reflect what scripture describes. More significantly, this is not just a reflection of young people in America – it is a reflection of how Americans practice faith in general. It would not seem to be too much of a leap in logic to suggest the disappearing of faith conversations in the home during the World War II years has played a part in leading to this poorly informed version of religion.

Primary Influences

One of the significant things to consider when considering the best way to reach adolescents for Christ is the issue of primary influence. Who has the most impact on a young person’s faith development? While youth pastors, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and mentors do have influence, far and away the research indicates that the primary influence on a young person’s faith is their parents. More specifically, not what their parents say, but what their parents do – their actions and priorities instill values in their children. Dr. Smith once said, “When it comes to kids’ faith, parents get what they are.”[13]

Further elaborating, Dr. Smith said, “Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping  young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.”[14]

Religiously Committed Teens Have In Common

The National Study of Youth and Religion did reveal some fascinating things the 8% of American youth who are classified as devoted had in common. These teens were found to have a solid faith, able to articulate it, and saw it last after high school into the college years. Through extensive interviews they were found to have the following six things in common.[15] While numbers two and three are abstract, the other four are very much measurable and should inform those who want to see more young people devoted to Christ:

  1. Attends religious services weekly or more.
  2. Faith is very or extremely important in everyday life.
  3. Feels very or extremely close to God.
  4. Currently involved in a religious youth group.
  5. Prays a few times a week or more.
  6. Reads scripture once or twice a week or more.

While the issue of instilling long lasting faith in young people may seem daunting at first, in many ways, these common denominators in devoted teens is not an overwhelming list. Obviously, of the four more measurable points, they are symptoms of a deeper faith, but they are not so intimidating to begin modeling to young people.


The focus of student ministry needs to be broad. If the transmission of faith to adolescents is truly a priority, than the culture of the local church at large needs to reflect it.

A religiously devoted teen will attend weekly religious services as well as be involved in a youth group. If the adults in a church believe that is important, than regardless of whether or not they themselves have children, the church as a whole should be known for prioritizing weekly attendance at the intergenerational worship service and involvement in age specific groups such as adult Sunday School, small group, and/or a midweek meeting.

A religiously devoted teen will pray and read scripture regularly. Parents in particular need to be regularly seen modeling the priority of prayer and scripture reading – but the church culture needs to reflect that priority as well so as to pass on that value to parents.

In choosing resources and curriculums for adolescents, as well as the primary worship hour, the lack of Biblical literacy in our culture must be taken into consideration. Those teaching cannot assume their audience is familiar with even the most well known Biblical stories or words and phrases used in the Bible that may have different meanings today, e.g., being “stoned”.

As concrete thinkers, young children are at a perfect age developmentally to be learning the core stories of the Bible and memorizing critical scriptures. The adults in the congregation have also reached a point developmentally where they are able to process abstract ideas and concepts more readily. Not only that, adults are better able to recognize those with the authority or resources to best answer their questions or help them come to a conclusion. Adolescents, on the other hand, rely more on relationships already built to turn to for information, regardless of qualifications. In addition, they are wrestling with learning how to process abstract concepts, while at the same time going through tremendous amounts of physical and social change.

Because of that, intentionally building an environment where adolescents are welcomed, viewed as part of the church body who are valued in spite of age-based quirks. Instilling in that environment a practice of treating adolescents with grace and tremendous amounts of patience as they take the necessary time to wrestle through newly discovered doubts, the pursuit of individuality, and the exploding world of abstract thought and ideas. Helping them to walk through those abstract concepts without rushing them, devaluing them or humiliating them gives them the opportunity to pursue faith. Working to ensure that the weekly intergenerational worship service is relevant not only to adults, but adolescents as well, communicates to them that it is valuable. Prioritizing giving adolescents the  opportunity to make meaningful and valued contributions to church life as a whole. All of these are pieces to recognizing the unique challenges present in the adolescent stage, and more importantly, create connections throughout the church so that when they graduate from high school they do not feel as though they have graduated from church – their connection is far deeper than just a student ministry.

There is no one, clear cut answer to instilling a lasting faith in adolescents. However, allowing historical implications, knowledge of brain developmental stages, and the deep impact of parents and adults in general mold and inform the efforts made to reach young people should create an environment where lasting faith is more likely to be cultivated.


Askew, Thomas A., and Richard V. Pierard. The American Church Experience. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What The Faith Of Our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Epstein, Robert. Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children And Families From The Torment Of Adolescence. Fresno: Quill Driver Books, 2010.

Jones, Tony. Postmodern Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Oestricher, Mark. Understanding Your Young Teen: Practical Wisdom for Parents. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

Oestricher, Mark. Youth Ministry 3.0: A Manifesto Of Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, And Where We Need To Go. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

Powell, Kara E., Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford. Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Sire, James. The Universe Next Door. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Strauch, Barbara. The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.

Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.

Yaconelli, Mark. Growing Souls: Experiments In Contemplative Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

[1] Askew, Thomas A., and Richard V. Pierard. The American Church Experience. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004. 172-173.

[2] Ibid., 181.

[3] Ibid, 184.

[4] Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008. 114-115.

[5] Oestricher, Mark. Understanding Your Young Teen: Practical Wisdom for Parents. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012. Location 974.

[6] Strauch, Barbara. The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. Location 221.

[7] Oestricher, Understanding, Location 953.



[10] Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What The Faith Of Our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 3.

[11] Ibid., 17-21.

[12] Ibid., 21.

[13] Powell, Kara E., Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford. Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 117.

[14] Ibid., 117.

[15] Dean, Almost Christian, 41.

Reporting Sexual Abuse in Christian Communities

10 Feb
February 10, 2014

My sister wrote a great post about reporting sexual abuse in Christian communities, how the problem continues to this day, and her perspective on the abuse we witnessed at the boarding school for missionary kids we attended in the early nineties. Here’s a snippet, to read the full thing click here:

When I was 9 years old, my family moved to South America as short-term missionaries (a 2-3 year commitment) with New Tribes Missions, where my parents taught at a NTM boarding school.  While much of our experience was wonderful, the psychological, physical and spiritual abuse at the school was shocking.  My parents were labeled trouble-makers for voicing concerns and reporting abuse, and ultimately they chose not to continue as career missionaries under the circumstances.  In addition to stunningly abusive corporal punishment (i.e. “swats” with a large wooden board, with holes drilled in it, administered gleefully by a bully of a principal), there were three men, that I know of, sent home for sexually abusing children – just during that three year span of time.  Sent home, but not reported to law officials or even to their own churches.  Just sent away to plug into other ministries with children.

Read the rest here.

First Semester of Seminary Finished!

17 Dec
December 17, 2013

Well, I finished my first semester of seminary Sunday night. I learned a few things along the way … and I’m not talking about class content …

  • I’ve been out of school for 13 years. Going back was overwhelming, scary, and challenging! It definitely took a month or so to really start to feel like I was getting back in the range of student mode.
  • I learned some valuable lessons about scheduling classes. I accidentally scheduled too many at the same time which made for an insane four week period of time when all of my classes overlapped. I actually registered for more classes next semester than this one, but I balanced them better so I won’t have that kind of nightmare again!
  • In a bizarre twist, I think I’m a better student than I was in the late 90′s. Back then I did what I needed to get the grade I had to have; now I’m working harder and offended when I don’t get the grade I know I could have gotten. Weird!
  • Technology has REALLY made being a student easier! Text books are cheaper digitally, and easier to highlight and retrieve information from. Doing work from my laptop in my office, iPad here and there, and iPhone on the go has made getting stuff down in spare moments a GREAT use of time.

Being a student is strange. I’m working towards a Master of Divinity (finally). Going at a full time pace (fall semester, spring semester, summer semester), I will finish a few weeks before my oldest starts his freshman year in high school (also known as August, 2016). I’m really motivated by that milestone – once we have kids in high school and middle school, life is going to be a lot more chaotic and will continue to be so until our youngest graduates (June, 2027). It makes for a busy few years, but I think it will be a lot harder as our kids get older, so here goes!

On the plus side, I do have the next month or so off. Sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet.

The United We Stand Tour recap

17 Oct
October 17, 2013


“Woah. Matthew. I need you to understand that this concert is on a whole different level.”

Words from the tour manager on the phone with me the day before they arrived at my church … and he wasn’t kidding! I was downplaying something as not being a big deal based on the concert events I’ve hosted in the past – I needed a wake up call to what I had booked! The United We Stand tour with Building 429, The Afters, Hawk Nelson & Finding Favour is a full fledged concert event!

The tour was amazing. They did things in our sanctuary with staging, lights, smoke and cryo effects I never would have thought could happen there! They showed up with a semi truck FULL from top to bottom, front to back, with equipment – my heart literally stopped when they popped open the doors and it was 100% full. The sound was so loud, the bass so powerful, it literally vibrated three lights out of their sockets! And under every light fixture there was a small pile of sheet rock dust that had been shaken out of the building!

I still can’t believe the crowd we had for a Tuesday night concert! I’m even more amazed with the 50+ volunteers that gave up their time throughout the day to make the thing happen! I love these kinds of events – it’s part of what makes our youth group the place to be for teens in North Wilmington!

Check out this little video highlight from the end of the night … when they started firing off the smoke jets (directly into the ceiling fire alarms!), my heart literally skipped a couple beats. I had three simultaneous thoughts: (1) I can’t believe they’re going to blow the fire alarms now after making it through the whole day, (2) this is the coolest thing I have ever seen in this room, and (3) seriously, that’s where Pastor Bo normally stands!

And no, even with the smoke machines going steadily from early afternoon until 10pm, and the cryo smoke jets shooting off every few seconds during the Building 429 performance, the fire alarms never went off!

Cell phones on mission trips?

09 Oct
October 9, 2013

phones on mission trips

So I made the above post to my Facebook on the way back from our mission trip to Nicaragua this past summer … and was totally caught off guard by the response to it! It created a lot of conversation, so I’ve been meaning to write out my actual thoughts on our policy of banning devices on trips. But first …

As some noted, I was Facebooking about my frustration about people Facebooking! Caught in the act! I actually lived with the rule I required of the students; during the mission trip I only updated our student Facebook page with mission team updates, and was the only team member with internet access so I could keep parents in the loop on what was happening. And then I broke; when we touched down in Houston, it looked like for a couple hours that we would miss our connecting flight. Customs was completely overwhelmed and understaffed with a room with countless travelers waiting in an eternal line to get through … just so we could get to a similar sized line for rechecking our luggage, and then another similar sized line for security. All I kept thinking was ‘how in the world am I going to rebook 23 flights and get these kids back home to their parents???’ My frustration level was HIGH. I was irritable. Tired from an amazing, but exhausting mission trip. And really, I just wanted to get home to my wife and kids and I was starting to be convinced it wasn’t going to happen as soon as I had expected. In the end, we made the flight, literally with only a few seconds to spare – they were shutting the doors as we ran up to them!

So in the midst of all that chaos, in my irritated state, I was looking around at all these other mission teams (they had matching shirts to prove it) with every member of their teams staring at their phones, iPods, iPads, game devices, etc., and honestly, I was a little shocked – I couldn’t imagine going through all the work to prep a mission trip and then allowing the devices along! They’re such a distraction! And that’s when I broke my own rule and posted my self righteous, snarky update.

Here’s why we do it, though:

We have a two fold purpose to our mission trips; the first is to accomplish a meaningful and valuable service/outreach. The second, which is equally important, is to challenge our group to deeper spiritual growth. Towards that end we intentionally schedule the trip to allow for study, reflection, and group debriefing of the scriptures we’re working through. We also intentionally get rid of any unnecessary distractions. When young people (really anyone) unplug from their normal routine and life they become much more open to growth, development, change – you name it. Something about stepping out of our normal life just creates opportunities for self reflection and life change – it’s why youth ministries across the nation love service trips, mission trips, retreats, camps, etc.

But when someone still has their device, when they’re still in constant contact with the life back home, when they’re getting texts every few minutes, Facebook notifications, Instagram alerts, Twitter updates, Snapchat photos, and more … it’s very easy to spend their whole time away thinking about what’s going on back home and interacting with their friends there instead of being fully present on this trip that we have spent half a year preparing for, raised tens of thousands of dollars to pull off, and will remember for the rest of our lives. Ultimately, those devices do significant damage to that second purpose behind our mission trips … so we don’t allow them.

Does that mean we won’t let a child call home? Absolutely not. We constantly remind kids to ask a leader if they want to call home, if a parent messages us that they need to call their child – for whatever reason – we will get them on the phone as soon as we can.

The amazing thing is, over the years I’ve heard so many teens – who were mortified at the thought of giving up their phone for ten days – come home from the trip and say they were glad it wasn’t there. That it was good for them to just ‘be’ with the group and not be distracted.