Counseling Conversations with Teens
1. Counselor: “Explain your understanding of the gospel.”
Teen: “I sometimes wonder if I even understand the gospel. Like maybe what I believe is just fake. I know God wants me to be happy, and that He will listen to my problems when I tell Him things, and then He is supposed to make me feel better. But I don’t feel happy.”
2. Counselor: “Describe what you mean by ‘I am depressed.’”
Teen: “I don’t feel good about myself. I have low self-esteem. I need to learn to love myself more.”
3. Counselor: “What does it mean to ‘please God’?”
Teen: “It means that I have to do things the right way so that He won’t be disappointed in me or punish me.”
4. Counselor: “What are your plans after graduation?”
Teen: “I don’t know for sure. But I do know that it’s ok to follow my heart and just ‘do me.’”
Woven into the above statements made by teens is a glimpse into the type of false gospel that each teen believes. In conversation #1, the teen is correct—they all believe a “fake gospel.” Simple questions and answers can reveal the depth of their heart—what a teen thinks, believes, and desires. In each of the above cases, a belief in a false gospel is evident. Four common versions of a false gospel that teens believe are:
1. A Prosperity Gospel, Teen Version
This gospel says, “If I do things for God, He will give me things in return.” This is a type of “Christian karma” that deceives the teen into thinking that if they do good works or pray just right, the result will be some form of happiness or getting their way. There are plenty of exciting things in our world to entice our youth, and it is easy to see how attention, fame, money, and status appeal to a teenager. These worldly and enticing things can infiltrate their understanding of the gospel.
2. A Self-Esteem Gospel
In this gospel, the teen’s identity is wrapped up in self instead of in Christ. “You be you” and “follow your heart” are common phrases these days that many teens believe as truth. The focus is on what an individual does, not on what Christ has done on their behalf. This false gospel sounds enticing on the surface, but a teenager focused on self-esteem and self-love is likely to believe that the end-goal of salvation is to feel good about themselves.
3. A Legalistic Gospel
We might inadvertently push this gospel onto teens when we are more punitive than instructive in our discipleship conversations. Teens often believe that God is punishing them when life is hard. Teens might believe that if they can do the right things, they will earn salvation. Any time the word “and” is added to the gospel, there is legalism. Teens often believe their salvation depends on faith “and” works.
4. A Selfie Gospel
This is an “it’s all about me” gospel. It is rooted in mysticism and emotion as the teen looks to spiritual experiences to give them desired feelings. Deep down, they know they are not better than others, but as teens engage on social media, they can portray themselves any way they want. Those who help teens might push this gospel when they, too, focus more on the teen’s spiritual experiences than on their heart. The selfie gospel says, “God saved you so that you can be happy and feel good.
Teens and Fake
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6-7).
Teens are often very good at recognizing something fake in a person. They have a sharp radar for knowing when they are with someone who is not sincere or safe. They are often not as sharp about recognizing a fake (false) gospel. The way that they answer questions like the ones above reveals whether or not the true gospel is clear in their hearts and minds.
Belief in a fake gospel can lead to anxiety and depression. Wrong thinking about Truth causes teens to doubt God’s goodness and love for them. A counselor or anyone helping the teen must make it their priority to deconstruct the false gospel and replace it with the true gospel. We should never assume that because a teen professes to be a Christian that they can articulate a clear gospel.
Counselors need to be careful that they are not offering any of these false gospels to teens. Sloppy concepts like these can sneak into our counseling and take root in the teen’s heart if we are not very clear with them about what the gospel is and isn’t.
In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul warns us of false gospels. The real gospel is based on Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, is found in Scripture alone, and is for the glory of God alone.
Absent from these fake gospels is an acknowledgment that people are deeply flawed by sin and therefore alienated from God and each other—a problem so deep that it required the sacrifice of God’s Son to bring us salvation. Also missing is how God transforms our lives. Satan has attempted to deceive people with fake gospels for generations, and teens are a prime target. This is nothing new, and it is regularly in front of us in our counseling sessions where we must discern it.
“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
The gospel is excellent news for teens who have bought into the fake versions! Once they understand the true gospel, they can find relief from depression and anxiety and can begin to experience real heart change. For a biblical counselor, reversing these errors is not easy. Youth are surrounded by social media, entertainment, ideals taught in school, and things they hear from peers which feed the false gospels. Thankfully, God is the change-agent, and we can trust Him to do the work in our teen counselee as He breaks through the fake and brings forth Truth.
Reason to Hope
We have good reason to be optimistic about teenagers and their faith, because the gospel is freeing. Freedom is appealing, once understood. Teens are hungry for freedom that only the gospel can bring!
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
Questions for Reflection
What are some other false gospels that you have detected in teenagers? How have you deconstructed them as you care for teens?