First, Just Be
Our youth are dealing with serious life issues. What do they need from you?
Buried beneath youth group fundraisers and pizza-filled lock-ins are the students who fill our churches. Behind them are untold stories that few adults and leaders within the church have the opportunity to hear. But a generation is crying out for help, and we must respond:
- “Help me to break my addiction with cocaine and sex.”
- “Dear God, will you take away all of the depression and feelings of suicide?”
- “Why am I still here?”
I currently serve as an EFCA youth worker. But before this, I had the privilege of working behind the scenes for a national youth conference hosted in 25 five major cities. During these conferences, I came face to face with not only the youth of America but also their untold stories. A steady stream of 4,000 letters passed through my hands during the 2010-2011 school year. Note after pain-filled note revealed confessions of abuse, broken relationships, difficult home environments, eating disorders and more.
The World Health Organization confirms the sad reality, citing depression as “the predominant cause of illness and disability for both boys and girls aged 10 to 19 years.”
Powerful youth events can help cement spiritual decisions, as evidenced during this altar call at an Acquire the Fire conference. Photo by Cassandra Smith
Provoked by the letters in my hands, statistics in my mind and questions in my soul, I couldn’t avoid being stirred deeply and asking other parents, pastors and church leaders, “How do we, as the church, respond to a broken and hurting generation?”
What I have realized is that we must, first of all, engage that generation. We can’t respond if we aren’t there. Others agree. According to Chap Clark, associate provost at Fuller Seminary and author of When Kids Hurt: Help for adults navigating the adolescent maze: “Adolescents are desperate for adults who care enough to guide them gently and patiently into adulthood. When adults say, ‘Only students can reach students,’ teens hear them saying something different. They hear abandonment.”
The church must be the place in which that cycle of abandonment is broken.
Yet engagement is only the first response. Reaching out to the broken takes time, wise counsel and often professional help. It is critical for leaders to know when teens need more than we can offer, and to be able to direct them toward that lifeline.
Each of us can start now to offer what this generation needs:
1. Be a safe haven
“God sets the lonely in families, He leads out the prisoners with singing” (Psalm 68:6).
Young people will build their identity based on those who pursue them. Let’s be the ones who pursue. Let’s offer our presence and our listening ear, as well as a role to fill within the kingdom. Make sure that your church provides a sense of shelter, belonging and purpose. You don’t have to be a youth expert to initiate the contact. Just be.
Ask: With whom can I initiate a conversation today, to listen?
2. Be willing to mourn
“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).
When a report on the city of Jerusalem was brought before Nehemiah, he was overwhelmed with the news that the city was in ruins. Similarly, as we get to know those young people we pursue, as we see the crushing challenges they face, it’s easy for us to be overwhelmed. While our culture often regards mourning and weeping as “weakness,” this might well be the most appropriate response.
Ask: What do I know about the lives of young people in my community?
“And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:27).
As a church, we have a certain level of authority in the lives of young people. This extends into the heavenly realm as well. Nehemiah not only rebuilt a wall that encircled a city, but he also labored in prayer. We have the insight and maturity to go before the Lord on behalf of the broken. And God is our best guide for knowing how to respond to the circumstances of their lives.
Ask: Whom can I invite to pray with me about what I’m learning?
4. Know available resources
“I look up to the hills, but where does my help come from?My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 121:1-2).
Care and compassion are vehicles for reaching out to the broken within our congregations. The more aware of resources we are, the better we can also provide recommendations or insight on who can help with the next step in healing. There are several online resource hubs for youth workers. Some of my favorite resources include the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, Barna: Millennials, and Youth Specialties. Additionally, I created my own Crisis Resource Guide, which addresses 13 specific issues that surfaced from the thousands of letters I received from young people.
Ask: Are my church’s youth leaders equipped to refer to professionals?
All around us, young people are carrying stories. If the teens in your church and community were to write a letter, what would it say? How can we be the kind of adults whom teenagers will trust to read them? May our ears hear their cries, and let our presence be their first sign of hope.