Where Will Weary Teenagers Find Rest, If Not at Youth Group?

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Over the past semester, I have asked students about what they perceive to be the two negative emotions that most plague their peers. Students may mention insecurity, isolation, loneliness, despair, or anger. However, one emotion has unequivocally made the top two in every single conversation. 

Anxiety. 

Not only does my observation as a youth worker validate the ubiquity of anxiety among teenagers, but scientific research has also identified this trend. A 2008 article in Psychology Today cited that American teenagers demonstrate commensurate anxiety levels as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950’s [1]. In a 1999 New York Times article, Susan Gilbert referred to the lives of many teenagers as an “after-school pressure-cooker,” but the problem seems to be getting markedly worse [2].

Several leaders in the study of teenage mental health have noted a rise in teenage anxiety and depression over the past three decades. Arizona State University professor, Suniya Luthar stated in a 2013 Psychology Today article:

         In 1999, I reported significant depression in one in five girls. Since then, studies I have conducted show that, on average, serious levels of depression, anxiety, or somatic symptoms occur twice as often or more among [affluent] boys and girls, compared to national rates.

While such a macro-sociological trend involves multiple factors, the intense performance culture, within which so many teenagers live, comprises a central contributor in these spikes in teen anxiety. 

David Elkin, a pioneer in the study of child over-scheduling, observed in the 1980’s a shift in the parental and societal paradigm for childhood development. Elkin coined the term “child competence” as the prevailing concept driving the formation of children [3]. Parents and communities viewed preparing students for achievement in the market economy as their primary role in the lives of children. Therefore, training kids by maximizing their potential has become the central focus in raising children. 

Society has sent the loud and clear message to teenagers: you are what you do. Forget this human being business. You’re a “human doing.” 

Highly competitive AAU basketball and travel baseball teams have replaced the carefree, “just for the fun of it” Little League sports. Regimented, rigorous dance circuits have taken the place of ballet done simply for the beauty of the art. Standardized tests used to merely be a step in the college admissions process; but now, they are high-stakes poker that mandates expensive preparatory classes. For the majority of teens, life affords few moments totally free from structure and demands.

Given the performance-oriented lives of teens, one has to ask the question: where do teenagers ever hear a word of grace? Where do kids ever receive a message of unconditional love that gives rest to their souls?

Youth pastors and volunteers need to understand that the church is very likely the only place where students hear and experience love with no strings attached. Furthermore, youth ministers can never be reminded enough of how starkly the Christian Gospel contrasts with the high-pressure messages that flood the milieu of teenage life. 

All youth pastors face a temptation to err on the side of law in ministry. By this, I mean that we can reduce the teenage Christian life to exhortations for better, purer, more moral behavior. The underlying theology in such an approach focuses on the effort of students to live up to religious standards. In such an environment, teenagers can view Christianity as simply another venue of performance. Academic, athletic, and social performance are replaced with (or supplemented by) spiritual performance. The youth pastor becomes a religion coach when the youth ministry lacks the Gospel. 

Youth ministries need to amplify the performance and works of God above all things. 

Kids need to first hear how God has performed on their behalf in Jesus, before and after they hear the imperatives of Christian discipleship. They need to hear that Jesus lived perfectly, because they cannot. Teens need to know that Jesus acted on their behalf in his death. In a way that vividly contrasts with the messages of the world, students need to hear that their acceptance before God hinges on Jesus’ performance, not on theirs. 

The message of God’s grace offers relief and rest to a generation of weary, anxious teenagers. But we do not preach grace simply because it gives teenagers much needed peace. We teach the Gospel of grace because it accurately represents the Christian faith, as attested to in the Bible. The heroic agent in the Bible is God. The performance of God comprises the primary action of the biblical narrative. His primary activity is to rescue and redeem his people.

Youth pastors certainly need to instruct students of the imperatives of Christian discipleship. Paul never wrote a letter to a church that did not detail the manner in which Christians ought to live in response to God’s salvation. We cannot assume that teenagers know what it means to live like a Christian. Simultaneously, Paul’s letter never neglected to remind believers of the great love God has shown them in the life and death of Christ. 

How does a youth pastor practically move forward with a grace-driven ministry? A good starting point is to consider how much content in lessons focuses on the character and saving work of God, as compared to how much focuses on the behavior of Christians. Is there a balance, or is there a disparity? 

Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “I preached morality till I made all the people in my church immoral; but when I began to preach the gospel, the dumb began to sing!” Certainly the hope of a youth pastor may be that teenagers would sing and dance out of adoration for the God who has performed so tirelessly and faithfully out of his passionate love for them.

[1] Leahy, Robert A. “How Big A Problem Is Anxiety” Psychology Today (April 30, 2008)

[2] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anxiety-files/200804/how-big-problem-is-anxiety

[3] Elkin, David (2001). The Hurried Child. New York: Purseus. xvii

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