I invite you to consider the following hypothetical stories:
Picture Cory: a 14-year-old freshman in high school. He seems to be your typical suburbanite student, he plays on the JV football team, has solid grades, goes to church most Sundays and regularly goes to youth group. What most people don’t know about Cory is that he struggles with depression. His parents turned in multiple directions for help, including seeking the help of their pastor. Upon the suggestion of their pastor, Cory was introduced to a retired English teacher named Jerry. Jerry and Cory became friends, and—meeting once a week for over a year—Jerry was able to share with Cory some of his own struggles with depression. While Jerry couldn’t “fix” Cory’s struggles, he was able to be the friend who understood what Cory was going through.
Picture Sidney: a 16-year-old from a small rural town. Last week Sidney’s parents sat down with her and told her that their separation would become permanent. They had decided to proceed with a divorce. Sidney was devastated at this news. Later that week, Sidney attended her youth group. Following the teaching time, the students went off to their usual small groups. In Sidney’s small group, the leader asked the group if anyone had any personal updates to share. Sidney spoke up, sharing the news of her parents’ pending divorce. The small group leader wisely led the rest of the group to pray for Sidney and her family. After the other students had gone, the leader shared with Sidney that her own parents had divorced when she was in high school. In the following months, the group leader made special effort to hear from Sidney every week.
Picture Jeremy: a 12-year-old from a very tough urban neighborhood. His older brother joined a gang when Jeremy was only eight, and was now in the middle of an 18-month sentence for dealing drugs. Jeremy’s dad hadn’t been seen in five years. It seemed everything was working against Jeremy. Jeremy was at a crossroad in life—contemplating looking for belonging in the same way that his brother had. Would he or wouldn’t he follow his brother? One day Jeremy passed by an old store front and saw some kids from school shooting pool and playing ping pong. As Jeremy took a second glance he recognized a couple of kids. They saw him and invited him in. Inside he met Steve, the youth director of “The Bridge.” Steve invited Jeremy to come as often as possible and Jeremy did just that. In the course of going to “The Bridge” several times each week, Jeremy developed a friendship with Steve. In addition to providing the wisdom that Jeremy sought, Steve repeatedly told Jeremy about Jesus and also invited him to come with him to church. Over the course of many months, Jeremy came to believe in Jesus and was baptized. He became connected to Steve’s church. Twelve years later Jeremy went on to seminary and is now serving as a youth pastor with a passion to reach out to at-risk teens.
What’s the common tie between these stories?
Three different adults took a concerned interest in these students. Each of these adults played an irreplaceable role in these impressionable teen’s lives and, because of that, their future lives were changed by the love of Christ.
When you see teens at the mall, at your church, in the park or during your hometown high school football game, do they scare you? Do they intimidate you? Does the world that they live in seem so far away from yours?
Any of us might think that way. But as you peel off the layers of their stories, you will find that their experiences are more similar to ours than we might expect.
I encourage you not to stand in the shadows. Rather, find ways to get involved with the lives of this next generation. Perhaps it will be in a formal role as a coach or small group leader, or as a mentor. Or perhaps it will just be making small talk with them while you’re waiting in line. Perhaps being a prayer warrior for them. As you hear their stories, you will find yourself relating to many of their life experiences.
Fuller Youth Institute has done extensive research on retaining students in the life of the church beyond their high school years. One of the most significant factors: teens need to have intergenerational relationships in their churches. We might think that reaching students is about hip, flashy, age-appropriate programs, but that’s not the case. What students most need are people in their lives who care for them and pray for them!
Hear the Scripture’s encouragement to older believers to look after those who are younger: “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:2-8a).
Rev. Mark Johannesen is the Youth Ministry Coordinator for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and serves as Pastor to Students & Their Families at Triumph Lutheran Brethren Church in Moorhead, Minnesota and West Fargo, North Dakota.