"In other words, the church is called to help youth to embrace their identity as valuable, and beloved children of God. Youth group is a place to share hope and walk alongside youth."
Teens, Stress, and Youth Group
As a parent and youth minister in the suburbs, I see firsthand the enormous stress that our youth encounter. The pressure to excel in school, work, sports, extracurricular activities, test scores, and community service is fueled by the college admissions process. Most students I know are trying their best to fit it all in, often sacrificing sleep to do so. Often, there is little time for family and church, the primary places where faith is formed.
Even so, I am not giving up on regular youth group. In fact, I believe that youth group can be a countercultural space in a world where achievement culture has run amuck. When I asked students what was valuable about our weekly gatherings, one young person replied, “This is the one place I don’t have to be better at something.” This was a powerful reminder that youth need to know that God’s love is a gift, not something we earn. I saw visible relief on students' faces when I recently promised that youth group would always include time for rest, relaxation, and just being.
I believe there are four important ways – grounded in faith – that the church can support stressed out youth, who are navigating the increasing pressures being placed on them.
1. Offer Sabbath
The commandment to rest is a gift from God. Sabbath calls us to remove ourselves from the demands of earning and achieving and rest in the faith that we are beloved children of God. Youth group can be a time for nourishing, faith forming practices of prayer, creative arts, deep conversation, contemplation, time in nature, community building, and games that don’t matter. Over time, youth may begin to use these practices on their own, increasing the number of tools they have to deal with stress during the week.
One of the most stressful times in our family life is when my daughters pick their courses for the upcoming year. Conversations with friends drive the expectation to fill their schedules with as many high-level courses they can manage. As parents and youth leaders, we can empower students to make the choices that are right for them, which may mean a different looking schedule than their peers.
During these conversations with teens, I affirm that they are capable of taking an intense course load. But, that taking numerous homework-heavy classes may impact the amount of time they have for life’s necessities, and things they are passionate about. Together, we talk through the pros and cons of taking classes because they look good on paper. Ultimately, though, I affirm that these are their decisions to make for themselves (within the values and expectations of each family).
3. Show Up
Certain months of the year are extremely difficult for teens to get to church. In our area, September, December and May are filled with an overwhelming number of events and celebrations outside school. Rather than add one more thing to an already overflowing plate, we take youth group off the schedule. Instead, I make a point of attending – and/or having other adults attend – our teens' events. We show up where they are (games, concerts, shows, etc.) and let them know we care for them in these busy times. Seeing the joy on their faces when they spot me in the audience is one of the best perks of being a youth leader. In my experience, this practice helps to strengthen relationships with the youth.
4. Advocate for Them
Youth often feel as though adults don't understand the intensity of the demands being placed on them. They long to hear that the stresses of today do not define their futures. They need affirmation that they are beloved children of God, no matter what. Youth ministers are in a position to work with church leadership to create a supportive environment.
Such 'advocacy' might mean creating more room for youth to use their gifts and passions at church. It might mean creating a refuge where over-scheduled teens can escape the demands of the world. Advocacy should move beyond the church walls. Consider working with parents, schools, your denomination, other faith groups, and youth organizations in your community to address the root causes of stress for teens. Together, explore changes that help youth lead healthier, more balanced lives.
Youth stressors vary across social, economic and geographic lines. Whatever your context, the church is called to counter the dominant, materialistic and achievement oriented messages of society. In other words, the church is called to help youth to embrace their identity as valuable, and beloved children of God. Youth group is a place to share hope and walk alongside youth. The four approaches above are ways we might begin this sacred work.
A final note: Stress can be a factor in anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Therefore, it is imperative that youth leaders equip themselves and their churches to properly and appropriately support youth in distress. Please invest time in becoming equipped to refer youth to the professional help they need. Prepare yourself with the necessary knowledge, referrals, and guidelines before an emergency arises.
Christine Hides is Director of Ministries with Children and Youth at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Illinois. A deacon candidate, child advocate, and mother of teenagers, Christine is passionate about finding creative ways to help children, youth and families incorporate faith into everyday life. Christine blogs about faith formation at christinevhides.com