In an article from The Atlantic entitled “Why American Teens Are So Sad,” author Derek Thompson describes four forces that are propelling the rising rates of depression among young people. He names social media use, a reduction in in-person social behavior, the inundation of negative information, and the focus of modern parents on providing constant activity and coaching.
Our teenagers live in a world that creates unrealistic social comparisons, equates disembodied online messaging with in-person friendships and bombards them with “chicken little” messages—in other words, the sky is always falling. No wonder our teenagers are so stressed. It’s hard for adults to handle these challenges, much less a teenager with a developing brain.
Teenagers often deal with these challenges in unhealthy ways. Some respond in isolation, cutting themselves off from others, especially those who seem to be the source of their problems. Others seek to escape through endless gaming, “bingeing,” or social media use. Some become addicted, whether to drugs, alcohol, or other vices. And still others respond in performance—working hard to impress others.
As youth ministers, we want to point them to a deeper, more satisfying solution than these distractions. Paul’s words in Philippians 4:6-7 offer two essential truths youth ministers can share with teenagers to help them deal with the stress in their lives.
Teach Teenagers to Take Their Stress to God
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The imperative “don’t be anxious” in Paul’s writing can feel daunting to someone who is stressed out or anxious. It’s like telling someone not to think about pink elephants. Instead, that person will think about nothing but pink elephants. But as youth ministers look into the Paul’s words, we find insight to help our students manage their stress.
Taking our stress to God starts with prayer and petition. It’s prayer, but a certain kind of prayer. I live near Washington, DC, and in the downtown area, there are always people coming to protest something either on Capitol Hill or the nearby area. It’s their way of attempting to influence the government to do something in their favor whether they grant it or not. Our prayers should be more than a “hey I don’t mean to bother you, but can you maybe…?” Like the passionate protestors, God invites us to cry out to him in moments of distress and to be persistent when we do.
Teenagers can be quick to give up on endeavors due to limited life experience. They get easily frustrated if quick results are not realized. As youth ministers, we have to gently remind them of this invitation to prayer and petitioning God, helping them to understand that many great moves of God in history came about by persistent prayer over a period of time.
Paul also instructs us to present our requests with thanksgiving. He is not talking about the holiday in late November here, but rather a condition of the heart. Our society is built on taking the credit for our successes, and the school environment is no different. Our students experience so much stress surrounding their performance at school and in their extracurricular activities. They beat themselves up when things aren’t going well, while every straight-A report card, every college acceptance letter, every game winning shot in the varsity sports game is a chance to prove themselves. Our human tendency is to push God to the side of every victory or blessing.
We can help the teenagers in our ministries to take an honest look at the blessings in their lives: their families and friends, their church families, even their accomplishments—there is so much that we could not have controlled or manipulated in order to create favorable outcomes. Most of all, we can remind students that God made a way for us to experience his salvation apart from anything we have done. We didn’t earn it nor deserve it, it was a gift of grace through Jesus.
As an exercise, ask your students to list 10-15 things they are thankful for each day. When I did this once at youth group, students started listing things like functioning limbs (arms and legs), not being in a hospital, being able to breathe, etc. It sounds so simplistic and mundane, but that’s the point: We tend to forget God’s presence and provision in every aspect of our lives. When your heart is overflowing with thanksgiving and fully aware of what God has done in your life, it’s easier to face the uncertain, stressful situations with confidence in him.
Teach Teenagers to Look for God’s Peace
In Paul’s words, there is no guarantee of closure for our anxious thoughts. What is most important about these verses is what the passage doesn’t say. Paul doesn’t tell us, “God will instantly solve the problem producing your anxiety.” Instead, he says the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds. This passage doesn’t promise a solution, only peace in the midst of our circumstances.
Before our first child’s birth, my wife and I took Lamaze childbirth classes. Lamaze is a system of focusing on something relaxing, repeating it through the process while training yourself to breathe a certain way. During my wife’s intense contractions, I was supposed to repeat something like, “you are on a beach, there is a palm tree, with a coconut, the waves are slowly crashing, and you are calm and confident.”
When the day of labor came, I was no more than five minutes into this speech when my wife gently told me to stop because she realized it wasn’t going to help. You can slice it any way you want, but giving birth to children is called “labor” for a reason, and labor is hard. You can’t just pretend to be on a beach. Labor is work, its pain you can’t escape.
In a similar way, we don’t experience life as a beach with waves crashing under a coconut tree. Living worry-free is not reality, nor is this the peace that God promised. In Disney’s The Lion King, Simba learned the song “Hakuna Matada” (no worries)—yet he still had to go back and fight for his kingdom. That fight was stressful, but Simba had to engage it.
Similarly, there is a certain level of stress we will have to live with in this life. Anxiety will come. Philippians 4:6-7 doesn’t mean that our teenagers will never worry about anything ever again. Rather, it’s about understanding what to do when our teenagers—and ourselves—are under pressure. We need to apply ourselves to prayer, trusting that God will “guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
For our teenagers, the peace of God comes in knowing that although they worry about grades, their parents’ approval, or their relationships, they have a God who has given them so much through Jesus. He is working his purpose through them even when they can’t see it.
God is with us even in the hardest of circumstances. Therefore, our students can give their worry and anxiety to God in prayer, leading to the peace of knowing Jesus amidst chaos and uncertainty.