Ask Rooted: How Can Youth Ministers Help Teenagers Navigate a Loneliness Epidemic?

Since the CDC reported that teenagers are the most likely population to suffer from isolation related to the pandemic, much ink has been spilled over the so-called epidemic of loneliness. From the initial COVID lockdown of 2020 to continued reduced in-person interactions in 2021 and the beginnings of recovery in 2022, teenagers have certainly suffered socially and emotionally. In the midst of this upheaval, youth ministers have a significant opportunity to share the good news of Jesus’ welcome with teenagers.

We asked our Rooted writers to share how they are caring for lonely teenagers in the ongoing effects of COVID-19.We hope their responses will encourage you as you continue to invite teenagers to find their truest identity in Christ and the deepest community in his body, the church.

Join us for a webinar entitled Caring for Teenagers in an Epidemic of Loneliness” Thursday, March 10 at 1:00 CST. Join Rooted Steering Committee members Skyler Flowers and Kendal Conner and the Rooted blog’s Editor-in-Chief, Anna Meade Harris as they talk about how we can minister the gospel to hurting teenagers. Register today!

Arek OConnell High School and Young Adult Pastor at Hillside Community Church, Grand Rapids, MI

Recently our church did a complete overhaul of our mission and vision. We were heavily influenced by the research the Fuller Youth Institute published in their 2016 book Growing Young. One of the most important things they say a church can do in faithfully loving and serving young people is to empathize with them instead of judging them.

Our youth ministry has been severely impacted by the loneliness associated with COVID and teenagers. So we have adjusted our programming to prioritize spending as much time as possible listening to the state of our students’ lives and how they’ve been impacted by COVID. Practically, this means that some nights (maybe 2 out of 4) we skip the Bible lesson and spend an hour or more in small groups practicing “empathy through listening.”

Here’s one question that has produced a lot of insight for our leaders: Imagine you’re sitting with a 65-year old for lunch who wants to know about your life and how his or her high school experience was different from yours. What are a couple of things things you would tell this person? What would you want them to know about your time in high school and why?” From experience, you can’t get your students to stop talking about this question! It allows them a safe space to communicate their pain and it makes them feel heard.

Justin Talbert, Student Pastor at Christ Community Church in Little Rock, Arkansas

As Ive walked with teenagers, I’ve come to see that loneliness possesses two primary fangs” that rip them apart. The first is a lie: Im the only lonely soul out there.” The second is shame: I cant share this with anyone else.”

To combat this with my students, I leverage question nights” during Wednesday night gatherings to allow for students to anonymously insert their questions into—you guessed it—the Question Box. On the gigantic wooden box (Etsy for the win!) are the words, Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).

As I transition into a time of addressing questions, Ill say something like, The culture of the kingdom is one of safety because the King knows our weakness. We are people of belief…and unbelief. We struggle, and he knows this. But he doesnt mock or frown upon us. He extends mercy, knowing our doubts dont kill our faith. Silence does. So, write out your questions now and well take each of them one-by-one.”

The leaders and I answer the questions (and follow up questions); then, we encourage them to find us to chat further, if theyre needing it. This is just one way we’re helping students find community in place of isolation.

Pro tip: If you give students time to write out question cards directly after a Bible study/teaching, the questions tend to favor whatever topic you just talked about—so be strategic!

Matt Brown, Student Pastor, The Gathering Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO

Last fall, a bucket of cold water was poured over my head—figuratively, of course. I had planned a long and busy night full of food, games, and broom ball for our students. As parents picked up their kids, I heard one parent ask well, did you have fun tonight?” The answer though, was unusual. I overheard the teenager respondyeah, but doesnt Matt know that we dont always have to have a busy night, we just want to hang out with each other?” There was the bucket. I had put a lot of effort into making calls, lining up drivers, having people make dinner and planning fun games, thinking that teenagers want to be busy and do all of these things. But what if that’s not what our students actually desire?

Even though it has been two years since lockdown, teenagers are craving community. They are still terrified of the loneliness that was magnified by COVID. What they desire is much simpler than what we might think. Instead of doing, they want be. They want to hang out with one another. They dont mind simple activities like watching a movie and drinking milkshakes as long as they are together.

Practically speaking, when I think about future events, I dont feel like I need to plan out every single second of the evening. Sometimes throwing out some board games and art supplies is more than enough. Before the pandemic, my goal before was to provide events. Now, my goal is to provide community.

Kendal Conner, Groups Minister at Redeemer Fellowship in Kansas City, MO

Over the past decade, students have confronted not only an epidemic of loneliness, but a reversal of relationships. Due to social media, our students are a part of the most connected generation in history; yet they spend the largest sum of their time in service of their online relationships, instead of their closest ones. Our students are giving their time, energy, and often feelings away to their most distant relationships, blurring the line of what relationship is meant to be.

Considering this, we have chosen to place small groups as a core value in our youth ministry. While small groups often require more work up front—recruiting more leaders and providing more specialized training—we have seen them pay dividends in the discipleship of our students, uniquely relational discipleship. At the heart of our small groups model is the study of the Bible. They also seek to live out biblical fellowship over cultural friendship. They create a safe space for students to practice vulnerability in relationship, while knowing it will be met with a gospel foundation.

We have also chosen to maintain our small groups for students throughout their time in youth ministry, versus changing groups yearly. There can certainly be value in shifting groups from year to year. But for a generation categorized by loneliness, I believe there is a higher value in discipling students through the building of deep relationships. Small groups have created more relational dynamics and headaches for me than if I only did large group meetings, but they have also offered me more opportunities to minister in the place of relationships with my students than ever before. Through small groups I am able to not only teach God’s word on relationships, but to walk with my students in relationship.

Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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