Shame, Suffering, and Authenticity in Youth Group

So often, our passions and drives in ministry are the byproduct of an experience or story from our own adolescence. In this series, we asked student leaders what shaped and enlivened their faith as teenagers, and how that has informed their ministry as adults. Read other articles in this series here.

The few times I went to a youth group as a kid, I never felt like I belonged. I was about ten or eleven years old, I believe, and all of the other kids seemed to have everything together. I came from a dysfunctional home and all of my baggage was right on my sleeve. It only took a few minutes spent with me for a person to recognize my myriad issues. The other kids… just didn’t seem to have any struggles at all.

More than a decade later, the gospel seeds sown into me over the years (even at that youth group) eventually took root and sprouted. I found myself back at church as a young man; a different church, but something was oddly familiar. It seemed as though all of the people in attendance had been Christians their whole lives – even more so, that they had it down perfectly. I had my jaded past on which to attribute all of my shortcomings, but why was I the only one?

Obviously I wasn’t the only one.

Many, throughout my youth and my young adult years, were experiencing many of the same struggles as I. Others had different issues. What all these people had in common was that they were burying their pain behind the façade of a smiling face.

Me, I can’t help it. It’s not a gift. It’s just a personality thing. I don’t have to work at being “authentic” the same way others don’t work at being beautiful or intelligent. I really just can’t help it. I was told once as a teenager, “Shaun, you tell everyone about your life. No one cares.” Yes, that’s who I am at heart to this day; the guy who will tell anyone about his life – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I am passionate about authenticity in Youth Ministry because I have seen the devastating effect of putting up an image. I know that every student entering our Sunday night worship service has something going on in their life. One kid might be dealing with a porn addiction. Another might be feeling insecure about their body. And many (if not all) of my students struggle to feel adequate to meet the expectations of teachers, parents, coaches, friends, and culture at large.

The bottom line is that we all struggle with something. When we don’t allow others to see that, we make room for two damaging effects.

1. In isolating ourselves, we put ourselves in a position to be crushed by the enemy. This is a scary place to be. In the silent, quiet places of our minds where we harbor unconfessed struggles, we can come under tremendous attack. In these places, the enemy comes against us. Peter said, “[our] enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). A friend and co-laborer with me in Youth Ministry once pointed out what happens when a lion approaches a herd and roars: they all scatter. It is then that the lion looks for the one that has broken off from the rest. In its isolation, the animal is easy prey.

The enemy wants to do the same with us. He will roar his condemnation toward us, calling us hypocrites, liars, unworthy of the name of Christ. His hope is that we will then retreat into ourselves so he can continue his onslaught unhindered.

In this regard, authenticity is important so that we can stand together against the enemy and weather his attacks. We need each other to encourage and strengthen one another. It is only as we keep our shame and struggles in the darkness that the struggles themselves can devour us. Once brought into the light, they lose their power and so does the enemy.

2. We hinder one another from receiving the healing we all need. If we all bury our issues, no one is able to see the common struggles we share. And make no mistake, we all share in pain and suffering. Paul said, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). This means that whatever it is we struggle with, someone else has dealt or is dealing with it too. But if we never reveal our suffering, we will quickly make church a place where only the ones who seem to have it all together belong. We become the hospital that only admits the healthy. The irony is, we all walk around bleeding out beneath our coats as we try to pretend we have it all together. It won’t be long before there are no survivors left.

Authenticity is critical so that people can open up their coats and receive the healing that they need. As we lay our wounds and struggles before each other, God can use us to bind one another up and carry one another through. As we open up about our inner struggles, we create a safe place for people in deep pain to come and find healing at the foot of the cross.

It became evident to me fairly recently that a lack of authenticity was becoming an issue among my youth. At each service, we give our students prayer request cards that they have the option to fill out. We were only getting back one or two a week. This was not a good sign. So, as part of a survey we put out to our students, we asked why they weren’t asking for prayer. Do you know what the number one reason was? “I am embarrassed for others to know that I have struggles in my life.”

I let a few weeks pass and then began to communicate the same thing each week before our prayer card/reflection time. We all have struggles. Look around you. Every person in this room has struggles, whether they share them or not. Jesus would not have needed to come to earth, just to die on a cross, if we truly had it all together. We want to pray for you. We want to encourage you. We want to give your hidden shame and struggles some fresh air. Let us know how we can do this by filling out that prayer card. I am happy to report that we are now receiving them in double digits.
Beyond prayer requests, one-on-one meetings between youth ministers and students are ideal for these type of real and authentic conversations. So many of our students are carrying a crippling shame in their hearts – struggles they’re less likely to share in a group (even written on a card). The value of loving, incarnational ministry (even at the youth level) is boundless.


Shaun McDonald has been serving as youth pastor at Open Arms Church in upstate New York since 2008, and has been involved in youth ministry since 2004.  He has a passion to see Christ take root in the hearts and lives of youth and their families.  Coming from a tumultuous and rebellious background, Shaun can think of no greater privilege than sharing the greatest hope of Jesus Christ.  Shaun received an Associates Degree in Pastoral Ministry from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Bachelor degree in Religion from Liberty University, and is working on his Master of Divinity in Discipleship and Family Ministry through The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Shaun, his wife and their three children live in Rotterdam, N.Y. You can read his devotional blog at

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