Teaching Lonely Teenagers to Look to Jesus

I grew up in a massive neighborhood with no less than three lakes, woods to explore, and an abandoned tennis court where we used to play street hockey. Five of my classmates lived on my street. It was rare that I was alone. If we weren’t out fishing, my friends and I were running around the woods playing capture the flag. 

Today’s teenager lives in a vastly different world than the one I grew up in. Through no fault of their own, they have become isolated, seeking friendship through their phones and social media. Often this isolation will lead to teenagers’ feeling lonely and depressed. We observe this loneliness as we look around our youth rooms and see many of our students on their phones rather than talking to their peers and leaders. They so often misplace their joy in how many followers they have on social media, instead of in the joy we find through meaningful relationships and ultimately, in Christ. 

How do we as youth ministers encourage and engage our students who are lonely? We want to give them hope that they are not alone and don’t have to be isolated.  Today’s teenagers are more connected through social media and technology than they have ever been. Still, they are more depressed they have ever been. As we seek to lead teenagers in the midst of depression and isolation, we must turn to the Bible as our resource for equipping them.

Teach The Biblical Model of Dependence on God

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you”

Psalm 139:7-12

The first thing we can do for lonely, isolated teenagers is to teach them to turn to God in prayer. In moments of great distress and frustration, we must cry out to God, trusting he has not left us. In 2 Samuel 15, we read how King David’s own son, Absalom, betrayed and attacked him. Absalom gathers an army around himself so that he can take over King David’s throne. A messenger came to David, who knew of Absalom’s threat. He told David, “The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom (2 Sam. 15:13). At this moment, David must have felt alone, isolated, betrayed, and hurt. But what does David do during great distress? He worships God.

During this experience of being pursued by his son, David laments the number of his foes and their attacks against him. Then he praises God: “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill.’” (Psalm 3:3-4).

We see this same response displayed by others in the biblical narrative, too. When Job loses his family, his health, and his influence, he cries out to God in prayer. God answers Job according to his will. While fleeing from Jezebel, Elijah asks God for his own death. He feels alone because of what Jezebel had done—and yet, God provides for him, reminding Elijah that there are 7,000 in Israel who have not bowed down to Baal (1 Kings 19). We have confidence that God hears our prayers and will answer them according to his will.

In a similar way, I wonder how Paul felt when writing the prison epistles. He is chained to a Roman guard knowing that at any moment the order can come for him to be executed. Meanwhile, he is still focused on God and his dependency on God. We must teach our students the essential truth that in their loneliness, they can cry out to God and he will hear their prayers. We want them to trust in God to comfort, to guide, and to make them whole. As youth ministers, we must not only teach these truths to the lonely teenager; we must also demonstrate dependency on God in our own lives. Ultimately, for those who have put their faith in Christ, we are never alone.

Create an Environment of Care

Second, we must create a culture that allows for conversation and relationships to develop. Many times, we see students, new and old, sitting alone at youth group and not speaking to anyone. As youth ministers, we must make it a priority to speak to everyone in the room, even if only for a few minutes. It shows our teenagers that we care about them and that they can trust us.

Some students are harder to engage than others. You ask them how they are, and you get the short answer “good.” We get the same answer when we ask them about school and family. It becomes easy to see that student and say, “well I already know what they are going to say, so I won’t bother with them this week.” Instead, we should realize that perhaps this student is the loneliest one in the room. Speaking to that student regularly has a greater impact than we may realize.

Meanwhile, we also need to create an environment that prevents students from isolating themselves. Whether that’s investing in an air hockey table, a few basketball goals, or a ping-pong table, or providing snacks that encourage mingling, it’s critical we foster a community in which students can belong.

Point Teenagers to Jesus

Lastly, we help teenagers look to Jesus. Just before Jesus was about to be arrested and crucified, he went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray (Matt. 26:36-46). He took his closest friends with him and asked them to stay awake with him as his time was drawing near. We read that he began to be troubled and sorrowful. He probably felt alone as no one could possibly understand what he was about to go through. Even his closest friends could not stay awake to pray with him.

As we help our teenagers navigate loneliness, we must remind them that Jesus has gone through the same emotions they experience today. He understands what it’s like to feel isolated, so our teenagers can trust him in all they face. He has perfectly modeled the kind of prayerful reliance on the Father that we saw in the Old Testament stories.

Just recently, a mentor of mine asked me about my prayer life. There had been a season when I felt alone and isolated. I had people helping me with the ministry, praying for me, and cheering me on, but I still felt alone. My mentor reminded me of the importance of prayer. In times of isolation and loneliness, we must remember to pray. One of the more practical ways is to pray through the Psalms. If Jesus prayed in his time of isolation, then let’s look to his example and follow it as we teach our students to do the same.

In order to help lonely teenagers, we must teach them biblically that loneliness is part of living in a fallen world. As we lead our students in dealing with loneliness, we trust that God will hear their prayers and their crying out in the wilderness. Our God is not distant, but present through the finished work of his Son.  

Jon Gers has worked in youth ministry since 2012 and currently serves as the youth pastor at The Church at the Beach in Panama CIty Beach, FL. He has a Bachelor's degree in Ministry Studies and a Master's degree in Christian Apologetics. He is married to Brittney and has two daughters Ana and Sera.

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