We all have a moment in our lives when our innocence is lost, when we come to see that the world is sometimes a dangerous and fearful place. The sad reality is that we live in a culture of fear and personal pain that comes from human sin and selfishness. Over the years as a Christian youth minister, I witnessed many times the suffering experienced by teens who had lost their innocence through abuse, bullying, and family trauma. Too many of these young people chose to turn this pain inward – engaging in behaviors like drug use, cutting, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation – rather than choosing to engage the broken world in which they lived.
I discovered though a life-long walk with Jesus, that the way to combat this fear is with words and actions that bring healing and hope based on the Word of God, the power of the sign and sacrament, and the foundational principles of the Church.
My approach to helping teens overcome their life fears is found in the acronym, R.E.A.L. In my relationship with young people, I make a deliberate choice to be Real, Earnest, Available, and Loving. These four life principles help to empower teens to grow in their understanding of how to engage a culture that seeks to hold them in an unhealthy cycle of fear and self-abuse. The beauty in these principles is that they speak not only to what I need to be to the young people, but also to the needs themselves: needs that have been distorted or destroyed by the loss of innocence the young people have suffered, which lie waiting in the depths of their hearts for restoration.
Realness and Identity
I found in my ministry that young people never expected me to be one of them; but they did expect me to understand and accept them where they were. There was, at the core of their spirits, a basic identity beyond current cultural trends I could connect with empathetically. This came because of my own inner struggles and the faith that helped me to walk through them. When the young people sensed that I could see into their hurting hearts, they were more willing to be open to mine. As I responded to their pain with transparency and vulnerability from my own heart, they were able to express both their pain and their inner beauty. My Christian identity and the peace and purpose it brought to my life gave the teens a foundation from which they could seek to grow as well.
So many teens struggle these days with their identity, particularly with regard to their sexuality and their worth as they try to find a place among their peers. These young people are just coming to terms with what it means to be sexual beings and belong to different societal groups. Given time and support, they are capable of resolving these crucial identity questions. However, because society is so quick to “affirm” their confusion and rubberstamp their feelings, many teens never quite move beyond the views and opinions of others. What is important is to help teens understand that they have an intrinsic worth and a unique character as those who have been created in the image of God. Consider the following:
For you formed my inward parts,
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am wondrously made.
Wonderful are your works!
You know me right well…
(Psalm 139:13-14, RSV2CE)
When teens see that they belong to God, that they are more than the sum of other’s opinions, and that they are part of a Body of believers that loves and supports them, they can begin to fill the empty, God-sized hole in their hearts with hope, and walk their own journeys counter to the culture around them.
Earnest Means Solid, Serious, and Solemn
It was one thing to be real, but my realness had to be grounded in something other than my own ego. I needed to have a sense of myself that mirrored the God I wanted to share with them. Being earnest meant taking my leadership role seriously enough to know who I was in Christ, to share what I believed as a Christian, and to be comfortable in my own skin when it came to living out my faith in the real world. I wanted to embody Paul’s words to Timothy:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15, RSV2CE)
Teens will be able to face this broken world when we are serious about our relationships with them. An earnest faith is one that takes God’s truth seriously and makes a sincere spiritual investment in the lives of the young people. We must be willing to walk the rocky road of insanity that is adolescence, taking with us an empathetic understanding that has come from our own transformed lives. Rather than being “experts” who have it all together, our goal is to lead the young people to safe and solid places within the Church where God’s Word and wisdom can guide them as they struggle against the falsehood and fallen nature of moral relativism, political correctness, and godless thinking.
Availability is More than Physical Presence
Being available to young people meant going beyond sharing the same space at a youth event. I knew I needed to be emotionally and spiritually present to them as well. They knew they could contact me when they needed help, and that I would always listen openly to their fears and concerns without passing judgment or providing easy answers. It meant being a shoulder to cry on and coach in their corner. I never tried to solve their issues in the sense that I provided a perfect, once-for-all answer to their fears; rather, I gave them a sense of hope by being someone they could always turn to for honest conversation, sincere prayer, and loving support. Grounded in my own faith, I was able to speak truth into their lives. I used as my guide the example of Jesus in John 13 (The Washing of the Disciple’s Feet) and passages such as those below:
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11, RSV2CE)
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15, RSV2CE)
…and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works… (Hebrews 10:24, RSV2CE)
Being available means we are willing to sit with young people in those inner places of vulnerability and fear, not as spiritual “bodyguards,” but as those who has been wounded and are still walking the path toward healing. It means letting the teens see our own flaws and struggles as believers, and sharing how Christ has helped us to overcome them. In this way, we provide a foundation upon which to build a relationship with Jesus within the Church. We are to walk with the young people as they tear down walls of fear and division, and be ready to lift them up when they fall. Once teens know they have this support from us and from the God we have made real to them, we can point them to the worship, sacraments, and wisdom of the Church where they will find the strength they need to continue their journeys into adulthood.
Loving is Unconditional
Perhaps the most powerful part of my relationship with the young people was the love I shared with them. In one sense, the other three parts of this approach were wrapped up in how I imparted God’s love through my words and actions. I needed to keep in mind that this love came not from my own strength but from Christ and His Spirit moving in the Church, in order for me to remain focused on the young people and not on my own needs. My love was genuine, earnest in my devotion to their needs, and totally present to them in their journeys toward wholeness and peace. My love worked best when, like the Savior’s love, it was sacrificial, unconditional, and other-focused. As our Lord Himself said:
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13, EAV2CE)
Teens can spot false love easily. They will drink in real love – godly love – with great joy. And as they receive love in the context of godly living, personal and communal reconcilation, and the celebration of worship around the Communion table, it will strengthen them to go out into the broken world and stand against the fear and falsehood that tries to break them down. As they are shown the unconditional love and mercy of Christ, the natural beauty and sacrificial spirit that is lies deep within them will feel free to manifest itself in love shown toward others. Rather than reacting to the cruelty of the world with hatred or withdrawal, they will learn to respond to the brokenness of the world with compassion and self-giving.
Remembering the Other God
At the heart of this approach to ministering to young people is imparting the truth that Jesus Christ was the ultimate example of a real, earnest, available, and loving person. It should be our highest priority to show teens that Jesus is the One who can understand their fear and their pain perfectly because He lived a life of perfect love and self-giving. Christian Singer Michael Kelly Blanchard has a beautiful song entitled, “The Other God.” Through his haunting lyrics he sings about how our noble and lofty images of God are broken down when we face our own frailty and the struggles of life. But it is there that we encounter “The Other God,” the One who was broken for us:
Yet humans have a human side that’s both vulnerable and flawed,
And when these common traits collide they seek the other God…
The other God, the broken One,
Who loves with tears, His broken ones,
And patches years as they come – undone!
The other God, the broken One.
(Michael Kelly Blanchard, “The Other God” – from the album, Good Grief)
As members of the Body of Christ, we have been given a great gift to share with a broken world. That gift is the connectedness we have in our Savior through our fellowship as members of the Church. As we celebrate through sacrament and sacred worship, as we dig deep into the Word, and as we help one another to grow in the faith, we build upon the rock-solid foundation of saints who are joined together in the perfect love we share with Jesus. Let us remember to love those who struggle the most in this broken world: our young people. Let us be real, earnest, available, and loving ministers to them in the name of our Savior; and let us lead them toward heaven by walking with them on this earth in service and solidarity.