Responding to Hurting, Confused Teenagers
By Bert Dockrey and Rick Lawrence
Today, in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, a gunman opened fire Friday in a Connecticut elementary school, killing 20 children, six adults, and himself. Among the dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School were the school's principal and psychologist, and the shooter’s mother and brother.
The pain of an act of violence that’s this horrific gets more unendurable the closer you get to it. But when we peel back the crust of our youth groups, there’s a lot of pain already hiding in the darkness. Pain is the common thread that runs through this generation of teenagers. And that means effective youth ministries are those that offer real healing to broken kids—for many, this atrocity will open tender wounds.
Living Out Jesus
Because of their pain, the kids who must now swallow this latest atrocity are desperate for love, truth, acceptance, and hope. And that’s where our job description has traction. Imagine you’re Jesus getting set to launch your ministry. You make a list of people you want to reach first. What about the Roman Senators? Win them over and you have great freedom to spread the gospel. Or how about the religious leaders? Together you could come up with a five-step plan for expanding God’s kingdom on earth. Or maybe you’d convince Pilate to stop the cruel Roman oppression inflicted on your people. No, no, and no. You’d visit brothels to talk to prostitutes, go to the corner bar to reach out to the drunks, and formulate an outreach plan to infiltrate the Internal Revenue Service.
Jesus pursued the marginalized. He never spoke condescendingly to the broken and hurting. Pain was a beacon that drew him to people—he always made time for them. And he’s our model. If we’re not available to hurting kids, then we’re not serving as Jesus did. Our mission is to go after the frightened and desperate and abused—to offer them safety, forgiveness, and unconditional love. Our filter and our mission: Never trivialize a teenager’s pain, no matter its source. Remember the woman at the well? Jesus took a detour into enemy country just for one counseling session with a stranger in pain! When a teenager says she needs to talk, our world needs to stop.
Once we stop, we listen. And we don’t morph into “Scripture dispensers.” Most kids in the throes of pain don’t need to know what the Bible says—they need to see it lived out through our love and compassion. When a hurting teenager is all cried out, then we can pray and bring biblical truth into the situation. Demonstrate God’s love during crises; defend it during recovery.
Make Sure Grandma’s in the House
Every ministry needs a Karen, our resident grandma. She serves as an adult volunteer, leads a small group, and loves recklessly. Karen is pure unconditional love. She never judges our kids or gives them hard advice. She laughs with those who laugh and cries with those who cry. She never dispenses Scripture like a spiritual prescription. She prays, every day, for the teenagers she’s nurturing. She’s the lowest-profile person on our ministry team, and she makes the deepest impact.
Sometimes a pastor has to correct, challenge, or guide a teenager who’s drifting away from God. But a grandma only has to love. Every youth ministry needs a grandma.
Paul offers us a baseline in our response to kids who are dealing with the pain of their own lives, and the pain they experience vicariously through a horrific tragedy such as the one in Connecticut: “Laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry.” That’s simple but profound advice. But we all know healing is a process that almost always involves failures and setbacks. That’s why the Apostle Paul said that “love...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7)...and so should we. ◊
Bert Dockrey is a youth pastor in Indiana. Rick Lawrence is editor of GROUP Magazine.