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7 Urgent Issues to Challenge in Your Youth Group!

What are the top cultural forces that our teenagers must contend with today? And how can we be sure we’re “majoring on the majors” with them?


I’ve put together a list of the most important influences in their life—the seven realities that are important for us to know as we pastor students living in a challenging culture. Social media and digital dependence have, of course, a magnifying influence on all of these forces.

#1—Suicide

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. Boys are more likely to complete a suicide, but girls are more likely to attempt it. Risk factors include: a history of previous suicide attempts, a family history of suicide, a history of depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, stressful life events or losses, easy access to lethal methods, exposure to the suicidal behavior of others.

What’s not true about responding to kids who are suicidal:

1) Once a teenager decides to commit suicide, nothing is going to stop them.

2) If you teenagers if they’re planning to commit suicide, you might simply plant the idea in their head.

3) Most kids talk about suicide just to get attention, so it’s best to ignore it when it comes up.

#2—Physical and Digital Bullying

Between a quarter and a third of all U.S. students say they’ve been bullied at school, and one out of eight has experienced cyberbullying in some form. More than half of LGBTQ teenagers say they’ve been cyberbullied. Almost a third of students admit they have actually bullied someone themselves, and three-quarters say they’ve seen someone bullied. The top risk factor for bullying is a teenager who is perceived as different from his or her peers. Girls are more likely than boys to cyberbully, and boys are more likely than girls to bully face-to-face.

What to do about bullying: Help kids grow in their assertiveness, challenge them to stick up for anyone, anywhere who’s being bullied, and show kids how to block bullying online and reduce their exposure to bullies.

#3—Internet Addiction

According to a report by Common Sense Media, half of all teenagers say they “feel addicted” to their mobile devices—two-thirds have a smartphone, and they spend an average of nine hours a day consuming digital media. What drives kids from “normal use” to addiction to the Internet and technology? Anxiety, ADHD, the promise of an “escape hatch” from reality, the opportunity to “become someone else” online, and kids who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.

What to watch out for:

1) When digital devices and the Internet seem more important than face-to-face time with friends or hobbies they previously enjoyed.

2) When time on the Internet impact kids’ grades or makes them lose sleep consistently.

3) Teenagers who report meeting strangers or threatening people online.

4) Unhealthy eating patterns, or a high intake of caffeine to stay awake. 5) Making lots of friends they’ve never actually met in person.

5) Experiencing anxiety when there is no connection to the Internet.

6) Neglecting their appearance or hygiene because they’re distracted by the Internet.

#4—The Hook-Up Culture

Some experts estimate that almost two-thirds of all teenagers are somehow involved in the “hook-up culture,” which accepts and encourages casual sexual encounters that are “not personal.” The focus is short-term physical pleasure with no commitments and no attachments. More boys report being involved in the hook-up culture, and more girls report regret over their involvement in it.

What you can do: Directly address the prevalence of the hook-up culture, the inherent pressures of navigating that culture, and offer a path to freedom through a closer attachment to Jesus.

#5—Drugs & Alcohol

By the time they reach their senior year, half of all teenagers have abused an illicit drug at least once. But overall, illicit drug abuse among teenagers is either flat or dropping, except for a few notable exceptions. The slight downturn shows up in the broad categories of alcohol, marijuana, inhalant, cocaine, and non-medical uses of prescription drugs.

How to counteract drug abuse: The U.S. government’s Office of Adolescent Health recommends:

1) Strong positive connections with parents, other family members, school, and religion;

2) Parents who set clear limits and give consistent enforcement of discipline; and

3) reduced access in the home to illegal substances.

#6—Anxiety

One in eight young people suffer from an anxiety disorder of some kind, but eight out of 10 are not being treated for it. Anxiety is frequently correlated with depression, eating disorders, and ADHD. And kids who are caught in a cycle of anxiety are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.

Signs of anxiety: Kids who are struggle with anxiety experience fear, nervousness, and shyness, and they consciously avoid places and activities that trigger their anxiety.

#7—Self-Esteem and Body Image

Almost all teenage girls (90 percent) say they’d like to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, with weight (of course) at the top of the list. That’s because more than 9 million teenagers below the age of 15 are classified as obese—that’s three times the number in 1980. One out of 10 boys are using “unproven” supplements or steroids to improve their physique, and almost three-quarters of girls believe they’re not good enough or do not measure up in some way including their looks, performance in school, and relationships.

Symptoms to watch for: 1) Anxiety and depression related to appearance, 2) Obsessing over a single perceived flaw in appearance, 3) Spending excessive time looking in mirrors, 4) Excessive grooming and exercise, 5) Anorexia, and 6) Bulimia.

Of course, there are many more than seven issues deeply impacting teenagers today—but these are the must-know priorities when it comes to cultural influence. The key question is: How does a deepening relationship with Jesus impact these “weeds” growing in kids’ gardens? We know, from Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, that His intention is for us to grow the “wheat” in kids’ lives so that healthy growth chokes out the weeds. In any case, His focus is on growing wheat, not pulling weeds—He asks us (in the parable) to leave that to Him. It’s a division of labor and skill, and He’s asking us to concentrate on creating a rich environment for growth for our teenagers. That’s exactly the focuse, by the way, of our fall Youth Ministry Local Training tour—coming to 55 cities around the country. Find out more, here.


36 thoughts on “7 Urgent Issues to Challenge in Your Youth Group!

  1. Great thoughts Aaron. I would add self-harm and pornography to the list as well. These two issues are so prevalent for our ministry. Of course they could easily be addresses as a part of some of those you mentioned. Many times some of the things you have listed are the very things that lead students I counsel to these. Thanks for the post.

    • Great add Jody. I’m glad that we are talking about them instead of acting like they don’t exist in the church, because they do.

      • Aaron, Can not agree more with this statement. Such a fact that allot Youth Groups are running from.

        I’m glad that we are talking about them instead of acting like they don’t exist in the church, because they do.

        • You are definitely right. I think a lot of times churches just aren’t prepared to deal with them. So they’d rather not bring them up. I think we must talk about them and help students who are struggling. Thanks for your comment!!

  2. Where I live, youth pastors have to get at least 5 of those topics approved by the church leadership AND THEN get written permission from all of the parents to speak on these things. Failure to complete the procedure leads to disciplinary action and parents threatening to remove their children from youth events.

    One downside is that the procedure usually doesn’t get finished, and the topic must be dropped. Or the parents decide that this is their job and refuse permission. Either way, the children then don’t get the advice that they need.

    • Robski, I’m praying for you… Keep your head up and remeber that all things are possible!

      • ditto Andrew!!!!

        Robski,
        Instead of doing a series on these topics. What if you did a workshop and made it available to the parents and students. That way parents that need some wisdom on these topics can get it, and you aren’t exposing the whole youth group to it.

    • Wow. This is disheartening.

      Is there a particular background that you are from?

    • It might be worth trying to have a separate gathering for these topics. If you let your students know what your “Hot Topics” class is all about then they can choose whether or not to let their teen participate. They can see this as an elective and still have the student come to regular youth meetings. If a few students find such a class helpful and meaningful, others may hear about it and join in when their parents feel they have the maturity to participate. This would set up the dynamic where you only have to get the approval the one time when you establish the class and the onus is on the parents to choose whether or not to have their students participate rather than having one or two parents disctate what the whole group can discuss.

    • Sounds more like a public school system then an actual church. I find this to be extremely discouraging.

      What is the church affiliation?

      • I think you forget that the church is a school. young people nowadays have various and numerous sources of information and advice to these issues, ones which aren’t necessarily right or helpful in leading a happy life. Don’t you think we as a church owe it to them to provide our truth, shine a light on it and make it available for all that are willing to listen. I believe that is the least we can do, and as Christians, that is what we are asked to do by our Lord Jesus Christ.

  3. I will be doing a series on bullying with our students in the near future. SYM or anyone else, can you direct me to resources that will assist me in preparing for the subject?

  4. Justin Brewer

    Wow Aaron…. I think you just helped me figure out the first series of the new year! Thanks bro!

    • That’s awesome Justin!!! Sometimes we have to expose those things that are done in secret before people start talking about them. We’ve done a series called “Secrets” and you would be amazed at the fact that students want to talk to someone, but they just don’t know how or they feel ashamed so they keep it to themselves. I pray your series starts some much needed dialogues so that healing can start to take place.

  5. Thanks so much for bringing this into focus with statistical data. I have long estimated something somewhat lower than this, but find this totally within the realm of truth. No matter how good you think your youth are, this is truly the most likely representation of the secret life of the american teenager, regardless of demographic.

  6. I would add that “belief in God” are also essentials.I find that students are wrestling with the other issues listed above, in part, because their faith is not central to their worldview.

    • Great thought Brian,
      There is definitely a breakdown somewhere. I’ve found that a lot of students struggle with the idea that christians can be tempted.

  7. This is some good stuff to talk about to my youth.

  8. Great article! I really feel blessed & burdened at the same time … the parents of the kids I am blessed to minister to … DO NOT CARE … what their kids are doing as long as they are out of their way. They could care less what I’m talking to them about. So, in a way … it is a blessing because the kids really open up about these topics & God is able to speak through us into their lives.

    My heart breaks that the students, (approx 70), that attend our Wednesday night program … are from un-churched families. We are doing all we can to reach their parents. Our prayer is that through the salvations of these students … their families will be saved.

    One topic we tackle is Media like TV, Movies & Magazines.

    Thanks again, and God bless….

    • Thanks Jennifer,
      Keep praying for your students parents. I’ve seen God do the miraculous in that area. We also have a large group of students whose parents aren’t believers. Know that prayer changes things so keep praying.

      ac

  9. Thanks for this add., this helps me a lot 🙂

  10. Rhett Gedies

    I don’t want to be the downer or anything….but most of these topics are the “do’s and don’ts” of the Christian faith.

    Our youth group gets compliments for digging into Biblical concepts based upon the Scriptures. The Do’s and Don’ts are occasionally necessary, yes. But I think we are missing the foundation knowledge/Biblical concepts in the youth groups of America overall. An immersed understanding and grasp of the Bible and its truths, solves topic 1-6 itself.

    Focusing too much on simply “don’t do this, don’t do that” easily turns teen’s concept of the Christian faith into rule keeping, based on their misinterpretation. The Word of God, should be our focus, the rest is cultural and will change when we let the Bible change us.

    • First of all thank for your feedback, its much appreciated. I would have to respectfully disagree. These topics are not just do’s and don’ts. I think for years some of these topics have been taboo in church, and the result of us not talking about them has done more damage than good. Just because a student grows up in the church hearing scripture scripture scripture doesn’t mean they don’t struggle, and the church should be the safest place to talk about any issue. I also think starting the conversation first is key. Students need practical biblical wisdom on how to deal with them. I think when we speak out on these topics, it gives students confidence to speak out also. I do agree that we need to be teaching biblical concepts from scripture, and I also agree that we need to be teaching foundational truths. And I believe we can do those things in the context of the topics mentioned in the post.

      I understand where you are coming from and I agree, but I don’t believe This post is your target.

    • I get nervous when people say things like, “the Word of God should be our focus”, because Holy Scripture is only one way we experience God. God should be our focus. Christ should be our focus. And the way we best serve Christ is by serving our neighbors, meaning not only those around us, but our youth.

      Teaching scripture is great, and discussing scripture (and how to read it) is even better. But we must teach our youth that our God is a living God who can still speak to us and be involved in our lives. We must teach them how to see God everywhere, and remind them of the two most important commandments: love God and love your neighbor.

      If we only teach them to see God in the Bible, then as soon as they see an inconsistency or something that doesn’t make sense to their world view, there’s a good chance they’ll find themselves not believing. Rather, we should give them a strong, supportive faith, that allows room to explore these difficult topics, that allow for them to confront difficulty rather than run from it. That’s the kind of faith that will survive the youth’s transition to college, much more than scripture memorization ever will.

  11. Thank You!?Thank You! & Thank You! again for posting this!!! I’ve been told that these sort of topics aren’t popular to talk about in youth ministry.
    I am blown away by the fact that kids are dealing with these issues, but we have church ostriches with their heads in the sand.
    We have to talk about this with our students & be pro active & be active in being preventative. Otherwise we will lose these kids.
    Yes teach the Bible, but bring it to where the kids are.
    Please note my husband & I are Pastors of Forefront Ministries, but I also facilitate San Diego Mission Team. Please check out our website. SDMT discusses these & more issues at our annual summit. SDMT equips & provides tools for youth workers. We are holding our next summit Oct. 10, 2015. It will be 8 am-12:30 pm @ Pt. Loma Nazarene University. This year we are talking about gang & bullying issues. We also have resources available on most of the subjects you brought up.
    Please try to come to this summit & meet other like minded people.

  12. SUJATA JAYAPRAKASH

    I think in current times it is important to talk to the youth about being “Godly Role models” “Stand for Biblical Values” “Contentment” “Socializing”

  13. Thank you so much saints wow i have been reading your comments over and over again and i gained A lot. i think we real need a lots of platiforms like this as Youth leaders where we share ideas and challenges that our Youth face on a daily basis. I am in South Africa and will be dealing with Exodus 20:12 soon. I found it very challenging because sometimes we focus more on God which is good but the Bible patently tells that we should honour our parents so that we may live long. I have been praying about this for quiet some time and i real think that its high time that we deal with the truth and build a solid foundation. Thank you very much guys you real opened my spiritual eyes

  14. Mandana Adam

    hey everyone, thanks for all these real topics that are so crucially awaiting discussion among the youth of today no mater where on earth they are from, iam currently in charge of counselling a melting pot of youth that belong to different ethnic backgrounds so i cannot preach the right or wrong from any one particular scripture, but i believe that despite the various religious backgrounds its the same problems that plague our youth globally. the problem i face is getting my kids to relax and open up , because of their ethnic beliefs they consider all this taboo, i also have a pressing issue of rape that is a very frightening reality and a very casually overlooked issue.
    i would be thankful for all the advice i can get so that i can perhaps strike a cord with at least one out of ten kids here.

    • It’s all about starting the conversation and giving a biblical narrative on topics that they are already discussing at school and with friends. Thanks for your comments!

  15. Yes yes and yes. But the real question is this. What is the answer? Are we to remove YM from churches? Because the real answer is for the parents of these children to be their disciples. But that begs another question; Do the parents have a healthy and growing connection with the Father where they can do that? I am pretty sure that the overall answer to that question is no. So, what does one do?

  16. Oluwafemi Moses

    Awesome contributions above!

  17. Very nice ,These topics really nice to be used for youth ministry .

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7 Urgent Issues to Challenge in Your ...

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