It’s Tuesday night at our youth center—about 25 kids are milling around, shooting pool, watching a movie, and playing video games before our youth service. That’s just the veneer. When I peel back the crust, I find a lot of pain hiding in the darkness—four cutters, two rape victims, 16 from divorced homes, five molested kids, two who are struggling with their sexual identity, a few attempted suicides, a miscarriage, one with an eating disorder, and several who have alcoholic parents.
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.
The Problem of Pain(1)
Michael Stipe, R.E.M.’s lead singer, wrote the song “Everybody Hurts” with teenagers in mind—he said he was convinced that “high school is the gateway to hell.” Depressing, for sure. And not far from the truth for many kids. The Barna Research Group says one in three children are born to unwed mothers and one third of all teenagers live in a “blended” or “broken” home—that represents a lot of pain. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in two rape victims is under age 18; one in six is under 12. Because of their pain, these kids are desperate for love, truth, acceptance, and hope. That’s our job description.
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 abused and offer them safety, forgiveness, and unconditional love. While your church board might recommend that you avoid the bars and brothels, there are plenty of places to find hurting kids—”the losers table” at your local junior or senior high, for starters.
I once had a parent dismiss her daughter’s latest breakup by saying, “It’s only puppy love.” My wife replied, “Puppy love is real to puppies.” The moral to the story: Never trivialize a teenager’s pain. When they get rejected, they feel every rejection they’ve ever suffered all over again. But we’re harried, and it’s hard to slow down long enough to notice a teenager’s pain. 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;(2) defend it during recovery.
Make Sure Grandma’s in the House
I’m 40 years old, so 13-year-old girls have certain emotional needs that I can’t meet (you may feign your shock now). That’s why I’m deliriously thankful that I have 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.
We have a teenager in our ministry named Katie (not her real name). Our kids invited her to youth group over and over, but she always said she wasn’t “all about God.” Eventually they convinced her to come to a fun event, then to one midweek service. Then Katie got sick—really sick. Her doctors were thinking leukemia and lupus. Katie started visiting our ministry, and listening.
One night, right before Katie was scheduled for surgery, I invited her up front for prayer. I asked our kids to lay hands on her and pray. When the crowd dispersed, there was Katie, alone with Grandma Karen. Hard-crusted Katie, a girl who never shed a tear, was sobbing on Karen’s shoulder. The next week Katie asked Jesus to be king of her life.
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.
Start the Healing With Baby Steps
The path to healing for a hurting teenager most often requires a series of baby steps—it seldom involves a spectacular leap. We prod hurting kids to take baby steps toward healing by creating an environment of healing and acceptance in our group.
At the close of a midweek service, I went over to a visitor and asked her how she was doing. Her reply floored me. “Do you really want to know?” she asked. “Yes, I do,” I replied. “I’m really screwed up,” she said. “I was molested when I was a kid—that hurt so bad I started drinking. One night, while I was drunk, my boyfriend raped me. I take pills to cope with it, and I’ve attempted suicide. My dad says it’s all my fault, and everyone at school treats me like a slut. That’s how I’m doing.”
Momentarily stunned, I recovered and took her aside to talk with the friend who brought her, a teenager in our group who’d also been molested, and an adult leader who was abused as a teenager. We talked about baby steps. This kid didn’t get hurt all at once, and she wasn’t going to get an instant fix, either. I explained to her that the first step was to get right with God—that gives God the okay to do the hard work of healing in her life. She committed her life to Christ, right on the spot.
We told her the second baby step would be much harder. “You must forgive the people who hurt you,” I said. It’s hard to look a broken girl in the eye and ask her to forgive the man who molested her and the boy who raped her. But Jesus said it, so we have to do it. Unforgiveness produces bitterness, and the walls around our hearts are built with bitterness. Hurting kids need Jesus first, then time to develop relationships with healthy people—but at some point they’ve got to forgive to go on.
A girl in our group has extensive experience forgiving the people who’ve hurt her. She was molested by her father when she was three. Her mother divorced and remarried—she later became a Christian. Then when she was 10, the girl was molested again by a pastor’s son. By the age of 14 she was addicted to cutting. She was part of a Christian family that embraced Christian morals and had an active spiritual life, but this girl was dying inside because she couldn’t forgive. Finally she decided to release her perpetrators from the debt they owed her. She said it was as if a “darkness” left her life. Unforgiveness was linking her to the people who’d hurt her.
After hurting teenagers forgive, it’s time to pursue their deeper healing by inviting them to give back to others so their healing is hastened. But remember, wounded teenagers often fall back into destructive patterns—be prepared to lead them through these steps, over and over.
Mind Your DQs
Inevitably, as you work with hurting teenagers, you’ll have to deal with a few drama queens (and kings). DQs are addicted to an endless cycle of pain. Their natural environment is permeated with angst, stress, and self-created woe. They refuse advice and blame God for issues that are their own responsibility. They’re never happier than when they’re miserable—and they can infect your ministry with that misery.
It’s hard to help drama queens. They crave attention and get it through others’ pity. We can’t participate in their healing unless we can get them to swallow a big dose of reality—that translates to confrontation. But we can’t confront until we find the source of the attention they crave.
I once had a DQ whose father left the family when she was a little girl. That deep rejection left her longing for a father’s love. She was sexually promiscuous and had trouble setting boundaries for her emotions. As a child she’d learned to manipulate people to survive.
Once we spotlighted the source of her pain, we systematically nudged her toward the Father of truth—the one who never leaves or forsakes. We surrounded her with people who loved and accepted her just as she was—broken and self-destructive. Finally, we mentored her onto a ministry team that gave her self-worth and a sense of purpose.
A physician searches for the source of our pain to diagnose an illness—we have to do the same thing with DQs. But beware—they’re skilled at refusing treatment at first. Approach them with prayer and patience.
If You’re in a Hole, Stop Digging
The first rule of hole-digging is simple—when you’re in too deep, you should put down your shovel. When we try to help a teenager who really needs professional help, we need to throw down our shovels and ask for help. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get as much training as we can to help all but the most serious issues.(3)
You can get training in counseling through a local community college or Christian school. This kind of training is fairly low- cost—ask your church to help underwrite the expenses.
Several rungs below college-level training are the courses offered at national training events such as the National Youth Workers Convention. And you can find many ultra-pragmatic books on counseling, including The Comprehensive Guide to Youth Ministry Counseling (Group Publishing).
But if a teenager is threatening suicide or not responding to counseling, get yourself out of that hole and make a referral to a competent professional. You may save a life.
• • •
“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 Dockery is a veteran youth pastor in Indiana, who pastors teenagers with his wife, Beth.
Kids Helping Kids
by Bert Dockery
We love to help hurting kids, but our job is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12). “God’s people” includes teenagers. Here’s how to get them involved in healing their friends who are hurting.
1. Create a prayer and comfort ministry.
Older teenagers can pray with those who need it, and offer basic advice and comfort to the hurting. We have a ministry like this in our church. It’s staffed by teenagers who’ve suffered hurts themselves. Their empathy makes it work. We train them to bring an adult into the conversation whenever a teenager mentions certain words, such as “abuse” or “suicide.”
2. Train them to connect with the marginalized.
Challenge your kids to “drop in for lunch” if they see a teenager eating alone at their school. The more they reach out to the disenfranchised, the more likely those kids will show up at your ministry door, where you can offer an environment of healing.
3. Why reinvent the wheel?
Hook up a younger teenager with an older peer who’s gone through similar struggles. Positive role-modeling shines a light on the path out of despair and confusion. Always pair young people of the same sex.
4. Have your kids tutor classmates with learning disabilities.
Learning-disabled kids carry an enormous weight of rejection and disappointment. Your leadership students can serve as tutors for them and represent Jesus in a practical way. Ministering to hurting teens is all about making God real to them, and this ministry does it in a way that nothing else can.
Counseling Kids with Eating Disorders
by Sheila Wray Gregoire
Overeating is as American as apple pie, so to speak. That’s why obesity among young people has been big news the last couple of years. But there are even more serious food problems going on in teenage culture today—the psychiatric eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia are on the increase among teenage girls. In the United States, one in 10 young women suffer from some kind of eating disorder.
Kids who wrestle with an eating disorder practice the ultimate in works-based theology—they believe that if they just get enough control, they’ll finally be good enough. Most come from middle- and upper-class families, tend to be successful at school, and are role models for good behavior. In other words, they look a lot like the kids in your youth group.
Once a girl descends into anorexia, cures are hard to come by. But you can help prevent that slide.
1. Dispel myths about body image.
Show kids magazine advertisements, and then ask them to discuss what’s realistic and unrealistic about the people in the ads. Have them write 10 adjectives to describe their ideal spouse. Have them rank them in order of importance, then discuss how many are appearance-related and how many are not.
2. Teach grace, not legalism.
Most experts agree that eating disorders have little to do with food and everything to do with control. So anorexics naturally love legalism and don’t understand grace. Stress grace in your Bible studies and activities, and model it in the way you relate to kids in your group. Show them that God cares for them no matter what they do, and that nothing that they do can make God love them more or less.
3. Discourage uniformity.
A common complaint of those with eating disorders is that they’re never allowed to disagree with their parents. Everything has to be harmonious. Unfortunately, the church often mimics this emphasis. Jesus never required that people clean up their lives before he spent time with them, so make sure you have no requirement for across-the-board conformity in your group.
4. Give them decision-making responsibility.
Kids with eating disorders tend to be both high achievers and overwhelmed with how useless they are. They can’t see their talents. You can help them develop self-confidence by delegating as many tasks as possible. And since anorexics typically feel powerless to change their environment, make sure this is not the case in your youth group!
Sheila Wray Gregoire is a longtime youth leader in Ontario, Canada.
1. The Problem of Pain is the title of C.S. Lewis’ masterwork on the role of suffering in the Christian life. Lewis wrote: “I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine that being made perfect through suffering is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design.” This book will change the way you think about pain and its purpose.
2. According to a GROUP survey conducted several years ago, nine out of 10 Christian college students said they’d had a crucial recommitment experience that was as significant as their conversion. Two-thirds of these students said the recommitment experience happened when they were teenagers. These experiences were fueled by four catalysts: crises, outreach trips, big events, and camp experiences. Crises have no inherent power to cement a teenager’s commitment to Christ. But, like surgery, they do have an unmatched power to open a teenager to deeper healing. The key: When the crisis hits, is there a passionate Christian engaged in the student’s life—not to answer unanswerable questions, but to offer determined love?
3. For an extensive overview of basic counseling skills, check out the September/October 2004 group article “The Must-Knows of Counseling Teenagers.” If you’re a subscriber, check it out by going to our library of back issues. Head to www.groupmag.com and click on Archives; then enter your subscriber number (found on your magazine mailing label); then go to the September/October 2004 issue and click on the article.
group magazine: September-October, 2005