4 ideas to help teenagers find Jesus-centered answers to their questions of purpose

Rachel Dodd Image Rachel Dodd | Feb 3, 2022

One of the best things about youth ministry is the journey it takes us on as leaders.

In my own experience, youth ministry has led me to all kinds of surprising adventures. Like tiptoeing around a bull in a student’s cattle field. Attending an (uncensored!) high school production of Grease. Making meringues (unsuccessfully on my part) with a group of students for a school project. Visiting an archaeological dig. And attending a retreat with teenagers who wanted to stay connected with their ethnic heritage.

An onlooker might have easily asked why I felt the need to spend my—often already crammed full—ministry week connecting with young people on subjects like geology, enduring school theater productions, or helping teenagers cook. After all, what do those interests have to do with discipleship?

At FYI, we’ve found that they matter quite a lot.

Every teenager is full of questions. As they observe and engage with the world around them, our latest research in 3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager shows that many of their questions boil down to these three:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I fit?
  • What difference can I make?

Whether at home, at church, or at school, teenagers are on a quest to discover their identity, belonging, and purpose—and how those puzzle pieces fit into the big picture of the world around them.

So while a young person explores a particular subject or hobby, beneath the surface they’re wondering: Does my passion or gift help me understand my purpose, and what I can contribute to the world?

Forging pathways to help students understand purpose

Exploring purpose is an important part of the faith journey. Every time we point students to the Bible, they’re discovering stories of people who had a specific part to play in God’s greater story. Through the testimonies and words of faith-filled characters, they’re learning that the skills we have, the jobs we do, and the words we say or write—in all these things an invitation exists to live into the fullness of our relationship with God by being a part of what God is doing and will do in the world.

When a student in your ministry is inwardly asking, Can I have an interest in nutrition, love playing lacrosse, help my family, AND want to serve God at the same time?, your discipleship might be the point where they discover that the answer is a great big, YES.

That said, our own time, energy, and knowledge have limits. We can’t make it to every game or performance. And we won’t always be present with our students in every moment of wondering. So how can our youth ministry help teenagers find Jesus-centered answers to their questions of purpose? Here are 4 ideas:

1. Explore topics your students are passionate about.

We all know that effective leadership with teenagers begins with listening. But personally, I’ve observed that when I ask students to tell me questions they have about faith and the world around them, I have a tendency to then narrow their requests down to the topics I want to talk about or feel equipped to answer. Does anyone else have that problem?

It takes discipline to listen without an agenda or plan in mind. And courage. But if we want to be invited to journey with students on the path of discipleship, we need to meet them where they are right now. When it comes to exploring purpose with teenagers, perhaps it’s vital that we get familiar with what motivates and drives Gen Z. They are a diverse generation who value authentic connection, they’re motivated to succeed, and many want to bring their gifts and creativity to the fields of tech and health care.

Can we as youth leaders nurture discipleship in ways that intersect with the passions and interests of today’s young people? You bet.

Our teaching plan can be a helpful place to begin thinking outside the box. For example, recently I was looking through Integrate, a curriculum on faith and science from BioLogos. Created to “bring Christ-centered faith, rigorous science, and gracious dialogue,” Integrate thoughtfully explores theological and ethical questions raised by modern science. Further, its teaching tools also create opportunities to explore virtues we aim to instill in our young people as a community of faith, like humility, wisdom, and integrity—qualities a young person can bring with them to any field they’re considering.

Our call as disciplers is to give teenagers tools so they can live their Christ-centered faith in thoughtful dialogue with the world around them. As you continue to get to know the students in your ministry, ask yourself:

  • Do I spend time listening to them without an agenda in mind?
  • Do my teaching topics connect with the academic subjects and career paths they’re interested in?
  • How can we connect their purpose with faithful virtues they’ll need for their journeys?
Tweet this: Our call as disciplers in youth ministry is to give teenagers tools so they can live their Christ-centered faith in thoughtful dialogue with the world around them.

2. Empower them with stories from people of faith in every walk of life.

I love arts, language, and history. My degrees are in music and theology. Like all of us, there are many topics I can chat with students at length about, but I also have to be honest about my limitations.

When students want to talk about the most recent SpaceX launch, I’m likely to keep them going with a head nod and a “Tell me more …”—I can’t engage meaningfully with their interest, and my answers to their questions about how God works in and through astrophysics would fall flat. If my story and experience of finding calling is the only one they hear, they’re going to get a pretty limited view. In short, as young people explore purpose they need to connect with the Body, not just one part.

A teaching resource like Integrate can give me the handholds needed to engage students on questions they’re asking in much more depth than I would be able to do myself. But I also really appreciate ministry tools that give young people a chance to hear from professionals and academics who find a deep connection between their faith and the work they do—like a geneticist who reflects on what it means to be “set apart” while looking through a microscope, a paleontologist whose faith is strengthened through his work, and a priest who found his calling while studying molecular biology. Here’s a glimpse from the curriculum of a conversation with Dr. Praveen Sethupathy who reflects on evolution in light of the uniqueness of our calling as beings made in God’s image. 

As you grow your volunteer team and plan your ministry year, ask yourself:

  • What topics might be included in our teaching that can help broaden students’ understanding of purpose?
  • How might I create opportunities to hear testimonies from people of faith in the world around them?
  • What practical experiences or mentoring relationships can be nurtured so that our church walks alongside students who are asking, What difference can I make?

3. Help them understand that purpose is intersectional.

Every member of your youth group is at the same time a student, disciple, family member, teammate, friend, possibly an employee, and many other intersecting roles. Yet in church we often talk about calling or purpose as a singular path. Why is that?

Dr. Sethupathy, who we saw in the video above, notes later in his interview that “we are connected with creation in that patience and longsuffering is present in the sanctification of our lives.” For him, the long-term nurturing of a seed into something that bears fruit is as much of a testament to the way God works as is an instantaneous occurrence. Love for science and love for God intersect as he thoughtfully observes that many things in life grow and change over time, and God is constantly at work.

Kara Powell and Brad Griffin note, too, that the journey toward purpose is long and winding in 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager:

“Our understanding of our purpose evolves over our lifetime, with adolescence and young adulthood often being seasons of escalating clarity. Sometimes that clarity comes from resolving the tension of seeing unlimited roads to the future while simultaneously feeling pressured to follow specific lanes prescribed to help one “get into a good college” or “find the right job.” Other times increased certainty comes as young people finally figure out what they are good at, after years of knowing only what they aren’t.”[1]

Your students’ purpose will never be a singular role or path. Throughout life they will be partners, parents, church members, part of their ethnic community, volunteers, community organizers, and global citizens.

Are they living into their purpose when they look after younger siblings to help out their family? Yes.

Will they come to know something about their God-given gifts while working at a summer job? Absolutely.

Are the electives they’re taking or the sports they’re playing a waste of time? Not likely.

Each one of these identities—as well as the overlap between—is an opportunity to explore purpose.

Equip your students for lifelong discovery by giving them opportunities to think and reflect throughout the year:

  • What tasks or responsibilities are you holding at the moment that make you feel a part of something important?
  • What’s something you’ve learned about yourself lately?
  • Is there anything about your schoolwork or afterschool commitments that has you thinking about what you’d like to do in the future?

4. Show them that purpose isn’t what we do, it’s who we are—right here and now.

From the very first stories we have in Genesis, we know we were created to live in partnership with God. And in Jesus’ words on the commandments we understand that our first purpose is to love God and our neighbor. No matter what electives, clubs, or career paths our students choose, we help ease their anxieties and strengthen their faith when we point them to the truth that every time they take a step in relationship with God or demonstrate God’s love for someone else, they’re living into their purpose.

In youth ministry, we have a unique space to reaffirm that purpose in students week after week. Unlike their academic classes, clubs, or sports, our affirmation of their purpose isn’t demonstrated through grades or scores, and continues to speak into their lives when the semester ends or the season is over. In every season we can get out of the youth room and find ways for our students to experience serving God and others with their hands and hearts—whether it’s creating keychain leadership opportunities within our own church, partnering with local organizations to understand and help meet community needs, participating in cultural growth and exchange through missions experiences, or following our students’ lead to explore environmental or ethical issues they care deeply about. Every moment we can walk alongside a young person as they join in the work God is doing is an opportunity to affirm their purpose and celebrate their gifts.

As you create opportunities for young people in your ministry to get involved in the world around them, ask follow-up conversations that help them connect their actions with purpose. Here are some questions straight from our own research for 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager:

  • When you look around your school, your community, our country, or the world, what kinds of concerns do you have or what things do you want to see changed?
  • Think about a time when you were doing something and felt like it was what you were really meant to do—what was that experience like?
  • In what ways do you think the choices you make are shaped by your purpose in life?
  • How do you think your faith and church might continue to shape you in the future?

In the 20 years I’ve served teenagers in church and parachurch ministries, I’ve had the joy of knowing young people when they were doctors, geologists, veterinarians, teachers, farmers, writers, musicians, tech developers, human relations managers, sales representatives, shift managers, human rights advocates, social workers, and pastors in teenage form. There’s a deep resonance in our own sense of purpose as youth leaders when we think about how those who have grown through our ministries are serving God today and living into their gifts in the places and spaces they were meant to fill.

By setting young people in motion on their own quest for purpose, we come full circle—so let’s be open to listening to students and finding new ways to join them on the journey as they discover what God is doing in their lives.

Tweet this: Every moment we walk alongside a young person as they join in the work God is doing is an opportunity to affirm their purpose and celebrate their gifts. Here are 4 ideas to help teens in your ministry explore purpose.

A roadmap to the teenagers in your life

3 Big Questions Book Cover

3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager gives you conversations and connections to help teenagers unlock their potential and discover essential faith.

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[1] Kara Powell & Brad Griffin. 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager. (Baker, 2021). 193.

Rachel Dodd Image
Rachel Dodd

Rachel Dodd is a spiritual director, writer, and Managing Editor at the Fuller Youth Institute. She has a BA in Church Music and Youth Ministry from Point Loma Nazarene University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently finishing a DMin in Spiritual Formation and Direction. Having served students and families in the UK and US for over 20 years, Rachel loves writing to share stories and equip those following their own calling in ministry. She and her husband, Carl, now live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and have two daughters. Connect with Rachel at racheldoddwriter.com.

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