Julia walked into the church service dazed, having just found out her parents were getting a divorce.
Marcus hung toward the back of the youth room angry and confused that God hadn’t protected his best friend from assault on his way home last night.
Annabelle’s faith was hanging on by a thread. Her mom’s cancer had metastasized and she had six months to live at best.
As each of these students walked through the doors of church that morning, they privately wondered, Is church a safe place for me to be right now? And underneath this question were even deeper ones:
Does God see what we’re going through? Does God even care?
Do people at church want me to be honest or to just put on a happy face?
Is any of this faith stuff even real?
While Julia, Marcus, and Annabelle are fictional teenagers, chances are you know and love many Julias, Marcuses, and Annabelles in your youth group. And in answer to their private question, “Is church a safe place for me to be right now?” you want the answer to be an emphatic “Yes,” but perhaps you’re not sure. You’ve heard the trite responses to pain that some church members are apt to give—especially to teenagers—and you know there aren’t many invitations to express anger or grief in your typical church service.
Is your church a safe place to be for those experiencing grief, anger, or disillusionment?
As a part of our Sticky Faith Innovation research, we partnered with eight youth ministries whose leaders knew more could be done to make their ministries safe for young people’s anger, pain, and doubts. Each of these leaders recognized that if teenagers are going to develop a faith that lasts, they need not only God, but also a faith community that can help them navigate every season of life—especially the most difficult ones. So they focused their innovative ministry experiments on the practice of lament.
Based on what we’ve learned from these eight innovative ministries, in this two-part blog series I’m going to share exactly how you can make space for young people’s laments in every service you lead.
Step 1: Educate your leaders and your students
Before young people can participate in lament, they need to understand what it is. Biblical lament is the practice of crying out to God in the midst of anger, suffering, grief, pain, disappointment, or injustice.
The Bible is full of them—from the psalms, to Lamentations, to Hannah’s prayer, to Jesus’ cry on the cross. Lament can be practiced in community and on our own, for anything from personal grievances to communal sins and systemic injustices (e.g., see Exodus 2:23, 1 Samuel 1:11; Psalm 79).
Contrary to many teenagers’ and adults’ instincts, crying out to God is not a sign of weakness or disrespect. It’s an extraordinary act of faith. Lamenting to God takes faith because it demonstrates the belief that God hears us and cares about what we and our loved ones are going through. In fact, if a faith community doesn’t lament, it may actually be a sign of underdeveloped faith—a lack of trust in God with our deepest pain.
Tweet this: Lamenting to God is not a sign of weakness or disrespect. It’s an extraordinary act of faith. Youth leaders, here’s a first step you can take to teach teenagers about lament.
But educating young people isn’t the very first step to take—start by educating your adult leaders. In our partnership with youth leaders who reimagined their ministries to make space for their students’ pain, many quickly realized their volunteers didn’t have a strong understanding as to why lament is an important mark of faith as opposed to an expression of weakness or disrespect. A key to making these ministries safe for teenagers was laying a firm biblical and theological foundation for lament among adult leaders and providing them with practical training on how to empathize with young people. In the vulnerable times when a student opens up and laments to God in front of others, you need to know your adult leaders are prepared to steward these holy moments well.
So to recap, step one is to educate your adult leaders, and then educate your students. By laying this foundation, you’ll be ready to empower young people to express lament before God and one another.
Need a resource on training your leaders to empathize?
Download our free Sticky Faith Innovation “Youth Leaders’ Guide to Exercising Empathy.”
Teaching students—and adults—about lament doesn’t mean you have to give a lecture. Get creative with it!
Consider some of these ideas Sticky Faith Innovation youth leaders tried in their own ministries:
- Ask a songwriter from the community to talk about how lyrics can be used to express deep feelings to God and invite them to perform one of their songs.
- Ask a rabbi from the community to introduce Jewish practices of lament, such as “sitting shiva” when a loved one passes away.
- Preach on a psalm of lament, write your own psalm of lament, and share it with your students.
In the next blog post of this two-part series, I’ll explain how you can move your students from mere head knowledge about lament to active participation so this practice can transform their relationships with God and your faith community.
For courageous youth leaders everywhere.
You have the compassion, creativity, and courage you need to serve your teenagers in your youth ministry. Spark innovation to cultivate their lasting faith.
Photo by Cristofer Maximilian
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