Helping Students Make Sense of their Experiences

Jesse Oakes | May 2, 2011

For the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 1 John 4:4b (NRSV)

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world! John 16:33b (NRSV)

For many followers of Jesus, these Scripture verses are in the “Hall of Fame.” They are go-to verses in worship, discipleship, and times of trouble. We love these verses.

Specifically, we love these verses because of the new perspective – the new meaning – they offer to our present circumstances. Interpreted properly in context, they can help us understand our lives in wise, comforting, appropriate ways, when we might have otherwise ended up confused or hopeless. In other words, these verses can help us to make better meaning.

Proper meaning-making is profoundly important, because it affects just about everything: the ways we work, sleep, dress, spend our time and money, view ourselves/others/the world/God… the list goes on. Fuller’s Hugh DePree Professor of Leadership Scott Cormode explains in Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters that our primary job as leaders is to provide “an interpretive framework for people who want to live faithful lives.” [[Scott Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), x.]] For Cormode, leaders both in the Christian and secular spheres too often tend to be either authoritarian managers of hierarchy, or egalitarian enablers who support those they empower. Instead, Cormode suggests that “the best leaders give people the tools to think for themselves.”

Among the most powerful, effective tools a leader can offer to others – especially to students – is the ability to view their lives from God’s perspective. In other words, we have the opportunity to help students make meaning of their lives based on their identity in Jesus. For example, sixteen year-old Claudia shares that her parents are getting divorced, or her grandmother has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or her classmate is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is (truth be told, it is not uncommon for a student to be dealing with all three of these things at once, and even more). There are lots of various meanings she can derive from, and in the midst of, these life experiences. How do we help her move forward? How do we help her meet Jesus in these places?

How can we help her make good meaning?

There Is No Such Thing As Obvious

Without realizing it, we can easily start to believe that some things in life are just plain. For instance, you are walking on the sidewalk in front of a bank when an armored car stops on the curb, two men in uniform with thick canvas bags and shiny submachine guns jump out and enter the bank. Obviously, this is a routine pickup from a security company. But why not a carefully orchestrated robbery? Or training drill? Or hidden-camera show? The evidence supports each scenario. However, our minds automatically select the option that makes the most sense based on our past experiences, level of cultural awareness, etc. When that selection process is nearly instantaneous, we call the answer “obvious.”

But there is no such thing as truly “obvious,” because no event ever has a singular, unmistakable meaning to all people in all places. Each new President is hailed as a savior by some and a villain by others. Soccer is pure glory for some, pure monotony for others. And the cross is either a sign of mercy and love, or the symbol of a hoax that has fooled the world for millennia. And just because it is obvious to me that so-and-so was a great President, soccer is amazing, and the cross is salvation, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to someone else. It is all a matter of interpretation and meaning-making, and the speed at which we do each.

We’re All “Writers”

The human brain does not simply catalog new experiences into unique, non-overlapping “memory slots.” Instead, our brains naturally assemble our experiences into a “cohesive story that allows us to integrate selected moments into our sense of who we are. Stories are used to organize, predict, and understand the complexities of our lived experiences.” [[Laurel J. Kiser, Barbara Baumgardner, Joyce Dorado, “Who are we, but for the stories we tell: Family stories and healing” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy Vol 2(3), Sep, 2010: 243-249.]] By the time children reach third grade, they are already able to recount individual experiences in single coherent stories, and by eighth grade most can tell their life story as one unified narrative. [[Annette Bohn, Dorthe Berntsen, “Life story development in childhood: The development of life story abilities and the acquisition of cultural life scripts from late middle childhood to adolescence” Developmental Psychology Vol 44(4), Jul 2008: 1135-1147.]]

In other words, when Claudia learned her parents were getting divorced, her brain instantly began the process of “writing” that new information into a singular “life story” by which she determines her identity, forms her worldview, and creates expectations for the future. Helping students make good meaning begins with identifying the ways they already “write” their story. A small sampling of things I have observed Lake Avenue Church students “writing” recently: I love my family but I can only trust my friends; hard work is the way to success; I can do what I want as long as I’m not hurting anyone; I am good at almost everything (yes, really).

Our First Responsibility

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” [[Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1989), 11.]]

Max De Pree wrote that phrase in his seminal book Leadership is an Art, and meaning-making is exactly what he was talking about. Students are in significant need of good meaning-making tools. They are navigating adult-sized experiences with kid-sized resources; that is to say, the joys and pains they encounter in their school years are fully grown, while their ability to process those things and make healthy decisions is still developing. [[Jesse Oakes, Recruiting Volunteers: Lessons from One Church’s Journey, accessed 31 January 2011.]]

Parents and youth workers have the opportunity to partner together to offer those adult-sized resources. When it comes to making meaning for students – choosing the story that will help them understand their lives – we can offer the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, if “reality” includes things like the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, holistic transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the redemption of all creation, then any student who is unaware of these things is making meaning with insufficient tools. By properly defining reality and guiding the process of meaning-making, we can help students like Claudia understand that even in the midst of divorce (or illness or crisis of any kind), there is the potential for peace and even joy.

Tell Me A Story

It all comes back to the framework of “narrative.” We must tell stories if we hope to influence the grand story that students are already “writing” about their lives. As Cormode has written, people (of all ages) attempt to find a story that makes the most sense of a situation, and will compare competing stories against one another in order to select the one that makes the most sense. [[Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense, 28-36.]] As youth workers, it is incumbent upon us to offer students and families a set of stories and vocabulary that can help them make sense of their circumstances. Offering things like a theology of suffering or instruction on resurrection is helpful, and what will help make it “stick” is a story of that theology in action.

Let me illustrate this using Claudia’s parents’ impending divorce. We might first affirm her feelings of confusion/anger/sadness, and then share how God loves her and her parents, and hates the pain that they are all suffering. The narratives Claudia might have at this point are (a) it’s my fault, I’m a bad kid; (b) one parent is the culprit and the other the victim; and/or (c) God does not exist, or if he does, he hates us or has forgotten about us. These are all “stories” that attempt to make sense of the facts she has been given.

The most effective way to help Claudia move forward may be to speak into the stories she is evaluating. We have the opportunity to offer a different story. For instance, we might share the story of the resurrection, and how God brings new life from death. We can share stories of the power of the Holy Spirit, both from Scripture and from our own experiences. We can offer Claudia a vision of a better future made possible by God’s grace. As Cormode explains, we take our own stories, our people’s stories, and God’s story, and then weave them together to create a shared story of future hope.

Love Takes Time

No less a theologian than Mariah Carey reminds us that sometimes the process of transformation is exactly that: a process. [[Mariah Carey and Ben Margulies, “Love Takes Time,” performed by Mariah Carey, album Mariah Carey 1990, Columbia Records.]] The students and families in our lives will oftentimes either be too comfortable or too hurt to change immediately the way they “write” their stories. Students like Claudia have deep-seated anger, confusion, and shame, and none of these will dissipate overnight.

In these moments, let us remember that not even Jesus could control the meaning that his hearers made, and yet he remained consistently loving. Our task is to continue creating categories, stories, vocabulary, and meanings that others can adopt for themselves, [[Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense, 54]] and keep telling them over and over until they take root.

Action Steps

  1. Check out an online news source, find a top story, and expand it to see all the related articles from the various sources. Then take note of how the headline profoundly shapes your initial impressions of the event. For instance, “Dow Soars Above 12000 on AT&T Deal for T-Mobile” strikes a different chord for me than “AT&T Merger Unlikely to Benefit Consumers.”
  2. Take inventory of the go-to words, phrases, stories, etc. in your church in general, and youth ministry in particular. We all have vocabulary that we use frequently. Identifying what we already say can help us figure out how we want to go forward. For instance, at my church, we often use the phrases “God’s unexpected family,” “worship, community, service,” “a Revelation 7:9 church” (referring to cultural diversity), and “our purpose is to reflect our God to our world with our lives.” When students are facing loss or disappointment, I have a few stories that I almost always go to, like illnesses or deaths in my family, or the time when I was cut from the soccer team, or instances when I needed to repent and receive forgiveness. What are your core phrases and stories, and what kind of meaning are they creating?
  3. Make a short list of words, phrases, Bible passages, or even short sentences that you’d hope students remember from their time in the youth group. For instance: grace by faith not works, God is good all the time, worship is a lifestyle, etc.
  4. Equip your staff with the ability to identify the way students are writing their stories. Based on what Johnny or Lizet says and how they behave, what story or stories seem to be guiding them?

Amazon Affiliate links are included in this blog post. FYI earns from qualifying orders placed through links in this post.

Jesse Oakes

Since 2004 Jesse Oakes has served in the High School Ministries of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, CA. He completed his MDiv with a concentration in Youth, Family, and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2010. He received a BA from UC San Diego in Communication in 2003, and worked in the music industry prior to vocational ministry. Jesse and his wife Megan live in Pasadena.

More from this author

More From Us

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads sent straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.