Have you or youth leaders you know ever struggled with any of these common youth group woes?
You have a great time playing games together and then can’t seem to get your group to focus for anything serious.
The moment you start to talk about something deeper, like the Bible, or real life, you notice your students checking their phones, or maybe even when their own friends are talking.
You try to get your students to spend even just a few minutes during their week reading the Bible and praying, but week after week they come back and say they can’t focus.
If you answered yes, you are not alone! I’m right there with you.
Often these challenges are a result of teenagers struggling to regulate minds and bodies in a way that allows them to meaningfully engage. Our young people are increasingly likely to experience high levels of overstimulation and impulsivity just because of the world they are growing up in. While we can rightly say that some of this will improve with time and maturity, the self-awareness and self-regulation that allows students to be fully present and engaged is something that can be learned, when taught intentionally.
Here’s the thing: our traditional youth group format—energy- and excitement-fueled environment with quick, often slightly-chaotic transitions—does not typically help our teens learn this. In reality, it tends to do the opposite, especially for our students who are neurodivergent.
What if we shaped our youth group environment in a way that helps students to not only engage meaningfully in youth group but also practice connecting with God in ways they can carry into their lives outside of youth group?
What if our youth groups were a place where teenagers learned about their whole God-created selves, their brains, their emotions, AND their bodies, and how those parts of them work together to help them experience God and live the lives God created them for?
In education, the effort to help students engage meaningfully in school and relationships is a significant part of what schools call Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Before explaining further, I want to acknowledge that SEL has been a buzzword recently among people who feel schools are actively or even subversively socializing students. This is really unfortunate, because SEL is not new and has been a hugely valuable tool for improving academic and social outcomes for students.
Rather than teaching students what to do or feel, SEL is actually a method of helping students process how they are feeling and how that impacts their relationships and actions. When teenagers are aware of the ways their feelings impact their actions, they’re more present and better equipped to make thoughtful, conscious choices in their day-to-day life. That’s good news for schools and youth groups alike.
While each SEL program is a bit different, generally, SEL helps students grow in five areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and making responsible decisions. Programs help students develop these areas through various practices which often combine physical activity (movement, breathing) and mental training (meditation, identifying thoughts).
What does Social Emotional Learning (SEL) mean for youth ministry?
All of the practices SEL programs can teach us are valuable, and implementation of SEL in schools has had significant impact on students—both academically and socially. As a youth pastor, I think this makes sense! We are created to experience life in an embodied way: while contemporary western thought might prefer to think of people as primarily “brains on sticks” (a term many scholars use, but no one seems to know where it originated), writers like James K. A. Smith argue that learning and growing, especially spiritual growth, should engage our bodies—our physical and emotional feeling—as much as it involves our minds. Our teenagers need it more now, as teenagers, than they did as younger children, and our teens now need it more than teens did before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Where do you start?
First, evaluate your current youth ministry by hearing from students and leaders. Are there moments in your youth ministry where you notice it’s difficult for students to be present, self-regulated, and engaged with others? How can you tweak what you are doing to help students be aware of their social and emotional selves in those moments?
When you seek input from members of your group, you’re able to see and experience your youth gatherings from different perspectives—building your own social-emotional skill set!—while strengthening your relationships with leaders and students and helping those individuals experience greater purpose in your group as a whole. All of these are dimensions of SEL in and of themselves!
Here’s a story about how this worked for me:
A few years ago, I was asked to pastor a youth group when their previous pastor had to leave suddenly. Because I was brand-new, I spent the first weeks observing the group and meeting with any leaders and students who would talk with me. It turns out, both middle school leaders and students alike were deeply frustrated about how hard it was to get the group engaging in worship and listening to one another. The group was energetic and loud, and when it came down to it, no one liked it that way.
One student I talked with said, “I feel like we just need to take a walk.” So, we did.
We started taking walks in the time between our opening games and worship. If the weather allowed, we would walk around the outside of our church building. If it was rough out, we walked inside. This helped students settle into what was coming next, and provided an opportunity for leaders to walk with students and check in. Walking might not work for every group, but it worked great for this one, and we only found out because we listened and tried something new together.
Ready to start? Here are some tips to keep in mind you evaluate:
- Work to hear from the “outsiders” in your group. Which leaders or students are less engaged, appear uncomfortable, or have stopped coming?
- Empower teenagers and leaders to answer thoughtfully and confidentially. It’s likely your leaders and students have thought about what changes to your youth group would help them engage more fully… but sometimes those with the most thought-through responses will be the last to give them. So, how can you provide time and space for everyone to be heard?
- Invite both leaders and students to be a part of implementing change. This is a great way to invite people in your group to help you shape a socially and emotionally healthy youth group environment. Who wants to join? How can they take the lead?
Realistically, you won’t be able to (or, likely, won’t want to) implement all of the ideas you hear when you ask for feedback. But really, that’s not the goal. The goal of evaluation is that, as you hear from others, you’ll get a better idea of what it’s like for your youth to participate in your youth gatherings, and what aspects of the gathering could be tweaked to make it even better.
What else can you try?
Switch up the ways you pray.
Once you’ve identified adjustments for your youth group gatherings, try introducing practices that also help them engage mind and body as they grow closer to God. Many SEL programs incorporate “mindfulness” as a way of helping students stop, breathe, and wait until they become aware of what’s going on inside of them. These steps help reduce anxiety or frustration, and enable students’ focus.
In the Psalms, and in Christian tradition, prayer is a way we not only become aware, “mindful”, of what is going on inside of us, it also is a way we experience God! In our times of silence and reflection, we can gain self-awareness and reduce anxiety because we can know and experience God’s presence and love, just as God knows us and is with us. In Psalm 60, David writes (or sings):
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.
Psalm 62:1-2, CSB
But silence and waiting in prayer are hard practices to learn, especially in this time of airpods and streaming, video games and discord, tiktok and scrolling. And external influences aside, students’ own thoughts and bodies can provide internal distractions that make prayer difficult. Help students develop meaningful prayer practices by introducing them to different ways to pray that engage their bodies, help to reduce external distraction, and regulate internal thoughts or anxiety.
These practices might be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for our students (and leaders, and us) to develop—but we can start small, practice together, and celebrate each step. When you practice together as a group, you are providing instruction and support that will help students become comfortable with praying in new ways throughout the week.
Ready to start? Try adding silent prayer into your gathering. Here are some ideas:
- Breath prayers help students become aware of themselves and experience the presence of God. To practice breath prayer, first have students take a few slow breaths in and out. Then, on an inhale, have them say (in a whisper, or in their minds) a name of God, and on the exhale, have them ask for what they want or need. For example: inhale - Father, exhale - give me peace. This is a good prayer practice to put at a time of transition in your youth gathering—maybe before worship or before small group discussion. You can invite students to use these breaths to ask God for something they would like to receive in the moment. Then, after a few good, deep breaths, you can move on to what is next in your gathering.
- Prayer walks, prayer stations, or prayer labyrinths engage students’ bodies in prayer, which in turn helps engage their minds and emotions. While these types of prayer can’t easily or practically be incorporated into every youth group meeting, they are very valuable experiences for students because they help students broaden their understanding of the ways they encounter and experience God in prayer.
Recently, a few of our FYI research team members got to talk with a youth pastor and students who had just completed a prayer labyrinth for the first time. Trying it was a risk! The youth group had never done anything like that before, and the leader was nervous it would flop—kids wouldn’t understand or it might be too awkward. But at the end, students talked about how, while this way of praying and walking was new to them, it was a meaningful experience. Several students used the word “peace,” and every student said they wanted to do it again.
Do you incorporate social-emotional practices into your youth group gatherings? If so, send us a direct message and tell us about what you’ve tried, how it went, and how you’ve seen it impact your group!
If you're tired of youth ministry that fails to change lives, it's time to change youth ministry
Building on two decades of the Fuller Youth Institute's work and incorporating extensive new research and interviews, Faith Beyond Youth Group identifies the reasons it feels like you’re working so hard but having so little impact, and offers five ways adult youth leaders can cultivate character for a lifetime of growing closer to Jesus rather than drifting away. With practical insight and tips, you’ll find out how to cultivate trust, model growth, teach for transformation, practice together, and make meaning so that teenagers can become adults who hold fast to Jesus and boldly live out a robust faith in the world around them.
 To learn more about SEL, check out the SEL curriculum your local school or district uses by asking a teacher or contacting the school.
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