This post is the second part of a series. Click here to read more about helping young people process anger and grief through lament.
I remember walking into youth group one night bearing overwhelming grief and anger. These feelings had been steadily growing as my once-healthy dad slowly lost all his strength to ALS.
Despite endless prayers for healing, my dad’s suffering marched on. I didn’t know what to do, and sadly there wasn’t any space at church that night to share this heavy burden. Between the upbeat praise songs and silly games, it felt like I was only allowed to feel happy and joyful at church. So I left that midweek service early with tears streaming down my face—my faith hanging by a thread. If church wasn’t offering space for my grief and pain, where else could I go?
Every week—no matter the headlines—young people in our congregations are navigating pain, loss, and doubt. The question is, do we help teenagers process these experiences before God and their faith community, or do they have to go elsewhere?
Tweet this: Every week—no matter the headlines—young people in our ministries are navigating pain, loss, and doubt. The question is: Do we help teenagers process these experiences before God and their faith community, or do they have to go elsewhere?
As a part of the Fuller Youth Institute’s Sticky Faith Innovation research, our team partnered with eight youth ministries whose leaders knew more could be done to make their ministries safe for young people’s pain. 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.
Recently I shared a first step to making your ministry safe for teenagers’ anger, grief, and doubt: educate your adult leaders and students on the biblical practice of lament. Before students practice lament in your ministry, it’s important that you set a foundation for why lament is important and how to empathize with others well.
In this post, I want to share three more crucial steps (complete with examples and pictures from real ministries): empower young people to participate, engage teenagers’ whole selves and creatively adapt as you go, and entrust students to professional resources when needed while still maintaining a relationship.
Empower young people to participate
Young people need guidance on how to lament because it’s a new practice for many faith communities. By providing structure and gradually moving toward increased vulnerability, you can empower your students to start engaging in lament—so they can grow in their relationships with God and your church.
Offering a framework for lament gives young people a picture of what it looks like and how to do it. For example, the innovative youth ministry team at Granger Community Church in Indiana developed this handout for their students:
Based on a common pattern of lament found in the psalms, students can write their own psalms of lament using this fill-in-the-blank worksheet as a springboard to begin expressing themselves to God. At first, offering a structure like this can make lament less intimidating, which can help teenagers gradually grow into writing laments without the aid of a worksheet—such as through journaling, songwriting, or writing their own unscripted psalms.
Try this: Consider developing your own fill-in-the-blank worksheet or adapting the one depicted above for your students.
Move gradually toward increased vulnerability
Lament can be difficult because it is vulnerable. Often there are cultural forces at play, telling us we cannot show weakness, pain, or anger for fear of rejection and shame. In order to overcome these barriers, it’s important to move gradually toward increased vulnerability.
One way of doing this might be to begin by inviting students to privately express their laments before asking them to share publicly. For example, at first you might ask students to write their own psalms of lament and pray them to God silently during a portion of the service rather than asking them to read aloud. The following week you might invite students to share one line from their laments in small groups. At another service you could plan to share your own psalm of lament and ask if any student leaders would like to do the same before opening the floor to everyone. By gradually moving toward increased vulnerability, you can help young people grow into the practice and positively shift the culture of your entire ministry toward being more authentic with one another.
Check out this example from one of our Sticky Faith Innovation churches of gradually moving toward increased vulnerability:
The innovative youth ministry team at Summit Church in Florida moved intentionally and gradually from private to public expressions of lament. Here’s how they helped their students grow, week by week:
- Weeks 1–2 they taught on lament (cf. step 1: educate!), then asked students to write a lament in response to an injustice they witness in society.
- Weeks 2–3 they invited students to write a lament about something from their personal lives they’re grieving or are angry about.
- Weeks 5–6 adult leaders explained why it’s important to share laments with their faith community. A few adult leaders modeled lament and invited students to share their own (as they felt comfortable).
- Weeks 7–8 students continued sharing their laments (to their level of comfort) and wrote them out on index cards. Adult leaders then received permission from students to type up what was written on the cards, anonymize them, and share them with the youth group on “lament boards”.
- Weeks 9–10 students read each other’s lament and placed a thumbprint on the index cards they resonated with, so they would each know they aren’t alone in what they are going through.
- Week 11–12 the lament boards were shared in the main church’s foyer, and the youth team invited the whole congregation to place thumbprints on the laments they resonated with. Youth leaders then processed the results with their students and talked about how they aren’t alone when they experience difficult times. God and their faith community are with them.
Picture of the lament boards and thumb-printed index cards in Summit Church's foyer:
You can make space for teenagers’ grief and laments by starting slowly and gradually moving deeper toward increased vulnerability and sharing. By doing so, you’ll engage young people at a pace that matches their experience and growth.
Engage young people holistically and adapt as you go
Educating and empowering your students will naturally lead to their active participation in lament—if you engage them well by inviting them to participate with their whole selves and creatively adapting the practice as you go.
Engage your students’ whole selves
When we’re grieving or angry, we often feel it in our bodies. To truly express ourselves to God then, we may need to lament not only with our heads and hearts, but with our hands as well. For example, in the book of Genesis, Isaac tore his clothes and put on sackcloth when he thought his son Joseph was dead (Gen. 37:34). Similarly, in Lamentations the people of God threw dust on their heads and bowed down (Lam. 2:10; for additional examples of physical expression of lament in the bible, see Neh. 9:1, Jer. 49:3; Ezek. 27:31, Joel 1:13, and Mat. 11:21). While it may or may not make sense culturally for you to imitate these exact customs with your students, it’s important to provide space for young people to express their laments not only intellectually (e.g., sharing their doubts) and emotionally (e.g., expressing their feelings), but physically as well.
Check out some examples from our Sticky Faith Innovation youth leaders who made creative space for their students to lament with their whole selves:
- At Granger Community Church, the team turned their lament worksheet (depicted above) into a lament board and hung it on one of the walls of their prayer room. Each week the leaders invite students (and church participants of all ages) to enter the prayer room, where they can physically weave their laments to God.
- At First Covenant Church in California, the leaders placed jars coated in chalkboard paint, markers, and electric candles in a visible, approachable place in the youth room. They also set up signs next to the jars that read, “Lament: a time to express your anger, frustration, or sadness to God. Write what you’re going through or what you see in the world. Then flip on a light.” Then each week before singing to God, they explain to their students that at any point during worship they can write out a lament and flip on a light, symbolically casting God’s light on their experiences of darkness.
- The innovative team at Carmichael Seventh-Day Adventist Church in California created a lament wall modeled off of the Wailing Wall (or Western Wall) in Jerusalem, where people from all over the world go to offer their prayers to God. On one side of the wall, they invite young people to write their prayers of lament on little pieces of paper and to stick them into the cracks. On the other side, they insert their prayers of praise and gratitude.
- Other Sticky Faith Innovation leaders created lament labyrinths in their church gardens, (like New Covenant Church in Florida), or engaged their students in Christian yoga (like Beulah Presbyterian Church, Pennsylvania). Regardless of how elaborate you get, or how low or high your budget is, the important thing to remember is to engage teenagers well by involving their bodies and adapting creatively as you go.
Adapt the practice creatively as you go
After laying a foundation for lament (e.g., through a teaching series), you can turn it into a regular rhythm in your ministry just like prayer, praise songs, sermons, or small groups. Doing so will show students they can bring whatever they’re going through to church and that God welcomes both their praises and their cries.
But, as you know, anything done repeatedly can start to feel mundane. Prevent lament from getting stale by mixing up the ways you invite teenagers to engage—just like you do with icebreaker games. Not sure how? Check out the examples above for some inspiration!
Entrust students to professional resources while maintaining a relationship
Our Sticky Faith Innovation youth leaders found that when they open up opportunities for teenagers to lament, inevitably someone will share something that surpasses leaders’ knowledge, skill, or expertise. A student may open up about self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or abuse, for example. At these points it’s important to maintain your relationship with students while also pointing them to professional resources such as therapy, Child Protective Services, or emergency services (as applicable). It’s important to still check in with these young people to show them you care—you aren’t just passing them onto someone else because you don’t want to deal with them or what they’re going through. You care and you’re ensuring they get the support they need.*
Making space for teenagers’ anger, grief, and doubt isn’t easy, but it’s so worth it. Over and over again we’ve heard from our Sticky Faith Innovation youth leaders that by helping their students lament, they’re more fully meeting young people, communities, and neighborhoods in the ways they need the church most. That, my friends, is what ministry is all about. Many of these ministries have even grown as students invite their friends to this unique place that makes space for what they’re going through like nowhere else on earth.
Looking back at that painful night when I went to youth group as a teenager and found no room for my grief and doubt, I know now it could have been a much different experience. Had my youth ministry practiced lament, I would have felt seen, loved, and cared for in my darkest hour. By educating young people and your leaders on lament, empowering them through providing structure and gradual depth in vulnerability, engaging teenagers’ whole selves and creatively adapting as you go, and entrusting them to professional resources when needed while still maintaining a relationship, you, your youth ministry, and your entire faith community can make space for teenagers’ anger, grief, and doubt in every service you lead—helping them grow a faith that lasts, even through the hardest of times.
Want to learn to innovate like the youth ministries described above? Check out our Sticky Faith Innovation book and coaching opportunities.
Tweet this: Let’s help teenagers develop a faith that lasts by being a faith community that helps them navigate every season of life—especially the most difficult ones. Read these innovative ways churches are teaching young people about lament.
* If you’re worried about the safety of a teenager you know, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away: 1-800-273-TALK or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The 3-digit 988 hotline may also be available in your area.
In addition, the Steve Fund Crisis Text Line is dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color that can be reached by texting STEVE to 741-741 or visiting stevefund.org/crisistextline.
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: Tomas Williams
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