I spend a lot of time with teenagers. Three live in my home, and I work with teenagers at church. My neighborhood is full of them, and my kids are in schools and on teams with scores of young people. But sometimes I can struggle to understand—and struggle to connect.
It’s possible to be surrounded by teenagers and not really understand them.
Think about the high school teachers you’ve known who just don’t get young people despite spending hours with them every day.
Think about parents, pastors, coaches, and mentors who struggle to see, hear, and know teenagers—even with the best intentions.
Yes, even youth workers. Maybe even us.
It’s easy to get so confident in our experience and familiar with our rhythms and routines that we don’t see important changes happening around us. That’s why I am so committed to our work at the Fuller Youth Institute to listen to young people, learn from them, and partner with them to share what adults need to know about their lives and their world. At FYI, we believe you can truly understand young people when you view their lives through the lens of identity, belonging, and purpose. Every day, they’re asking the big questions:
Who am I?
Where do I fit?
What difference can I make?
They need trusted guides like us to help them find faithful and lifegiving answers. We released our newest book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, to explore how those questions are shaping the lives of today’s teenagers.
But the learning journey never stops for our research team. Lately we’ve been absorbing fresh data out of Springtide Research Institute, captured in their report “Navigating Uncertainty: The 2021 State of Religion & Young People.” It’s the result of over 10,000 surveys and interviews with young people ages 13-25. (You can download the free report for more details and a host of insights into young people’s faith today.)
4 key insights for ministry with today’s teenagers
Young people today are not the same as young people a decade ago, or five years ago—or even as they were last year. Technology, culture, and language develop over time, which means every year the teenagers you know are navigating new waters—and so are you. As you walk with ever-changing young people in an ever-changing world, your effectiveness depends on your openness to listening and adaptation. We want to equip you with four new key insights based on a mix of Springtide’s research and our own. After you read about them, please share these insights with others who work with and care about teenagers!
1. Young people wrestle with anxiety more than ever
Uncertainty is all around today’s teenagers, often prompted by instability and fear.
Take gun violence as just one example. This week, my kids’ school faced rumors of a gun threat from a student. It didn’t happen in isolation; rather, it followed the loss of a 13-year-old just a month ago from gun violence in our neighborhood, with a nationally-covered shooting tragedy at a Michigan high school in between. So for my own 13- and 16-year-old, in addition to managing all the normal disruptions and insecurities of daily teen life, the fear of being terrorized or even shot lingers in their background consciousness. That’s a lot to carry through your school day.
The Springtide report explains that uncertainty like this is directly linked to anxiety. While uncertainty is always part of being young, the nature of being young today, in this cultural moment, amplifies uncertainty and fuels anxiety.
“Anxious” is one of the ways this generation describes itself, and was one of the keywords we chose as a marker of Gen Z in FYI’s own research. The US Surgeon General has issued a warning about the current mental health crisis among young people, following a declaration of a national emergency of child and adolescent mental health from a coalition of health agencies.
Sadly, a lot of teenagers are anxious alone. Feelings of loneliness and isolation abound among this generation—a situation elevated by the pandemic. Remarkably, Springtide’s research found that only 10% of young people report that a faith leader reached out to them throughout the first year of the pandemic. While we may be moving toward more and more in-person connection, the sense of being alone lingers for many.
What you can do:
- Check in. Ask a teenager what’s making them feel stressed or anxious these days, and how they’re managing those feelings. Bringing up anxiety won’t make it worse—in fact, it can help normalize the experience when we feel free to talk about it.
- Utilize our Faith in an Anxious World resources to help with whole-group conversations about mental health, access tools for parents, and get tips for next-steps actions to support students.
2. Young people see a values gap with the church
Many young people don’t think faith communities care about the things they care about. Springtide’s research found a number of gaps around issues important to study participants relative to the faith communities with which they’re familiar. For example, a 27% gap exists between how much young people think faith communities care about LGBTQ rights versus how much young people care (44% vs 71%). Similarly, the study found a 25% perceived gap regarding gender equity and 23% gap for immigration rights. 81% of young people care about racial justice, but only 60% think faith communities do.
This leaves many young people feeling distant from faith because they feel distant from those who represent it. As one 17-year-old put it, “Sometimes I have found it really hard to identify with Christianity because of other Christians.”
This values gap may be largely a generation gap. It also may be a reflection of a diversity gap between society and the church. The 2020 Census data reveal an ever-diversifying US landscape in which ethnic diversity is rising in 19 out of every 20 counties. The growth of multiracial young people as a demographic category is outpacing predictions, with a 276% jump in the past decade. Yet on the whole, churches are not diversifying on pace with society. Young people can’t help but notice the gaps.
What you can do:
- Ask teenagers what they care about that they think the church doesn’t care much about. Explore ideas on why those gaps exist and what they might want to do to shrink the gaps.
- Build intergenerational connections in your church through fostering empathy and warmth across age groups. Here’s an inspiring video to share with your congregation to spark ideas.
3. Young people are piecing faith together themselves
It’s untrue that today’s teenagers are anti-faith.
While a majority of young people do identify as religious or spiritual (or both), the Springtide report reveals that many are not connected to a faith community and do not participate in religion in traditional ways. Springtide labels this phenomenon an “unbundled” experience of faith which is no longer tied to one specific tradition.
Teenagers and young adults today tend to mistrust institutional religion to help them make meaning—a pattern which has been growing across the past fifty years—so they gather faith ideas, identities, and practices from a number of sources. Nearly half agree that they “could fit in with many different religions.”
Related to this trend, 58% agree, “I don’t like to be told answers about faith and religion, I’d rather discover my own answers.” And 54% report that “Religious communities try to fix my problem, instead of just being there for me.”
As ministry leaders, we don’t have to be afraid of this spiritual openness; in fact, we can leverage it to share faith in ways that see curiosity and diversity as gifts offered by God’s Spirit rather than dangers to be feared. When we live in the freedom of the gospel, the practices of the church and the Christian life can truly model the best way to live to the young people around us.
What you can do:
- Start with curiosity about teenagers and what they believe. Ask questions like, “What does our church believe that you aren’t sure you believe?” and “What do you believe that you think our church doesn’t believe?”
- Try our curriculum series on The Big Questions to connect students’ deepest questions with biblical exploration toward faith-filled answers.
4. Young people need us to be the people who welcome their questions
Related to this sense of unbundled faith is a feeling that life is full of questions without easy answers. The Springtide research reminds us that so many of the questions raised over the past couple of years are religious in nature. Questions like: What is the meaning of all of this? What should I keep doing or not doing with my time? What role does racial justice play in my life? How can I help the environment?
The good news is that faith is at its core a mystery. We should be the best people on the planet to hold big questions with young people. But too often, faith leaders are seen as the protectors of tradition and the champions of certainty.
Maybe that’s why half of young people don’t trust faith communities as places to turn to when they struggle, and also why half said they’re not sure how to get connected to a new faith community even if they wanted to.
At the same time, young people say that what’s often most helpful to them when they’re facing a struggle is to be with adults who just let them talk. We can be people who welcome questions rather than silencing or shutting them down with easy answers.
What you can do:
- In your conversations with students, work to stay open to young people’s actual questions, and the questions underneath the questions. Actively avoid the urge to jump to quick answers or try to fix their problems. Sometimes the ministry of presence is the most important first step.
- We packed over 300 questions you can ask a young person in 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager. If you’re like me, you tend to ask the same (pretty bland) shortlist of questions over and over. Check out the book for new inspiration and practical lists of questions you can use for lots of different topics.
Good news about young people today
Here’s the really good news about young people today: Faith still helps young people flourish. Those who self-identified as “very religious” in Springtide’s research also reported “flourishing at higher rates in every aspect of their well-being and relationships.”
That means that the young people who do connect with your ministry and who do dig into their faith are likely to be growing and thriving in lots of other ways. The more we really understand our students, the deeper our impact will be, and the more they will truly flourish.
Tweet this: The more we really understand teenagers, the deeper our ministry impact will be, and the more they will truly flourish. Here are 4 key insights you need to know about today's teens.
Make space in your ministry for life’s Big Questions.
Our latest research reveals huge opportunities for the church to walk with today’s teenagers as they ask “Who am I?”, “Where do I fit in”, and “What difference can I make?”.
We’ve partnered with Orange to take insights from 3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager and develop an all-new curriculum for your ministry. Help teenagers discover Jesus-centered answers to their biggest questions of identity, belonging, and purpose with The Big Questions—a 4-week curriculum for middle school or high school.
 Compiled from U.S. Census Bureau (2021), “2020 Census Illuminates Racial and Ethnic Composition of the Country,” retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/improved-race-ethnicity-measures-reveal-united-states-population-much-more-multiracial.html; Nate Cohn, “Census Shows a Nation That Resembles Its Future More Than Its Past,” New York Times (August 12, 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/12/us/politics/census-demographic-shifts.html.
Image by Karolina Grabowska
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