What young people want your church to know as you reopen

Jen Bradbury Image Jen Bradbury | Sep 22, 2021

It’s Back to School—the time of year that youth leaders face with equal parts fear and excitement. It’s that time when we eagerly plan for the year ahead, excited to see how God will move in and through our ministry. It’s also that time when we realize just how exhausted we are from the previous year.

Thanks to the marathon pandemic season we’ve just experienced, many of us are even more exhausted than normal. Our mounting fatigue makes us wonder, “Can we really keep doing this? Is this STILL where God is calling us?”

When these nagging questions and growing back-to-school to-do lists feel like more than we can handle, it can be helpful to consider what young people really need from us right now. Curious about this, we asked some teenagers,[1] “What do you want churches to understand about young people as we enter this post-COVID, reopening phase?” Here’s what this diverse group of young people ages 16-20 told us:

  1. “We’re not the same people we were going into the pandemic.” The pandemic has changed everyone. Young people are perhaps more acutely aware of (and honest about) these changes than anyone else. The isolation and trauma of the pandemic has impacted every facet of their lives – their relationships (with family, friends, and the church), their identities, and their perception of their communities and world. They’re ready and willing to talk about these changes with whoever’s willing to listen.
  2. “We’ve moved farther from the church but closer to Jesus.” Shutdowns caused young people to experience church differently. They could no longer rely on going to church to get their weekly “Jesus fix.” Instead, they had to encounter God on their own, or with their families or small groups of friends (who didn’t necessarily even go to their church). For some, the pandemic catalyzed their faith by giving them the chance to pray and explore the Bible outside of weekly youth group. As one young woman eloquently explained to us, “Church was my life jacket that I held on to. And then it was taken away and I had to learn to swim on my own.”
  3. “We’re really questioning ‘Where is God?’” Coming face to face with death, pain, and division has made young people grapple with their faith in new ways. They’re asking hard questions that they’re not done wrestling with. They want to continue exploring these questions together in a community where they feel safe.
  4. “Putting up an image of perfection actually turns young people away.” Young people long to be part of a church that isn’t afraid to let people think or doubt, regardless of how messy or scary those doubts might be. They want to experience a “family mentality” at church. To them, that looks like a church that's honest, authentic, imperfect, and messy.

Young people who’ve been shaped by the pandemic don’t want to return to a church that has been unchanged by it. They don’t need us to put on a happy face and DO MORE for them in order to make up for lost time.

Instead, they need us to show up, admit our exhaustion, share how the pandemic has changed us, ask the questions the pandemic has brought to the forefront of our imaginations, and respond to their honest questions with these three powerful words: “I don’t know.”

As the teenagers answered our question, they told us stories of who and what had impacted them profoundly. We didn’t hear about perfect programs or mind-blowing curriculums, but rather about youth leaders who walked with them through tough stuff and even tougher questions, who courageously encouraged them to keep asking big questions to an even bigger God. They told us about leaders who honestly admitted when they didn’t know the answer to something.

To them, the words “I don’t know” were freeing, not frustrating.

And that, friends, is our prayer for you as the school year begins.

May you find it freeing to say, “I don’t know.”

May you find it freeing that perhaps the best thing you can do this fall is bring your authentic, weary self and invite others to do the same.

May that freedom give you the courage to meet the young people in your ministry, right where they are, amidst their doubts and questions.

May that freedom give you the courage to show up exhausted, but whole.

May that freedom give you the confidence to know you’re exactly where God has called you to be.

Tweet this: Young people who’ve been shaped by the pandemic don’t want to return to a church that has been unchanged by it. Read what teenagers said they want reopening churches to know

3 Big Questions Book Cover

Find out what the teenagers you care about most need most from you

We listened to young people from across the country, combining in-depth interviews plus data from over 2,200 diverse teenagers to bring you rich stories of real young people today. Find out how you can help the teenagers closest to you find Jesus’ answers to their biggest questions of identity, belonging, and purpose with our latest book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.

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Image by Pheng Moua

[1] These teenagers are a part of TENx10’s Young People’s Council. TENx10 is a discipleship initiative that seeks to help faith matter more to teenagers. FYI is one of TENx10’s six founding organizations.

Jen Bradbury Image
Jen Bradbury

Jen Bradbury serves as the Sr. Director of Family Ministry at First Pres. Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. With more than twenty years of experience in youth ministry, she’s the author of several books, including The Jesus Gap, The Real Jesus, Called: A Novel About Youth Ministry Transition, and What Do I Believe About What I Believe? Jen and her husband, Doug, live in the Chicagoland area where they can regularly be found adventuring with their two young daughters.

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