On a flight home at the end of my freshman year in college, I chatted with Drew, the educated, well-dressed businessman seated next to me. We chatted about my year, my life plans, and my Christian university and friends. He considered himself an atheist and smugly informed me that my knowledge, experience, and beliefs were simply not true. The doubts that I certainly had, he told me, would grow to create a giant black hole inside of me that would erode all my confidence and hope in God and that I would eventually look elsewhere, to more “legitimate sources.”

Drew’s words and ideas were real for him and plague many people, even Christians. Those nagging doubts and worries in the back of our minds, the insecurities that grab hold of us and pin us down, the life experiences that wound and hurt us, overturning our understanding of how things “should work,” can become overwhelming and begin to erode the hope and faith Christians have. I still wonder what happened to Drew, whether God worked in him to fill his black hole or if he just continued searching, no doubt in vain, for something “more legitimate.”

Searching, questioning, testing, and experimenting are “facts of life” in adolescence. They are important features to normal development. Anyone who has worked with teens has watched while some seek “responsibly,” going to positive sources and finding the right answers, while others search to no avail, turning to harmful sources like alcohol, drugs, thrill-seeking, troubled relationships or sex for meaning, and are unable to make use of the positives around them. The consequences can be heart-wrenching and devastating.

It is not always so easy to predict who is going to flounder and struggle, and who will thrive. Struggling teens come from families with wealth and opportunity as well as financial insecurity; intact marriages as well as divorced families; they can come from loving, Christian parents. What makes the difference? What are the keys to helping teens find and hold on to the Truth, and find purpose, productivity, and fulfillment in life?

All teens share the normal developmental challenges of autonomy (independence and control over their own life), mastery (competence or success) and individuation (thinking for themselves). Guidance and support are necessary to face these tasks, the absence of which is at the heart of what creates holes for many teens.

To be alienated is to lack a sense of belonging, to feel cut off. For teens as well as adults a sense of belonging provides important things. It gives a framework from which they view and understand life and the world around them. It provides a mirror by which teens see their value and purpose. A sense of belonging influences the interpretation of other people and their actions. In a teen’s world family, friends, school, work, and faith provide the most potent sources of belonging. Most teens, at some point, feel cut off from one of these, but typically not for long and not all of them at once. They may be struggling in school but have some activity, friend, or family to which they can turn. Their family may be going through serious difficulties, but close friends and success in school can help balance those struggles and maintain a sense of stability. However, if an adolescent feels insecure or unwanted in multiple areas or over a period of time problems will likely develop.

When teens don’t receive adequate support and sense of belonging, the result is a disruption in normal development. They are not getting what they need to keep growing and maturing. When there is prolonged chaos or controversy at home or repeated failure in school, a “hole” is created. That hole is alienation. The most common “filler” for teens is an overly strong attachment to a peer group. This super-dependence is one of the strongest predictors of problem behavior in adolescence. When healthy, constructive opportunities are not available as outlets for a teen’s energy, imagination, and developmentally normal pursuit of new experiences and belonging, teens will find challenges and identity in peer group related behaviors such as misbehaving in school, absenteeism or dropping out, smoking, drinking, promiscuous sex, and juvenile delinquency. Holes drive teens to leave common sense, their budding faith, and lots of other positive forces behind in an attempt to feel less cut off, to belong, to soothe themselves with things that seem, to them, to be “legitimate” fillers.

Youth leaders and other adults invested in teens have an opportunity to counter these negative fillers with positive, real, satisfying experiences, knowledge, opportunities, and love. Jesus says, “But I give you Living Water that will fill you up so you will never be thirsty again.” Studies about effective interventions for troubled teens (going as far back as the 1920s) show the effectiveness and necessity of support along with challenge. Also guidance–a combination of love and direction, has been found to be a key factor in the success and/or turn-around of teens. A middle-ground between strict control and total freedom allow teens to practice the skills required to become effective, competent adults. Our heavenly Father models this completely for us. He knows us and loves us. He gives us free will and a purpose, rules and guidelines in His Word and Jesus’ perfect example. He gives us His forgiveness and through the Holy Spirit allows us to “bear good fruit.”

Youth groups can help fill the holes created by disorganized, chaotic or even harmful family and social environments by meeting some adolescent developmental needs. Teens must have a chance to voice their thoughts in order to move from simply receiving ideas and beliefs to making them their own and incorporating them into their decisions and behaviors. What is real and what is true are important questions for teens to ask. Life experiences allow teens to test their theories. Youth leaders moderate between teens expressing their own opinions by hearing them and still challenging them with what God says. Bible study and discussion provide teens a forum to question and challenge ideas, and to uncover the true Source of meaning and stability in life.

Teens need other teens to help fill that need for belonging. Interaction with youth group peers allows teens to explore living within God’s will. They get up-close examples of applying the Truth to their own lives; what that looks like, feels like, involves. Even if not wholly accepted, a more fulfilling way of life is presented.

Activities such as servant events give teens chances to demonstrate mastery, to have a purpose, and to experience a kind of success. Even fun, risk-taking games and challenges offer teens the opportunity to test themselves, find out what they have inside, and through positive support of leaders and peers, stretch their view of who God has made them to be.

Providing opportunities for growth, challenges, independence, success, a model of Christ-like love, and a chance to find God-driven purpose, and genuine belonging is part of successful youth ministry, but only God fills holes. He is the Rock. Everything else is sinking sand that caves in, especially during stormy times. What youth groups and leaders offer is “legitimate,” the real deal, and can absolutely make a difference in teens’ lives, especially teens with holes. Getting and staying connected to other influences in a teen’s life (like school and parents) is helpful and a good safeguard, but it is also important to know when to refer teens for professional help. Counseling, medical help, and other interventions may be necessary for a teen’s safety or on a family’s road to change. God can do anything; we as servants can only do our part. Do what God has called you to do and trust the rest to Him.

Lori Snyder, mother of three boys, is an LCMS Lutheran and a licensed therapist.

thESource is published on the Web by LCMS District & Congregational Services-Youth Ministry. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 1333 South Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122-7295; 1-800-248-1930; www.lcms.org. Editor: Gretchen M. Jameson. VOL. 2 NO. 12 November 2005.