Gender and Sexuality, Abortion, Mental Health, Reaching Unbelievers, Sex and Dating. These were the top five topics youth at the LCMS Youth Gathering said they wished the church would talk about more. We ask this question on our Youth Poll at every Gathering and while many of these change from year to year, others have stayed at the top for some time. As we see similar answers over time, it reminds us that while some churches may be talking about these challenging areas regularly, others are choosing to shy away from them.
Youth leaders may struggle to figure out how to step into topics like mental heath and sexuality. It may seem easier to stay focused in areas that are far less likely to get heated. However, Gen Z isn’t looking to shy away from the hard things. This generation is exposed to the news, cultural issues, and brokenness across our world every day. They want to dig in and find truth in a time and culture that pressures them to accept more and more that is outside of God’s Word.
Here are six suggestions to help you to start talking about more difficult issues in your youth ministry.
Start when topics are lukewarm, not hot.
As you begin to approach more challenging topics with your teens, don’t start with areas that are hottest right now. It is tempting to pick an issue currently plastered all over our timelines, where everyone is taking sides, and emotions are big. These might not be the place to start, especially as teens and adult leaders are learning to have these conversations with warmth, challenge, and grace. Instead, pick a topic that is interesting, but might not be as intense right now. This allows you to help keep conversation on track and Christ-centered while modeling conversation that can help prepare for more difficult, hot issues in the future.
Give the initial conversation a time limit.
Teens are still developing their ability to understand complex issues, empathize with others, and develop arguments. Approaching difficult issues helps develop those skills, but just like any other muscle, it can be exhausting. Setting a time limit recognizes that developmentally teens are still figuring some of these things out. The time may change by topic or get longer over time. But saying up front that this is something we will spend 15 or 30 minutes on gives the adult leader and the teen time to think, study God’s Word and discuss a matter without feeling like they must cover every aspect right now. In fact, it encourages future conversations on the same topic.
Enforce how we talk to each other with respect and humble confidence.
Difficult topics can lead to intense arguments and deep emotions. In our particularly divisive culture, youth might struggle with learning how to have difficult conversations in a healthy way. Set up rules as a group ahead of the conversation, and as an adult, enforce them. This can include speaking with a tone of respect for others, listening well, and approaching the conversation with both humility and confidence in God and His Word. It’s important that we treat everyone as if they are a loved person created by God and not a problem or as an “other.” If these kinds of rules aren’t enforced, it can make these conversations more difficult, and even cause youth to check out entirely.
Partner with parents.
These kinds of conversations are ones that aren’t done in a vacuum. It is important that you let parents know what you are discussing and give them encouragement to continue the conversation at home. Some parents may feel confident talking about faith with their teen, while others may need additional supports. Be sure to be available if they have questions or want additional resources so they can help talk, teach, and model a faithful Christian response on these issues with their teen.
Cover everything in prayer and God’s Word.
Challenging conversations should be different within the church than they are in the world. The biggest distinction should be that these conversations center on God’s Word to us in Scripture. Jesus should be at the heart of all we do, so we want to be confident that even in the most difficult conversations we are trusting the Holy Spirit to be active in enlightening God’s people through the Bible. Be sure to start and end discussions on difficult topics with prayer. Ask for wisdom and discernment. Prepare in advance by looking at Scripture and the Catechism. You can look through studies on this site, find resources on LCMS.org and Concordia Publishing House, and especially talk with your pastor or other church workers. You don’t need to prepare an entire lecture or paper to present but know key places where you can point youth back to God’s Word over and over again.
Offer confession and forgiveness freely.
As Christians, we recognize that we are sinful humans in need of a Savior. God has lavishly given us grace and forgiveness we did not deserve through Jesus Christ. God’s love for us should flow from us just as freely to others in order that all might know Jesus. When we have difficult conversations, we are going to misstep, sin, and hurt others in the process. It’s not a matter of if but when. From the very start, it is important to remind youth and adults alike that we have all sinned and received mercy from Jesus. So, when hurt happens, repentance and absolution is given freely and often. As adults, we can model this and teach language that helps youth to express hurt, contrition and forgiveness to each other.
Having hard conversations is never easy, but it’s worth the effort. If you are looking for additional supports for these conversations, check out the Conversations Starters and Bible studies available on this site. They are a great way to step forward into conversations youth want to engage on and pointing them, through the Holy Spirit, to God’s Word and promises.