At the risk of sounding like a broken record–or an elderly grandmother who’s slowly losing her memory–I’ll repeat something I feel like I say daily:

Our youth are facing incredibly challenging, complex issues today.

Over the last few months, our eighth grade confirmation students have been writing and preparing their faith testimonies–their stories of what they believe about their faith, how they’ve seen God work in their lives, and what sort of relationship they have with their Savior. Our pastoral staff and I have been meeting with them one-on-one, prying open the lids to their very real emotions and troubling concerns.

And yet, you’d never know what really lurks beneath the surface by just watching them goof around and toss volleyballs at each other’s heads at our youth events.

As our church’s confirmation program director, I daily tackle the challenges inherent within the leadership of over a hundred youth and dozens of adult leaders in our program. But, for these brief few weeks, I get to sit back from the heavy administrative side of that job and spend some serious time with many of these kids, as they walk through their testimonies with me.

Hearing what these kids have gone through in their relatively short lives is inspiring, and sometimes jaw-dropping. I’ve sat in stunned silence, listening to kids tell me about the death of parents and the impact of divorce on their lives, about diseases and depression, and about dealing with constant bullying and aggression directed towards them.

I’ve been shocked to find out that some of my biggest “headache” students (those that one of my kinder friends would label “EGR” people–“Extra Grace Required”) have walked through situations that would likely rattle my adult faith.

Recently, I met with a student who confided to me that he has spent his life dealing with Asperger’s Syndrom, a condition that he tells me feels like he’s “constantly searching for a missing file in his brain” to come up with even the simplest response to a question–but since he’s been in school, he’s been mercilessly taunted and shunned for this. Yet, his identity rests so securely in God that he told me he refuses to respond to these cruel bullies, and instead reminds himself every time they tease him that “he’s a child of Christ” and it’s a “privilege” to suffer on this earth just like His Savior did.

Wow. Get me a box of Kleenex.

The more I immerse myself in the youth world (even when it requires incredibly painful things, like listening to horrific rap and awful teenie-bop songs at ear-shattering volume), the more clearly I see the challenges that our youth are facing daily.

It’s like throwing a newborn kitten into a dangerously murky ocean teeming with ravenous sharks. These kids are doing their best to keep themselves afloat, but everything around them tempts them to succumb to the dark waters and the carnivores waiting for them.

It sure seems like quite the challenge sometimes, to fight the overwhelmingly powerful draw of culture and its effect on kids whose very brains are not yet fully developed.

Does that mean it’s any easier for me, a twenty-four-year-old? Not necessarily. I had to tread a lot of those same dark waters–as did the many generations before me.

But do I think it’s gotten worse? Judging by the middle schoolers I spend the majority of my time with, the answer is a definite yes.

Because I have no children of my own and don’t have that “mom” label, my youth seem to pry open that door to their souls more easily than I’d ever expect. It’s encouraging, honestly, to know how much they value and trust me–but at the same time, it’s a struggle to keep a straight face and a calm demeanor as they vent about what’s going on in their lives.

The stories just pour out of them:

Tweens who cut, slicing their thighs and arms with razors while sitting home alone at night.

Girls who, in desperation to be liked, text nude pictures of themselves to all the guys whose numbers they have.

Friends who won’t eat, slowly starving themselves so they can look good in their swimsuits.

Kids who sneak into their parents’ liquor cabinets and drink alcohol while they have friends over.

Teens who can barely compose the obligatory five-paragraph essay are losing their virginity.

Young teenagers who are suicidal, desperate for an end to the pain they’re experiencing.

When I was in middle school, it was a simpler time. We didn’t have our own private lives via the internet, we didn’t spend every waking second texting our every thought and emotion, and we certainly didn’t have to worry about what pictures our friends were posting of us–or what permanently-written gossip they were spreading about us–on Facebook.

But, despite the seemingly choking death grip our sinful world has on these kids, I know that it’s not the case. Our Creator God is infinitely more powerful than even the strongest enemy. I see so many of these kids cautiously navigating these dangerous waters, keeping their eyes focused not on the waves or sharks but on their God. I’ve experienced these teenagers slowly looking heavenward more and more often, as they realize that their only place of safety is in the arms of their loving Savior. I feel them pushing–rebelling–fighting against a culture that’s trying to grow them up into desperate slaves of total aimlessness.

So often, my prayers for my middle schoolers are simply the words of 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”

I want them to get that message clearly: there’s absolutely nothing good that this sinful world has to offer them. Every blessing, every comfort, and every hope for a bright future and a blissful eternity rests only in Christ–nowhere else.

It’s an exciting time to be a part of these kids’ lives. They’re growing up so fast, and many are grabbing hold of their faith as their lifeline right now, as they see how easy it is to drown in the horrors of our shallow world and succumb to the darkness that lurks so ominously.

And, while I’m alternately terrified, dismayed, frustrated, and saddened by the reality that these kids I adore are wrestling with, I know that the Holy Spirit is still working in them.

It’s that Spirit–“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)–who is empowering these kids to keep their heads above the deadly water and smile as they look forward to the joys of heaven, even while the sharks encircle them here on earth.

As one of my eighth graders put it recently, “It’s like my faith used to be a little piece of yarn…but in the last two years of middle school, it’s grown to a giant coil of rope that you can’t cut easily. And I know that the Holy Spirit is the One that has done that in me.”

Now, if only I could convince them to listen to some real music and stop hitting each other in the head with volleyballs…