We’re living through a moment unlike any in history.
Psychologists will spend the rest of their careers writing about these weeks we’re experiencing right now—about how humanity reacted, confronted with the news that a deadly pandemic is sweeping through the entire world at an alarming rate.
Coronavirus has fundamentally changed nearly aspect of our daily lives. And perhaps in the greatest stroke of irony, the way we’ve been told we have a chance of lessening its impact is to isolate ourselves. In our moments of greatest fear, when we most crave the security of community, we’re forced to keep our distance from each other.
Even as I write this, a thousand thoughts are racing through my brain—what will the next week bring? How will this affect my family and friends, my church, my youth, my finances, my habits, my city?
Unsettling, too, is the pace at which things are happening. Like falling dominoes, schools and churches, stores and restaurants, beaches and borders have closed with little warning. Any attempt to keep up with announcements and press conferences seems overwhelming. I have no concept of day or time anymore, and I’m not really sure what to do with myself.
I have the distinct emotion that the ground is falling out from under my feet, day after day.
Like I’m on a trampoline, trying to get my balance, while someone else is still bouncing furiously.
I share all that, candidly, to let you know that you’re not alone. Every friend or family member I’ve talked to this week has felt the same emotions. Everyone is struggling.
My job immerses me in the world of children and youth on a daily basis, and it’s worth exploring how this is affecting them, how we can attempt to reach them in the midst of this crisis, and how we can take care of ourselves right now as we attempt to serve others.
Youth React Honestly
I went straight to the source, asking some of my own middle and high school students this very question.
“I’m scared, to be honest,” middle school Brendan confessed. “I’m worried about my parents and relatives getting it. The likelihood of them dying is really what scares me. I’m not sure if I can imagine life without them.”
“It is very tough to keep a positive attitude,” said Olivia, a high schooler, echoing what I’ve heard from nearly every student lately. “I miss my friends and school.”
“I’m bored of being bored,” another student complained. “Spring break hasn’t been any fun and I don’t want to do online school.”
“Honestly, it just really stinks,” writes Marenda, a high school senior who’s dealing with a cancelled prom, senior class trip, graduation, and the possibility of not seeing her friends before she moves away to college. “I thought I would never say this, but I actually want to go back to school. The best part of my senior year has been taken away from me and I can’t see my friends. While I get that may seem selfish, that’s all I can really seem to think about right now.”
Even those students who are attempting to look on the bright side are still struggling mightily.
“This has opened up a lot of time for refocusing on the things that matter…I’ve been able to step away from the busyness of life and spend quality time with what really matters to me. I almost feel selfish that I am enjoying the time to myself, unattached from nearly everything that is the day-to-day hustle,” high schooler Emma told me.
But still, she worries. Deeply.
“What will be left of the world in a few months?…this period of personal rejuvenation comes with an equally intense price, one of fear, anxiety, and unknowns,” she told me.
Worth noting is that teenagers naturally experience a heightened emotional response than adults, which is a natural stage of their mental development. Anyone who parents or works with teens recognizes that they live on a rollercoaster of highs and lows, rapidly shifting from one emotion to another and back.
Try to get a grasp on how messy and confused and anxious you are right now, and multiply that, removing the self-discipline and wisdom that your years of life have taught you. That’s how our teens are feeling right now.
Added to this is the fact that social scientists tell us that Gen Z already trends towards isolation, the byproduct of growing up in a world of fear. Their formative years have been marked by mass shootings, terrorism, and anxiety about the future. According to some studies, Gen Z’s stress levels already equal—and sometimes outweigh—that of adults. This experience of a global pandemic and massive global recession no doubt dumps fuel on that fire.
Practically Combat Real Fears
So how can we reach our youth right now, in the midst of their valid fears?
Firstly, we need to be honest, factual, and not sugarcoat the truth. Our young people desperately need adults to be safe ports in this raging storm, and that won’t happen when we throw empty clichés and worthless platitudes at them.
Yes, the world is changing. Drastically. Everything feels different right now. It’s all right for all of us to admit that, young and old.
But what is not different is the faithfulness and love of our Almighty God. Like generations before us have persevered through trials and tribulations, we too will continue to press forward, confident that we have a living Savior who walks with us every step of the way. He is with us, even in the middle of the uncertainty.
Secondly, encourage our youth that it’s perfectly fine to feel the way they feel right now. Whether they’re dealing with fear, worry, confusion, anger, apathy, or something else entirely, that’s fine. You’re allowed to feel the emotions you feel. And it’s also perfectly fine if you don’t even know how you feel. Your emotions should not be a source of guilt right now.
What matters is that you don’t get stuck in the fear that you’ll feel this way forever. We know that human beings are resilient and adaptable. We get knocked down, and we get back up again.
Most importantly, we have the hope of eternity planted in our souls, despite our current circumstances. We can “fix our eyes on Jesus,” as Hebrews 12 reminds us, knowing that we are never alone. As Deuteronomy 31:8 comforts, “The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
As you talk with students, point to Bible stories that demonstrate God’s faithfulness in times of trouble. Share encouraging Bible verses. Lift up the countless stories in the news right now about the good things that people are doing for each other. Look at the stories of dedicated doctors and nurses, cashiers and garbage men, musicians and athletes doing what they can to step up and use their talents to bless others. We have that opportunity to be a blessing to others, too.
Lastly, we must be persistent in our efforts to let our young people know that we care about them. Our love and support must be unflagging in this time. Even if they isolate themselves, wrapped up in fear, or ignore our attempts, rolling their eyes, we cannot give up on them.
I’ve sent text messages to some of my youth every day, with no response, for nearly a week.
But in the last twenty-four hours alone, I’ve received messages back from three of those teens. All in the middle of the night, when they’re most alone and most dismayed.
Don’t give up. Be persistent in your efforts. They’ll notice it, even if they don’t respond…right away.
Foster Community While Social Distancing
God’s Word encourages us to live in unity, as a family of believers, and to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). Even while we are physically separated right now, we can still connect with each other in meaningful ways.
Thankfully, this is one area our youth have an advantage over most adults. The digital world is their reality, and perhaps our best practice right now could be for us to let them introduce us to their world and teach us what they know.
Consider the most popular platforms your youth may be on, and be intentional about intersecting with them there. Instagram, TikTok, and SnapChat are popular social media accounts for middle and high school students, and are easy places for you to post Bible verses, fun videos, and discussion questions.
In my youth group, we’ve utilized WhatsApp for the last year to connect students. Already, we have nearly fifty students interacting with each other in “digital youth groups” where we post Bible verses, challenges, jokes, memes, and discussion questions several times a day.
If your organization already has social media platforms, this might be a great time to use them to share a variety of different resources. No doubt you’ve already considered sharing your sermons and devotional messages online, but take advantage of podcasts, apps, and virtual tours of museums, national parks, and even zoos.
In addition to posting links for sermons and Bible studies, you can encourage people to develop personal spiritual disciplines. Students especially may resonate with ideas like journaling through the Bible, illustrating their favorite Bible verses through sketches or paintings, or writing out prayers.
Video conferencing is another great way to continue to keep people connected, even if they’re separated. Many creative youth leaders and teachers are already utilizing Zoom, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime to link up individuals, whether it’s a classroom of wiggly kindergarten students or a group of older adults. Copious tutorials and how-to videos pepper the Internet, making this an easy way for newbies to learn how to use video conferencing.
Just this morning, I spent a few hours exchanging ideas with other youth ministry friends. We’re planning to do a variety of engaging, fun activities for students who want to join video groups. Some of those great ideas include Bible studies, household scavenger hunts (“find something stinky and bring it back to show the group!”),“MTV Cribs”-style tours of students’ rooms, “Would You Rather” questions, group charades, and Bible studies and small group lessons.
One youth leader I know has started playing video games online with his youth. Others are attempting Netflix Parties with their youth groups, where everyone watches the same movie at the same time.
Don’t underestimate the value of a personal text, either, or even an old-fashioned phone call.
The greatest thing about all of this? There’s a lot of freedom to try new things, and grace if they don’t work out so well. Try, try, and try again.
Take Care Of Yourself, Too
My goodness, if there was ever a time to slow down and immerse yourself in Scripture and prayer, now’s the time!
A very real temptation for many of us is our desire to rush in and help others, without thinking about our own health and mental state. Take a breath, and realize that burning yourself out will render you ineffective to minister to the people who need you. Make sure you’re getting sleep and exercise. Linger over your cup of coffee. Get used to a new pace in your life.
Sleeping in, for the first time in a long time? Well, that should be the least of your worries right now. Come on. Enjoy a little thing like that, folks.
Your office hours may be totally different, or even lessened right now. Perhaps you have no idea what to even do with your time. In those moments, don’t beat yourself up over your failure to produce, but instead recognize that you’re living through an unparalleled experience and answers aren’t usually immediate or clear in times like these. Check in with those you love, read, pray, or journal.
Someday, this wild adventure will be part of your story. You’ll have the opportunity to share your unique experiences, and speak to the ways you’ve seen firsthand how God is good, even through turbulent times.
Hold Onto Hope
My great-great-grandfather immigrated from Germany as a young Lutheran pastor, called to the heart of the wilderness in Michigan.
He had no clear idea what to do, how to do it, or where to go. The first few days he arrived to the middle of the woods, he slept under the stars, in the middle of the trees, trying to get a handle on what to do next.
Many of us are in the woods right now, staring up at the stars, wondering what the future holds.
But just as generations before us have stared up at the stars, into the inky, worrisome black of night, they’ve nevertheless gotten up every morning and pressed forward.
We will, too, in the new wilderness we’re facing now. And we do so with the knowledge that we are never alone. An Almighty God goes with us.
They named that new settlement in Michigan “Frankentrost,” meaning “courage.” Out there, in the middle of the woods, they built a tiny church and a community. That community and church still exist today. God’s Word was proclaimed and lives were changed for eternity, even in the midst of uncertainty, newness, and challenge.
Even as we now face troubles, fears, and unfamiliarity, we take solace knowing that our Savior, Jesus, is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,” as we’re reminded in Psalm 46:1.
Courage, my friends. We’re in this together. And we are most certainly not facing this new frontier alone.