Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10 to 19-year-olds. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts or attempts have all been on the rise over the past decade. Unfortunately, the social isolation recently forced by concern for the pandemic has only added to the dilemma. We are doing all we can to prevent the spread of the virus and to insulate students against the threat of physical illness…but how can we guard against the turmoil of sadness or mental health struggles?
The truth is, the youth we work with are lonely. If we look at things, honestly, though, all of us feel the ache of longing for companionship. It is not exclusive to teens. After all, God has made us to depend on one another. We need relationships. Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…” (Genesis 2:18). God designed us to live with others, and our human interactions can encourage us in this daily life and remind us of that most important relationship we have with God Himself.
When working with young people, building trust and maintaining connections are always essential components of ministry. Teenagers need those solid relational dynamics now more than ever, as the challenges of Covid-19 have in many ways forced separation from peers. Youth need to know that others care about them. It is essential to demonstrate genuine concern and to create a sense of encouraging warmth for students struggling in the turbulent uncertainty of daily life.
So how can we establish and build connections? Unfortunately, there is no defined single “recipe” to follow when it comes to working with people. Everyone is unique and responds in differing ways to interactions. In general, however, there are certainly some helpful guidelines to rely on as we seek to stay connected with youth and communicate care.
In-Person Engagement (When Possible)
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. -Hebrews 10:24-25
There is just no substitute for genuine, face-to-face, 3-Dimensional interaction. Nonverbal cues are an essential component of communication. Elements like eye contact, vocal tone, and body language are powerful, and don’t come across in a text message or even a video conference. The ability to be present with teens means a great deal both in terms of individual relationships and group dynamics. Youth benefit greatly from socializing with one another. They need to establish autonomy from adults and team camaraderie.
Connecting in person can be done through Bible studies, service events, games, and fun outings. If possible, aim for an organized event at least twice a month, if not more often. Encourage (or perhaps force, in some cases) teens to leave their phones at the door to promote engagement and interaction.
Before and after worship can also be a good time to do a check in with youth. We don’t want youth to utilize youth ministry events as a replacement for worship where we receive the gifts of Word and Sacrament. Instead encourage young people to be in worship and use it as a chance to connect them to each other and to other supportive adults.
It’s also worthwhile to consider hosting less formal opportunities for connection from time to time. Advertise an afternoon at a local coffee shop, and simply be available for teens to swing by for conversation or homework help. If students play or watch sports, find out when games are and drop by to watch now and then. Express interest in their passions and use those to find some common ground that emphasizes care. Obviously, one leader cannot do everything, and some of these possibilities are not practical. Focus on doing what is best in your given situation.
Sometimes (due to distance, diseases, or daily life distractions) gathering with teens in person is not possible. Thanks to modern technology, though, there are many opportunities to continue building relationships without occupying the same physical space. Note that the best options will vary, depending on the specifics of students, size of the youth group, and church policies.
In general, it is unwise for a leader to send messages to individual teens, for the sake of safety and propriety. A group text or an app such as “GroupMe” is a great way to keep in touch with a large crew. These group texts can include simple messages of encouragement, random riddles and fun facts, or daily Bible verses. If calling or texting kids, make sure you first have parental permission and acknowledgement. If there is an opportunity to follow a student on a social media platform (Instagram, Tiktok, etc.), doing so can be a positive way to observe what goes on in the lives of students. However, it is best to avoid public comments on posts.
Whichever format you use for digital communication, make sure that you are aware of your church’s policies for child protection, and follow the guidelines that have been placed for safeguarding. If your church does not already have such procedures defined, this is a great time to set up some standardized rules! Talk to other congregations for best practices and consult legal advice if available.
Additionally, if you cannot meet in person, hosting group “Zoom” calls is a great option. Create a meeting for Bible study, discussion, or just a game night (there are several great games that can be played online). Strongly encourage teens to keep their cameras on so that faces can be seen. You can also hold a group “watch party” that includes a remote conversation and simultaneously viewed movie.
It’s also worth noting that “old-fashioned” forms of communication can be a great way of demonstrating care and staying connected. There is something extra special about hand-written cards and letters. Let students know that you are praying for them. Congratulate them on an achievement or wish them the best for an upcoming event. You may not hear much about them afterward but know that even the surliest of technology-distracted adolescents cherish receiving mail specifically addressed to them.
Additionally, communicating with parents is essential to staying connected with youth. Keeping in touch with guardians allows for announcement of upcoming events, but also offers opportunity for parents to voice concerns or ask questions. It is important to communicate that you care about teens and want to do what is best for them, and that you are willing to listen to and support families in any way possible.
Speaking into a Void
There will inevitably be times when teenagers do not respond. This is possible even in group meetings, when awkward pauses linger; but it is even more prevalent in the age of virtual communications. It might seem as though efforts are in vain. You may send scores of emails, group texts, and invitations for Zoom Pictionary, and receive no feedback, with the exception of a possible shrug emoji and the echo of your keyboard typing in an empty room. Efforts may seem futile. Where have all the youth gone?
Do not give up hope. Teenagers may forget or neglect to answer. They may seem aloof for a season, and many are navigating the muddled waters of school, social media, and figuring out what might be coming next in this “new normal” era. But they still notice our energy and empathy. Responses might be few and far between but impacting even one person is worth the effort of reaching out to many. Continue to pray. Continue to plan. Do not grow discouraged or deem it “your fault.” We are operating in a time of great challenges form all sides. Christ will grow His church.
The Bottom Line
There is a lot that is constantly changing in the life of a teenager. With or without a global pandemic, it can seem as though the world is constantly on the brink of chaos. Youth need to feel loved. They need to know that others want to know them and care about them. As youth leaders, we have tremendous potential to encourage and inspire students. Whether we do it with in-person smiles, remote meetings, cards, group texts, games, or otherwise, we need to make the most of any and every opportunity to check in with students, reminding them that we care, and even more importantly, that God cares.