We have all done it. In a moment of frustration or crisis we reach out with the post on social media or a text to a friend. Technology has given us so many new ways to share what is going on in our lives. We see it every day from a tweet of frustrations when you find a mouse in your pantry to prayer requests from the urgent care or ER. In times when we feel confusion, sadness, and anger, we want to be heard and understood. Today, that means using technology, as especially social media to make a bid for warmth, challenge, and grace.
But empathy isn’t often something the digital landscape often offers. Those reaching out via technology in times of struggle can be met with judgement and disconnection. In fact, some surveys indicate that as we become more technologically inclined, empathy is on the decline. Reaching out via technology can fail to point us to God’s love and grace when we need it most.
As young people spend more and more time on technology, this can be an important space for them to learn to both share the Gospel and show compassion. Youth Ministry can help develop empathy for others as they share the love of Jesus.
Empathy is the action of recognizing, being sensitive to and sharing the thoughts and feelings of someone else. Unlike Sympathy which indicates that you may have some shared experience, empathy is when you can recognize someone else’s emotions, experience and action even if you do not share them. We learn to walk in someone else’s shoes. Developing empathy is critical for establishing relationships and caring for others who are different than us in a humble, loving way.
Empathy is something we see Jesus model for us. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who is every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Jesus knew what it was to be tempted and to suffer, just like us. Yet His perfect life and death on our behalf gives us forgiveness when we fail to show love and concern for others.
As young people deepen their understanding of God and their vocations, we also want them to deepen their love and empathy for others. Romans 12:14-16 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly or give yourselves to humble tasks. Never be wise in your own sight.”
Below are three ways you can work with your youth to help develop Christ-like empathy. They all utilize technology which may be particularly useful for teens who spend so much of their time connected digitally.
Practice using “The Best Construction”
This is an opportunity to return to how the Catechism explains the 8th Commandment. One piece to help students dive into is how we defend, speak well of others, and explain everything in the kindest way. One way we talk about this about putting the best construction on everything.
Find a short post on social media, an Instagram post, or even a text that might ignite strong feelings. It could be over a divisive issue (pineapple on pizza, the best sports team, etc.) or something that was put out as an unpopular opinion. Have the students read it and then share their initial thoughts. Try not to make this about the issue, but about the feelings they experience and the response they want to give.
Then, have them read it again with the most generous, graceful construction they can find in reading it. How does reading it with a lens of the best construction change how they feel? How does it change their response? Use this to help them think through how we can fulfill our vocation as neighbor and friend on the internet.
Use “The Game is Rigged”
Rigged is an online interactive decision-making game found at (thegameisrigged.org). You step into the shoes of a 17-year-old student coming out of the criminal justice system and who is a family of low socio-economic status. Each click through gives a problem with two potential solutions. The goal is to balance finances, relationships, health, responsibilities, and academics for as long as you can. Each decision has consequences and a lack of balance will end the game.
You can have youth play this game alone, in groups, or as a large group. With larger groups you will have to navigate discussion and voting on each possible solution. As students walk through these the problems being faced, this is a place to help them think through situations empathetically and consider how this might translate to faithful action in real life.
Use “Play Spent”
Play Spent (playspent.org) is similar to The Game is Rigged. In this game you are a person who has lost their job and house. They are down to their last $1000 dollars. You will be given a series of decisions to make in order to keep enough money to make it through a hypothetical month. With every decision, this game gives some insight into why and how these decisions are difficult for many in these real-life situations.
With both interactive games, it’s important to bring what they are learning back to Scripture. These are not designed to make young people feel unnecessary guilt or to make them defensive. Rather, it is an opportunity to walk empathetically through someone else’s imagined experience.
As you use these activities, it’s important to make sure that you center young people in Scripture. Empathy is a useful tool for connection, but true healing comes when the Holy Spirit uses us to connect others to Jesus. After using these games, be sure to discuss with teens ways they can act in a Christ-like way towards others based on what they learned. You may even use examples of Jesus’ actions in the Gospels to both provide for people’s spiritual and physical needs.
In a time when understanding, listening and caring for others is difficult. I hope these activities bring both empathy and a greater ability for the Holy Spirit to work through us to show mercy to others.