Heated yelling. Name-calling. Passionate arguments. Just two months into my first call, I experienced each of these things during my first ever congregational voter’s meeting. I was shaken, both physically and spiritually, and my mind questioned whether I had made the right decision in coming to this church. Furthermore, doubt began creep as to whether or not I should be in full-time church work at all, if this was what it would look like. How could people who worshiped alongside one another just an hour ago now be in disagreement with each other? My schooling had prepared me for many things, but this was not one of them.
I thank God that I have not had too many moments like this since that first year of ministry. If I would have experienced more, I believe my faith would have been much more fragile. I am willing to bet you have experienced moments like this within your own churches, and if you have, then your youth have probably have as well. While you may be somewhat more prepared and expectant of disagreements within the church, your teens most likely are not. So how do you help prepare and process your youth for times of disagreement? Here are seven ways that you can help your youth through these tough times.
Remind them that we are all sinful, especially those in the Church.
When I was younger, I thought church was for “good” people. After reading the gospels, I soon realized that Jesus’ words ring true, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Mark 2:16) The people that come to your church do not have it all figured out and that sometimes shows up in ugly ways. In fact, we are in church because we need God’s gift of forgiveness. By helping teens understand that Christians will do things that are not always Christ-like is a big help to their faith when people do mess-up.
Listen to their concerns and their fears.
In our world today, there is often very little space for listening and being heard. Our current political climate allows little space for constructive dialogue. This is where the Church can be a solid resource. Teens need a place where they can come to vent, process, and be heard. This is very important for adolescents who are developing socially and emotionally and trying to make sense of the world. When you give them space to share their concerns and fears, you help them understand that it is okay to feel a certain way about an issue.
Help them understand that conflict is not bad.
When I was in college, I took a class on communication skills and one of my big “ah-ha” realizations was that all relationships have conflict, and that is not necessarily bad. If fact, conflict is often viewed as a good thing, if worked through in a healthy way. The danger comes in the extremes: either there is no conflict because everyone is playing nice, or there is conflict where name-calling, gossip, and yelling are the norm. When you help teens understand that conflict can lead to deeper intimacy, you help them better anticipate and actually look forward to when it arises.
Give them tools to deal with conflict.
When I was in high school, I sat in as we interviewed one of our future youth leaders. When asked how she would handle conflict, she mentioned that she would follow Matthew 18. I had no idea what that meant, or that Jesus was even an expert on conflict, so I went home and looked it up. Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 primarily give us a picture of how to deal with those who sin within the church, but they also work great in dealing with conflict, especially the first step mentioned in verse 15, “If your brother of sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.” Too often, when someone wrongs us, we complain to someone else, gossip about them, or post about it on social media. A professor of mine once told me that he believed if people followed this first step, 95% of conflicts could be avoided.
Help them see the Church as a family.
No family is perfect and families often fight and disagree, but that does not always mean they hate each other. In fact, love is most often shown when a family member can disagree but they are still accepted and recognized as a valuable part of the family. When we help teens realize that members of churches will disagree and argue at times, but will often work it out, we help them see that true family and community are experienced throughout the entire process, not just in the disagreements. As a family in Christ, give them language for confession and absolution.
Pray with them.
Teens need to learn how to pray for others, especially those they may disagree with. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:44, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” While those we disagree with are not always considered our enemies, it can be a good practice to regularly pray for all who may rub us the wrong way or have a differing opinion than we do. I believe most people in the Church have good intentions, but even the best-intentioned people will have differing opinions or fall into sin at times.
Help them extend grace.
Lastly, this is a big one as we help them understand that disagreements usually happen for a reason that is unseen. For instance, once one of my good friends passionately disagreed with another person at the church about the amount of chaperones needed on an overnight youth trip. That person thought they needed the minimum, while my friend believed more were needed so that no one would get hurt. This came about because when she was in high school, some of the boys in the youth group were a bit too rough during one of the games. She felt that if more adults had been there, that roughness could have been avoided. She ended up yelling at that other person and it got ugly. You’ve heard the phrase, “Hurt people, hurt people.” This is what my friend was experiencing. She did not intentionally mean to lash out, but her previous trauma caused her to unearth some hidden pain. She eventually apologized and explained why she acted the way she did. Forgiveness was offered and grace was given. Our teens don’t often see grace extended in a culture that simply wants to cancel you if you do something wrong. By helping them experience and offer grace and forgiveness through Jesus, we help them better understand and reflect that love to others.
While not exhaustive, my hope is that these can help better prepare you and your teens for the disagreements that inevitably will come. Again, when we can help them see that healthy disagreements are natural and can be helpful, we help better prepare them to be a light to the world and leaders in their communities.