“I’m excited for what’s coming ahead.”
“I’m scared to leave my friends behind. What if they forget about me?”
“Everyone thinks I’m doing so well, but deep inside, I’m struggling.”
“I like things the way they are. I’m worried what will happen when everything changes.”
These are all statements that you could easily hear from a young person that is going through one of the number of transitions in adolescence. The transition from middle school to high school, from high school to college, or even from one sports season to the next. The transition of welcoming a new baby to the family or losing a loved one to a tragedy. The transition of a new dating relationship or the aftermath of a break-up. Life is full of transitions and adolescence is certainly no exception.
If you’re like me, you instinctively thought of the opening four quotes as the statements of four different people, each with a differing experience and perspective on whatever change is happening in their lives. That could be the case, however the more I reflect on it, the more I believe that these statements, and many others like them, could easily be the thoughts and experiences of the same young person. Even those who on the outside seem like everything is going great and they’re transitioning to the next phase of life perfectly, they are still dealing with more than just excitement. So, don’t overlook them either. We aren’t just excited or scared in times of transition. We’re both. Transitions are exciting and they’re terrifying. They’re full of opportunity and they’re full of the unknown. We want to celebrate the exciting aspects of transitions, especially milestones like graduation. But we can’t, in our celebrating, neglect the fuller picture of the inherent danger of transitions. Transitions are, by their nature, vulnerable.
The Vulnerability of Transitions
This has been a theme that has emerged from numerous conversations I’ve had in the past few months with those who are in one transition or another. Transitions are vulnerable. Let me unpack what I mean by that statement. Life transitions, those times when you’re undergoing a lot of change, add a certain level of vulnerability to a person and to their relationships. It is easy for people to be overlooked in transition, lost in the shuffle, or feel left behind. The amount of change that is taking place in any big life transition is a breeding ground for stress, communication problems, relational conflict, temptation, and the like. The combination of all of these factors, plus the varying emotions of the situation makes the person more vulnerable than normal. That is simply the reality of it.
Now, vulnerability does not necessarily mean that bad results are sure to come. No, vulnerability indicates the potential for something to break, not that it’s actually broken yet. When architects are looking at the structural integrity of a dam and they notice that there is a portion that is vulnerable, what do they do? They reinforce it and shore it up, to help to manage the vulnerability. When you’re dealing with a friend who has just lost a loved one, you are instinctively more careful in what you say, you’re more caring in your tone and actions, because you know that they’re vulnerable. Vulnerability, when noticed, leads us towards repair, care, and reinforcement. And this is exactly what we are called to do with our young people as they go through the various transitions of adolescence. As God’s church, we can lean into those vulnerable transitions and provide additional, and much needed, care and reinforcement to help them through what is a vulnerable time.
How We Can Care During Times of Transition
To that end, let’s look at three different causes of vulnerability in times of transition, focusing more specifically on the spiritual effects, and discuss how we can help to care for our youth in these areas.
Transitions Involve New Expectations
Anytime that you are moving into a new phase or season of life, you have expectations of what those new experiences will look like. When our expectations don’t end up matching reality, we have a choice:
- We can change our expectation.
- We can maintain our expectation and be dissatisfied and upset that our expectation isn’t being met.
- Or we can work to conform our experience to our expectation and hope that given time we can get them to match up.
In the meantime, unmet expectations can lead to all kinds of anxiety, stress, conflict, and other problems. In other words, new expectations cause vulnerability because they almost always involve dealing with unmet expectations.
One area I saw this a lot with our young people is regarding their worship life whenever they first left our congregation after high school graduation. Many of our young people had the expectation that wherever they went to church after that would be identical to their home congregation. When it wasn’t (either the worship was a little different, the pastors didn’t have the same personality that they were used to, the preaching style was different, etc.), that unmet expectation became a barrier to them getting connected to a local congregation in their new place, because “it’s just not the same.” Their expectations made them vulnerable to the attacks of Satan to not receive God’s gifts in His house.
How to Care:
Most of us don’t recognize that we’re dealing with unmet expectations until someone helps us to see this. One way that we can do this is to help prepare our young people as they’re heading into the transition. For example, thinking about the transition of high school graduation, be talking with your seniors about what their expectations are for what’s next. How difficult do they think classes will be in college? What will their social life look like? How well will they keep in touch with their friends from high school? These are the kinds of questions to begin asking, so that youth can recognize that they are going into the next phase with expectations that may or may not reflect reality.
We can help in the transition is to assist our young people in thinking about their expectations ahead of time, but then also helping them navigate them during the transition. Host a Q&A night with those who are on the other side of the transition. Have some current college students or young adults talk about how their college experience matched up or didn’t match up with their expectations, how they navigated that difference, what helped them the most, etc. Talk about how they got connected to a local congregation and teach about the importance of receiving God’s gifts regularly (ie. The Youth Ministry End Goals about Community).
Follow up on this during Thanksgiving or Christmas break with your new college students and have them talk about ways that their expectations have been met, exceeded, or changed. Have an open conversation about their worship life so far. Many young people have been told the expectation for their worship life is “come to church when you are home on break”, and so they need to be retaught the importance of regular worship. As Jesus says in John 15, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, emphasis added).
Oftentimes young people can feel like they’re the only one going through whatever they’re experiencing. Connecting them in community with others who either have gone through or are currently experiencing something similar goes a long way in anchoring them in the storm of that transition.
Transitions Involve New Routines
Whether it’s the transition to a new sports season or a new grade in school, every transition involves new routines and schedules. Some young people will adjust to a new schedule quickly, while others may begin to struggle with maintaining relationships and activities that before were second nature. Each young person and their family have to decide what’s necessary, what’s given priority, and what there’s not room for. One of the ways that this is an area of vulnerability, because oftentimes we end up trying to fit our faith life into this new routine rather than the other way around.
How to Care: We don’t control our young people’s schedules. But we can equip them with habits that will hold through whatever their new schedule is. For example, spending a series in youth group to teach various models of devotional reading of Scripture or models of prayer will help equip them with various tools that they can continue to use regardless of the season of life they are in.
There’s also great power in accountability when it comes to routines. Those who are seeking to start a habit of working out regularly are much more successful when they have a workout partner or are in a regularly scheduled class than if they simply workout on their own. In the same way, think about how you can create some accountability and community around spiritual habits. As Paul exhorts young pastor Timothy: “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
How can we help in this kind of training? Maybe it’s a Bible reading group using a Bible app where you read the same passage together each week and discuss it with one another. Or assign each youth a prayer partner (or group) that will connect for weekly prayer and encouragement in the Lord. Of course, the best routines are those that are not insisted on by the leader, but come from your youth themselves, so whenever possible try to simply facilitate your youth forming these routines and communities themselves.
Transitions Involve New Vocations
This is an essential teaching regarding times of transition, because our world teaches that transitions involve new identities. As God’s Baptized children, we can count on our Baptismal identity which never changes. When a young person transitions to life after a career-ending sports injury, peers may encourage them to again figure out who they are. Or when they go through a break-up, they hear messages about “finding themselves.” Or when heading off to college, many of our young people are not just looking to find a major, they’re looking to re-define who they are.
Our roles and responsibilities change from season to season. As our vocational roles change, we discover how God will work through us in new and different ways. As this happens, it can feel tremendously vulnerable as your identity feels as though it is in flux. The world is always seeking to reshape your identity into an image that does not conform to who God has made you in Christ. That same vulnerability can be used by the Holy Spirit to remind our unchanging identity in Jesus even as vocation changes.
How to Care:
The main way we can care for our young people in this area is to constantly be affirming their identity in Christ, separate from anything that they do. We need to teach the distinction between Baptismal identity and vocation, and use this language when we speak about our young people. What are they going to be when they grow up? They’re going to be loved children of God. What are they going to do? They will serve in vocations as nurses, teachers, laborers, parents, students, etc. as the hands and feet of Jesus. Their vocations will change, their identities will not. Because who they are informs what they do and how they do it, not the other way around.
I can’t possibly overemphasize this: your baptismal identity in Christ is the key source of comfort, hope, and strength amid vulnerable transitions. It is what anchors you when it seems like everything else around you are changing. So that is what we reinforce amidst changing vocations: their unchanging identity as God’s beloved child. Ask the question, “How can I affirm my youth’s identity in Christ during this transition?” That question, above all else, will lead you to tremendous avenues of care.
Transitions are vulnerable. They can impact our young people physically, emotionally, socially, relationally, and even spiritually. What is our role as the church in the midst of these transitions? To point them back to Christ and to make sure they never walk through it alone. Transitions can be a time where people become disconnected from the church, as they are swept up in the newness of the next phase. When you look at the times where we lose the most amount of people in a youth ministry, it’s after 8th grade and then after high school graduation, both huge times of transition. Now that we know a little bit more about why these transition times are vulnerable, we are called to lean into those areas of need.
As youth leaders, we should not be passively waiting on the other side of the transition, the new phase of life, hoping that they make it to us just fine. We should walk with them through the valley, through the newness, through the changes and connect them to the God who does not change, who is always faithful. Through the Holy Spirit, vulnerable transition times can become moments that drawn young people closer to God’s good gifts and Christ-centered community.
This needs to impact our teaching, so that we intentionally teach about those anchor points that will hold during whatever life transitions our youth experience. It needs to inform our programs, so that we lean into these transitions and offer specific programming at these times to meet those needs. It needs to influence our relationships, so that as we pray for the young people that God has entrusted us with, we would ask, “What transitions is this beloved child of God experiencing? How can I extend God’s care to them during that transition? How can I remind them of their identity in Christ this week?” May God grant us eyes to see His beloved children the way He sees them, to help meet their needs, and to walk with them through whatever transitions come their way.