“Can’t Walk Away from Jesus”: Supporting Youth who are Wresting with Church Teachings

Back in July, our church joined about 20,000 other Lutheran high schoolers at the LCMS Youth Gathering in Houston, Texas. I was talking to some youth about what their biggest take away was from their time in Houston. I received a wide variety of answers; some shared specific things that were shared in the sessions they attended, some said what they learned from Pastor Zach and Noemi, but one youth’s faith takeaway struck a chord with me. They said,

“I realized I don’t have to agree 100% with the institutional Church to be a follower of Jesus. And if I’m being honest, this was such a freeing realization for me.”

I was blown away by this teen’s comment and I told them I agreed. The reality is that saving faith in Jesus doesn’t prevent us from asking hard questions of faith or wresting with the Church’s teachings. While we know that God’s Word is perfect and true and that our theology rests fully in Scripture, all of us will have times where our sinful nature, the devil, or the world push us to doubt. I reminded that teen that we are saved by grace through faith that’s a gift from God. I don’t believe this teen is alone and our response in these moments can have a lasting impact.

We will have youth who walk through our church doors who don’t believe all the Church’s teachings. Maybe a few pop into your mind now who are currently wrestling with faith and practice. In those moments when they question, we do not want them to step further away from worship, God’s Word, prayer, and the faithful Christian community. Instead, we want to draw them closer and walk with them in those moments.

The big question that we’ve probably asked ourselves is, what do we do with this?

It’s important to start in prayer. Pray for the teens who are struggling or doubting. Pray that their hearts are softened by the Holy Spirit to hear what they need to hear. Pray for yourself that you will be given the words to say so the clear Gospel of Jesus can be proclaimed. that the words you’re saying are of God…and after you pray, here are three ways we can handle youth are who are struggling with the church:

  1. Engage in grace-filled conversation with them.

Our teens are looking for answers. The number of times I’ve answered a form of the question, “Ok but why do we believe in *insert Christian topic here*” is, a lot. Be willing to have the conversation with them. Don’t instantly shut them down or shame them for the question. If we do, we’re both giving them more reasons to struggle with the Church and we’re telling them that their struggles aren’t worth our time.

  1. Actively listen to what your teens are saying to you

Think of a time when you were talking to someone, and you could tell the person you were talking to was not listening. Either they were not paying attention, or they wanted you to stop talking so they could respond. Youth may already feel like adults don’t listen to them. It can be difficult to be honest with you, especially when they’re struggling with something as big as what we believe as a church. Listen. Ask clarifying questions. Listen some more. Be willing to have the hard conversations over and over again if necessary. Heart transformation is always possible when the Holy Spirit is at work. But sharing the Gospel comes in relationships, and to share it clearly, you need to listen.

  1. Jesus is the Son of God and during his earthly ministry, he talked with everyone and anyone. You can too.

Our teens are hearing so many lies in our culture today. It’s our job, as people who are in the trenches with youth, to speak over the noise. To be the voice that tells them their identity is found in Jesus. That they were created and Baptized for a purpose. That they are fearfully and wonderfully made. Be the voice that says, “you might be struggling with what we believe. And I’m going to help you navigate that”. Keep inviting them back to worship and God’s Word where God promises to be present. Make it a point to sit with the teen that’s wrestling. Will it be as easy as talking with that one teen who “gets it”? Probably not. But did Jesus sit only with the easy ones? He did not.

Remember the youth at the beginning? Our conversation didn’t end there. I asked more questions and then I listened. This young person told me about how so many of their friends had walked away from the church. These friends got stuck in the weeds over different things but never talked to anyone about it because they didn’t feel like they could. So instead of having the conversation, they just left all together. They said, “My friends walked away from the church because they disagreed with their pastor or youth leader. But I can’t bring myself to walk away from Jesus.”

The teens that come through our doors man not 100% agree with the church. They’ll struggle with what we believe. They will wrestle with doubt. As youth leaders, parents, and supportive adults, we walk those seasons with them. Let them ask questions without shame and take them back to God’s Word for them. We’re in such a unique position where we get to remind them that Jesus Christ died for them despite their sins, despite the struggles they’re facing, despite of who they think they are. God sees all of them and he says, “I love you; I made you and saved you. I see you, and you can find rest in me.”

Actively listen to your teens. Let them ask questions. Connect them to worship, prayer, and Bible study where God promises to be. Be grace-filled as we sit with those who are struggling. While the Gospel may be a stumbling block to some, we don’t want our approach or our attitude to be the reason someone walks away from the Church.

About the author

Sarah is a DCE at Woodbury Lutheran Church in Woodbury, MN. When she’s not teaching kids/teens about Jesus and coming up with hashtags for church-wide events, she enjoys taking pictures around the Twin Cities and spending time at her cabin in Northwestern Minnesota. Sarah’s known for her love of coffee, hatred of mornings, and creating games that involve hiding Rubber Chickens at the various campuses of WLC and then forgetting where she hid them.
View more from Sarah

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