Written by Aaron Helman
Let’s start the way all youth ministry blog posts should begin, with a quote from a Greek economist about teenagers:
“They only care about frivolous things. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly… impatient of restraint.”
If my grandfather read youth ministry blogs (he doesn’t, of course), he’d be happily nodding his head in agreement, but here’s the thing I didn’t yet mention:
That Greek economist is a man named Hesiod who died 650 years before Jesus was born and was a contemporary of the same Homer who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey.
The idea that teenagers these days are somehow different – or worse – isn’t a new one.
For pretty much as long as we have recorded history, every generation of adults has had those who complained about teenagers.
The truth is, teenagers probably haven’t changed as much as many want to believe. Instead, it’s the world around teenagers that’s changing so radically.
It’s a world that – by any statistical measure – has left today’s teenagers more overworked and under slept than any generation of teenagers in history; and it absolutely changes the way that we have to be in ministry with them.
TODAY’S TEENAGE WORLD
Here’s a fun statistic.
The average high school student reports doing three hours of homework a night.
That’s nearly twice as much as teenagers reported doing 15 years ago (back when I was a teenager).
As youth workers, it’s easy to complain when students are too busy to come to youth group, but I think we can all agree that teenagers are not the ones who chose to have three hours of homework a night.
When band camp lasts a full month for eight hours a day, we can agree that teenagers are not the ones who petitioned the band director for more rehearsals.
The largest change we’ve seen in teenagers is directly attributable to the world that adults have built for them.
They practice more, train more, rehearse more, and study more than ever before – almost always at the behest of the adults around them.
The most significant change in the teenage world is that the adults surrounding it expect teenagers to be bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, better rehearsed, and more trained than ever before.
Almost miraculously, teenagers are, for the most part, doing pretty well navigating this difficult, new world.
They’re getting most of their homework done, nailing auditions, and making football teams even though it’s literally harder to do those things than ever before.
And yes, I know it’s frustrating that youth ministry gets the short stick.
I know it’s frustrating that students seem to almost always choose school, then sports, then music and art, ahead of attending our Wednesday night program.
Yes, I wish they would learn to put their relationship with Jesus ahead of their obsession with being the first-chair trombone or the starting goalie or the Valedictorian.
And we’ll get to all that in a little bit, but first, let’s talk about sleep.
TEENAGERS DON’T SLEEP (NEARLY) ENOUGH
Physiologically, adolescents require a lot of sleep.
Depending on how hard puberty hits, it’s not uncommon for a 16-year-old to actually require more sleep than a pre-adolescent 12-year-old. Pubescent teenagers can need 8-10 hours of sleep a night.
They’re not getting it.
What do you suppose happens when teenagers are loaded with historic levels of stress and pressure, are chronically underslept, and turn to caffeine at younger and younger ages to deal with it?
Every expected outcome. Depression. Panic attacks. Anti-social behavior. Cutting. Suicide.
Today’s teenagers are more exhausted – physiologically, mentally, and emotionally – then any generation before them, and even though they’re trying their best, it’s taking a very real toll.
“MY YOKE IS EASY, AND MY BURDEN IS LIGHT.”
In the middle of all of this teenage stress and commitment is an unbelievable opportunity for youth ministry if we’ll just stop to realize that it’s there.
Every teacher wants teenagers to study more.
Every coach wants teenagers to practice more.
Every director want teenagers to rehearse more.
Every boss wants teenagers to work more.
And Jesus said this:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” -Matthew 11:28-30
Yes, we want our students to be more committed.
Yes, we want their attendance to be more steady.
Yes, we want them to sign up for retreats and missions trips and summer camps and service projects.
But if we look at this generation of teenagers – who are tired and broken and flat-out exhausted – and we don’t tell them that Jesus offers rest, we’ve failed to share the full story and especially the part of it that they so desperately need to hear.
While every other adult voice in a teenager’s life presses for more and more and more and more, the call of Jesus for the weary is to enter into the presence of Jesus and to rest.
It’s remarkable, really, but the kinds of activities that I hated doing as a teenager in youth group are actually the most popular among the teenagers I serve today.
My students would report that their favorite times are the silent, meditative moments we build into our services – not the up-tempo music that I loved when I was a teenager.
They love kneeling at the rail and whispering prayers and confessions to God.
My students want to sleep at overnighters and retreats.
My students aren’t clamoring for high-energy, hyper-programmed gatherings named after energy drinks.
More often than not, they’d rather recline into a comfortable chair with a cup of hot chocolate and talk about life and faith.
And at the end of the day, they are more content than I ever was as a teenager to merely dwell quietly in the presence of God, to experience a moment of stillness and piece, and to pray and breathe.
Now, more than ever, this generation needs the message of Matthew 11:28 to fall back on.
Everything else in the world is trying to wear them out, but the promise of Jesus is rest.
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Written by Aaron Helman. Aaron has been in youth ministry for over 15 years and is currently a youth pastor in South Bend, Indiana.