Academic pressure, strict activity schedules and the constant noise on social media can be stressful for young people. And schools closing for the COVID-19 outbreak increased the everyday anxiety many teens already feel.
“It’s all I was hearing about,” said Sam Sligar, a licensed marriage and family therapist with offices at Christ the King and St. John Lutheran churches in the Atlanta area. “Anxiety about this is tremendous.”
Youth weren’t worried only about parents and grandparents getting the virus, he said, but about shuttered schools, online learning, social distancing and abandoned routines.
“I was hearing more about the interruption of their life at school,” Sligar added. He said a high school senior who had worked hard to graduate shared his disappointment that family wouldn’t see him walk in the graduation ceremony. Others worried about keeping up with online learning and not being able to see friends or do sports and activities.
“We heard we’d have two weeks off following spring break, then I went home and was told, ‘You can’t come back at all.’”
“It derailed my education,” said Hannah Hurst, a member of First Lutheran Church, Torrance, Calif. A junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, she traveled home after the campus closed because of the coronavirus, only to learn later that she couldn’t return because school was out for the rest of the semester. “I respect that my school was making choices based on keeping the students, community and faculty safe, but … we heard we’d have two weeks off following spring break, then I went home and was told, ‘You can’t come back at all.’”
Sligar said students have also been disappointed that their social lives have abruptly stopped. “They couldn’t go to church, get together in groups or go to Starbucks. That was really hurting them.”
But long before the school closings, youth struggled with anxiety over peer pressure, social media and 24/7 technology. Their world is vastly different from the one in which most adult Lutherans grew up, and many congregations feel called to help them cope with these contemporary issues.
Grounded in Christian identity
“Youth are anxious today, but social media makes it worse,” said Rob Myallis, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Lititz, Pa. “Kids not only have to find their identity and their ‘thing,’ but look good doing it on social media too.
“Our role is to ground young people more deeply in baptism, to let them know that, whatever they do, wherever they’ve been, they’re children of God.”
What works at St. Paul, he said, is involving young people in worship, community ministry and daily church life rather than focusing solely on attendance at youth group meetings. “We can’t compete in the economy of things,” he said. “The church will never be that exciting.”
St. Paul has been successful, he said, in inviting young people to do church alongside the congregation, as greeters on Sunday, for example. “Christian identity and baptism are really important,” he added. “I also believe that we need to teach contemplative prayer practices. Everyone has images of yoga and other contemplative practices as being just Eastern, but Christians have been praying for years in ways to listen and reduce their anxiety.”
“There’s no silver bullet,” he said, admitting that St. Paul is still figuring out new ways to engage youth. “It’s teaching young people the basics of the faith with prayer practices and their baptism.”
“I tell [students] that everyone puts their best self on social media, [that] if someone is putting [out] something that’s not loving, or positive or good, to ignore it.”
Myallis added that he often preaches about anxiety, depression and mental health issues to help reduce their stigma.
Susan Rutledge, director of youth ministry at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rocky Point, N.Y., said her active senior youth group often discusses social media issues. “Our kids know there’s so much information on social media, and it’s easy not to know what to filter out. I tell them that everyone puts their best self on social media, [that] if someone is putting [out] something that’s not loving, or positive or good, to ignore it. We try to focus on things that help them understand what underlying issues cause bad behavior.”
Trinity’s youth group also does role-play activities to address bullying, drinking and other issues.
Hannah Blackmore, youth and family ministry associate for First, runs the congregation’s God, Light Our World (GLOW) youth group. She finds communicating with her students and parents by text, phone and the Zoom video app to be helpful.
The COVID-19 outbreak was especially upsetting to the group, she said, adding, “If their entire schedule was taken away from them, it was a shock. They didn’t know what to do.” Being out of school made her students feel ungrounded.
“I’m addressing it as best as I can. I had the option to send out videos and keep the youth group going digitally, but what I’m sensing is that they need to talk. They need me to reach out, to text,” she said. “At this time, we need to lean in to relationships and focus on the individuals in our ministry.”
Myallis agreed: “I believe the way forward is less focus on programming and more focus on intergenerational relationships, stories from the Bible and what the church has to offer.”