This article was written for Youthworks by Tom Elms, the Youth and Young Adults Pastor at Church@thePeak and a Youthworks College graduate.
One of the deep joys of my job as a youth and young adult’s minister is walking alongside young people in their faith. Sharing in the excitement of the big steps taken, the light bulb moments as people understand the gospel for the first time.
Walking alongside people means that you are there for the great peaks, but you are also there for the valleys. Often as I have sat beside youth I have been able to provide comfort through the Bible and prayer, looking to the hope we have in Jesus and using the wisdom we find in scripture to plan a way forward.
The thing is, I am finding more and more that I do not have the words to say. That in the face of much suffering the traditional comforts not only seem to fall short, but are even inappropriate. Youth are facing anxiety and depression in huge numbers. With treatment some recover, but many suffer long-term and struggle to make sense of what is happening in the context of their faith.
One small way youth leaders can approach this issue is to use Scripture. Use Scripture that connects directly with human experience of suffering, of anxiety, of hopelessness: psalms of lament.
The Bible understands that life is hard
The beauty of God’s word is that it provides us with examples of authentic expressions of faith and this includes negative emotion. The psalms of lament, a dominant genre within the Psalter, express emotions in worship of God that depict the very emotions that question his presence. They are texts which make us uncomfortable. Some fail to regain a sense of joy ending simply in the darkness of their suffering (eg Psalm 88).
We might avoid these texts in youth ministry because they are uncomfortable and almost seem to stand in contention with what we are about as joyful followers of Jesus. The psalmist, however, is not expressing a lack of faith but demonstrating a reliance on God who can save. In their darkest moments they are turning to God and expressing exactly how they feel, as they fall to their knees in hopelessness before their Father in heaven. Don’t underestimate the power of Scripture that expresses authentic emotions that are similar to what people are experiencing.
As I sit beside teens in the depth of uncontrollable sorrow, I have realised that often they do not want me to solve their problems for them, they want to know that what they are feeling is real and isn’t a result of a lack of faith. These psalms provide me with Scripture that demonstrates this. Words I can read with them, pray with them, sing with them, that don’t call on them to forget these feelings or ignore them but to engage with them and take them to the Father.
We need to be real with our youth
In the landscape of youth ministry today, we need to accept that issues like depression or anxiety are a reality that we cannot solve just by preaching assurance and singing praise. When we do this, we communicate that these issues are short-term and solved with enough faith and prayer. Although these elements are integral to the Christian life, they are not remedies in themselves. While some find a freedom from their emotional struggles through this, others simply need help to endure. In order to support them well, we need to pray and to engage with the word of God in a way that affirms these feelings as a true experience of God’s people. We need to be authentic and we need to be real. If we are not, then young people may simply walk away from us as leaders who have failed to engage with the reality of their lives.
The throw-away line, “It’s going to get better” can be enormously damaging. Often, we simply do not know that this is going to be the case, and if we are wrong then we risk doing real damage to our pastoral relationship with them. Youth may even question why they should sit under your teaching when you provide them with false hope. Be real, don’t make promises you can’t keep. Instead validate how they feel through the real experiences of God’s people. Sitting and reading a psalm (such as Psalm 88 or Psalm 142) together allows the young person to experience Scripture that echoes how they feel and engages with their situation.
There is hope
Of course, there is hope for people who are suffering and a number of these Psalms (such as Psalm 13) reflect this confidence in the God who is listening. But our hope can only be truly and fully found in the final restoration of humanity at the return of Jesus; when suffering, pain and anxiety are dealt with once and for all. Jesus is who we can look to with our precious youth who face deep pain in the face of long-term mental health struggles. This hope is complete and perfect yet it will feel distant. In the meantime, we can walk alongside them in faithful endurance. We can engage with the reality of their experience and provide them with the authentic words of Scripture that demonstrate that they stand in solidarity with many who suffered in the Bible.
It is a privilege and an honour to shepherd God’s people. Let’s make sure we are authentic in how we engage with them and all the messiness of their walk of faith.
Barker, K and Harper, G 2017, Finding Lost Words: The Church’s Right to Lament, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR.
Old News Podcast 2019, Psalms of Lament (feat. Kit Barker) [Podcast], 24 March. Available at https://soundcloud.com/oldnewsbible/11-psalms-of-lament-feat-dr
Elms, T 2018, Anxiety and Depression (Psalm 88 & Revelation 21:1-4) [Sermon], 11 November. Available at https://www.churchatthepeak.org.au/gospel-and-culture.html