I had the privilege of teaching at a retreat in Virginia this past weekend to about 500 high school students. It was an amazing weekend and through a bunch of conversations with students and leaders, it was clear God did some really powerful things.
Based on many of those conversations, I learned that the most significant factor in how God impacted people through my teaching was two personal stories I told about people in my life. One story involved attempted suicide. One story involved abortion. The focus of the stories wasn’t on these issues but more about the power of God’s love and grace to redeem them for something good.
After seeing and hearing the many students who responded with courage and humility to dig up some of their own junk to surrender to God and talk about with their leaders and small groups, I was reminded of something I’ve always believed very strongly in:
STUDENT MINISTRIES NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE AWKWARD.
When it comes to awkward and heavy topics like suicide, pornography, addiction, abortion, cutting, drugs, eating disorders, alcohol, homosexuality, abuse, sexual intercourse, oral sex, and everything else in between, student ministries need to be a place where it’s not only safe to talk about, but a place that readily and regularly brings them up. Obviously this is important to teach Biblical truth and wisdom about them, but also (and maybe more importantly) to make it a place of safety for students to engage in asking questions and having conversations about them. After all, students are hearing various perspectives of these subjects in their daily lives from school, friends, media, family, and pop-culture, why wouldn’t church be a place that talks about it just as much, if not more?
So, if you work in student ministries, never shy away from talking about the awkward. In fact, I’d say pursue these subjects with a great deal of intentionality! Use wisdom and discernment about when, where, and how they are discussed, but don’t use the potential awkwardness or heaviness of a topic as an excuse to avoid it.
And if you’re a student, be an ambassador in your ministry to help make it a place where you and your peers can discuss heavy topics without fear of judgement or being shut down. Talk to your small group leader and/or youth pastor and tell them you’d like to do a teaching series or workshop or something about an issue that your heart is passionate about. It could be anything such as struggling with thoughts of suicide, porography addiction, sexual activity in dating relationships, or anything else you’d like. And if they tell you that they aren’t the kind of student ministry that talks about that kind of stuff, find a new one to be a part of! Any student ministry that is avoiding the awkward, heavy topics is one that is avoiding something profoundly necessary to talk about in the lives of students. So find one that does.
And finally, if you’re a student and deal with any of the issues mentioned above (or one that I missed), my best advice to you would be to TALK ABOUT IT! Talk about it with someone! Find someone, a parent, your leader, your small group, your pastor, a teacher, someone in your life who loves you and loves Jesus that can listen and then speak truth and grace to you about whatever you’re going through. And not just someone who will tell you what you want to hear, but someone who is going to push you to take the bold steps to seek healing.
I look forward to the day when students can bring up something like self-harm or sexuality in church, knowing that they will be received with love, grace, and hope. And even further, they would find a place that desires the best for them and engages with them about their struggle with a heart for healing and freedom!