Lately I’ve been talking a lot about the epidemic of guilt in the Christian youth. In doing so, the question has risen, “Well, why don’t these struggling teens tell their parents or a pastor?” This is an excellent question. It’s one that I have posed, many times, to dozens of struggling teenagers who have reached out to me looking for help. Despite their drowning state, trapped in various stages of guilt, shame, and depression, the majority of them have never even brought up the topic with their elders. For many of them, I’m the first person they ever told about their struggles at all.
So the question is – why? Why are these teenagers more inclined to talk to a disabled twenty-something whom they (in some instances) barely know, over their own parents, pastors, or teachers? At first, I thought perhaps it was a similarity in age – I am, in general, only 5-7 years older than these kids, and while that might play a part in it, on further questioning, that does not seem to be the majority of the reason. So over the last year or so, I’ve started paying more attention to the reasonings of those who reach out to me. The answers they’ve provided when I asked them about why they’ve reached out to me, in particular, boils down to this:
“You told me I could.” It’s my general practice with younger Christians to tell them that if they ever need advice or assistance with anything or if they need to talk to someone, they can contact me anytime. I’ll always make time for them and to never worry about “bothering” me, because that’s why I’m here. God doesn’t put us in other Christians’ lives, particularly younger Christians, so we can just all “hang out” and cruise along, stuck in our own little bubbles and keeping our heads down to mind our own paths. The church isn’t meant to be individuals who are all just chilling in their separate little universes, never affecting the lives of those around us.
God says in Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12: Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. 10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. 11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
If God puts me in someone’s life, then it’s for a reason. I’m there to help that person, to mourn with them and celebrate with them, to help them when they’re struggling and lift them up when they fall. As Christians, it’s not enough to wander around with our eyes straight ahead, ignoring the struggles of those around us. We’re called to be servants unto others, to be the good Samaritan when we spot someone in trouble. If we’ve got our heads down, watching our own feet and nothing else, and happen to miss someone who is hurt and in need of help, then we miss valuable opportunities to fulfill the purpose God has left us on this earth.
So I tell them that. “If you ever need help, advice, or just to talk to someone about anything, message me. I’ll always make time for you and I’ll do my best to help you or get you in contact with someone who can. It’s not a bother and it’s what I’m here for. I’m glad to help.”
That’s it. I make it known that I’m willing to give help – pray with people when they need it, send Bible verses, or direct them to online sermons dealing with the things they’re struggling with. If someone contacts me with an issue, I don’t give it a half-hearted short reply – I research it, read my Bible to find passages that apply, google key phrases to find verses that fit with the issue and then read whole passages to locate what they need. If I’m not wise enough to deal with the issue or it’s something that needs more help than I’m able to provide, I then can encourage them to contact a pastor, tell their parents, and locate help in ways I’m not able to assist with.
And then I follow up. And follow up. And follow up. I make sure they’ve contacted their pastor. I make sure they’ve told their parents. I make sure they’re reading the passages I sent them. I encourage them to contact me again if anything else comes up or if they need additional things to read or listen to or just need to talk through it. If they need someone to talk to, to pray with, to just cry on – I’m here, and it’s not a bother or a difficulty.
It takes maybe an hour of my time. Follow-ups take maybe five minutes. It’s not a huge, time-consuming process. And I’m not doing anything special. I’m encouraging and uplifting fellow Christians – something the Bible says countless times that we’re meant to do. I’m not a ministry worker. I’m not a pastor or a counselor, and I don’t try to be. If something is above what I’m able to help, I’m not afraid to encourage them to seek help that I’m not able to provide. But just a few words like, “You can contact me if you need help or advice about anything,” can be the difference between someone hiding their struggles – until they either a) fall away from the church and Christ completely or b) resort to horrible things to get them through – OR them getting the help they need, being lifted back into the Hope of the Cross, and recovering.
A lot of these kids start out just needing someone to encourage them and point them to the passages in Scripture that will restore their troubled and confused hearts. It’s simple, little, easy things to address and can often be addressed by any mature Christian. At the beginning, it can be as simple as explaining a concept or showing them why they don’t have to drown in guilt, according to Scripture. It’d take an hour of someone’s time, and maybe fifteen minutes now and then on a Sunday morning to check in with them and make sure they’re not falling back into that and reminding them of Grace.
But without any help, they spiral down into the despair and anguish that I’m so accustomed to seeing in the Christian youth of our day and age. Depression is a huge and growing epidemic in the church. Christian Camps across the nation are employing guilt-tripping tactics to convert youth to Christ, leaving them in a vulnerable place in their new faith, and then give them no help in growing to understand guilt and shame are not the future that Christ wants for us. Our youth programs and messages directed at young Christians employ shame and guilt tactics to gain repentance, and then offer no help in moving beyond that guilt and shame once repentance has been accomplished.
Our youth are not secure in their faith. They’re not aware of the solidity of their salvation, and they struggle with self-hate and depression in the wake of their rebirth. The hope of Christ is lost on them. Instead, they’re so focused on “what they have to do” to live a godly life, and inevitably falling short since none of us can live up to those standards, that they quickly fall into despair at ever pleasing God. In some cases, it goes so far that they can no longer stand to read their Bibles or even pray because the shame and guilt has grown so far, unchecked by those around them, and indeed, encouraged by them in many instances.
So again, this raises the question of – why aren’t they telling their parents or pastors?
The first reason I hear most often is, “It would stress my parents out. I can’t upset them like that. It’s not fair to them.” I hear this all the time. Christian teenagers are terrified of upsetting their parents by getting help either from them or their pastors. On many occasions, they’ll explain that they’ve tried to bring the topic up before and their parents got so distressed over it that they quickly closed off and said nothing else. Despite the severity of a lot of these kids’ struggles, they’re more willing to suffer through it alone and silent than to risk making their parents upset or sad. It’s as if they view their parents as weaker and more fragile than they are. A lot of these kids feel a strong burden to protect their parents from the realities of life. “They’re stressed about their job, they’ve got all these things going on, they have to help my siblings with XYZ, they’re too busy and I don’t want to take up more of their time” etc. I’ve heard it all. The distress that often rises when I bring up the topic of telling their parents – distress caused by their parents’ already full plate of daily stresses – is quite worrisome.
The second is the idea that if they’re struggling, something is wrong with them. If they’re sad, if they’re hurting, if they’re confused or guilty or struggling with shame, then that must mean that they’re crazy or ungodly or that something is severely wrong with them. The idea that struggles are normal, that tripping over our own feet as Christians isn’t unusual at all, that we all fall down and mess up and struggle with different things – it’s all foreign to them. The number of times I’ve heard “I must be crazy” from very-normal Christian kids who are just struggling with very-normal things is outrageous. The idea that struggling with sin, guilt, and spiritual confusion after salvation is totally normal is lost on them. In their minds, the mere hint of struggle means that something is severely wrong with them, and in turn, they call their entire salvation or their sanity into question.
“What if I’m not saved?” “I still struggle with sin, so that must mean I’m not doing it right.” “Something is wrong with me, because I’m still tempted by sin and struggling with guilt – so does that mean I was never actually saved?”
Or, “I’m so sad all the time and I don’t actually have anything real to be sad over, so does that make me crazy?” “I can’t seem to handle the things everyone else is handling just fine, so maybe something is mentally wrong with me. Maybe I’m insane, because this isn’t normal.”
So, in turn, getting help from a pastor, parent, or elder is a confirmation of something being wrong with them. Instead of the act of asking for guidance or counseling from someone wiser being a normal and good thing – something every Christian should do in the course of their faith – it’s instead seen as a sign of their failure. Needing counseling or help is, in their minds, the equivalent of being inadequate and weak. If they need help, then they must have failed. Something must be wrong with them. Maybe they’re not even saved at all, if they’re still struggling like this and need help.
Our youth aren’t encouraged to seek out biblical guidance outside of sermons and youth groups. There’s no one-on-one guidance available to them, without it becoming a huge deal for everyone who is involved, making it seem like it’s an unusual and gigantic problem. A teen who is just starting to have problems, when it is small and easily taken care of, isn’t going to tell their parents they need to see the pastor. Why? Because they’d have to have them arrange a day that it can be handled around both their parent’s and pastor’s hectic schedules. Then have them drive them to the church or their pastor’s house (after shuffling around babysitting for their who-knows-how-many baby siblings). And then have their parents wait an hour (out of their parents’ already super busy day) for them to talk the issue out with their pastor.
I can tell you right now that it’s not going to happen. The idea of asking for that kind of “special treatment” (a phrase used by many young people when I suggest it to them) to deal with a so-far small problem is horrifying to them. “How can I ask my parents to take that kind of time out of their day or go through all that trouble for me? I can’t ask for special treatment like that! Everyone else seems to be fine, so I need to just get over it on my own. I’ll be fine – I’ll just suck it up and deal with it.”
Except that they can’t deal with it. They’re babies in their salvation – essentially toddlers trying to teach themselves advanced mathematics, with no one-on-one teaching available. The Bible is a giant textbook and it all sounds equally condemning to a young person already struggling to understand the concepts of Grace and Hope. God’s fire, wrath, and high-standards grow ever more daunting, and their faith in their abilities to achieve the level of spirituality they believe is “normal for everyone else” plummets the more they look, oftentimes.
They need guidance, but blowing a young person’s problems up into something big, when they’re already likely very self-conscious and afraid of it as it is, is a fast way to shut them down from asking for help. If getting help is complicated, they aren’t going to ask for it. Even if their parents are 100% willing and on board and happy to take them, it’s going to be a struggle for the teen to go without feeling like it’s special treatment and feeling guilty about the time everyone is “sacrificing” for them. And if the parents are even 1% disgruntled, because that kid has this and the other kid has that and they need to make supper and get groceries and pay bills and blah-blah-blah (thereby making the teen feel like this is a huge inconvenience for everyone involved and, therefore, selfish of them), then the chances of it happening (or repeating if it even happens once) plummets into the negative zeros.
The sad truth of the matter is that asking for help and actually getting it are often framed in such a way as to make it seem like it’s selfish of our youth to ask. Even if no one is actually viewing it that way, it’s easily portrayed in that manner to someone who is already struggling with self-doubt and security issues. And the bigger it gets blown up, the more they’re going to resist getting help.
So even if there is help available, it will seem out of reach. Most teens can’t drive themselves, and even when they can, they usually don’t have a car. Finding a good time to take them to talk to the pastor is tricky at best, and even the most caring parents can get stressed and disgruntled when trying to find the time. So even if their parents don’t get upset about them wanting/needing to go speak with the pastor, inconvenience will often raise its ugly head.
“It’s not convenient for my parents to have to take me. It’s not fair to them. They’re busy and we don’t have time for this. Why can’t I just do it myself? Why am I struggling with this when no one else is? What’s wrong with me?”
So the answer to the question “why don’t kids tell their parents and pastors when they’re struggling?” boils down to these things:
1. It seems selfish to ask for help when it takes so much to get help and inconveniences everyone else (“who are probably already stressed anyway”)
2. Getting help when it’s something small and can be taken care of easily seems impossible with help so far out of reach, so they wait until it’s a gigantic problem that will take years to overcome and correct
3. Often when they ask to speak to a pastor or someone who can help them, nothing ever comes of it, because of busy schedules and difficulties planning a good time (so it just gets swept under the rug and forgotten, discouraging them further)
4. They think needing help means something is wrong with them because getting help is made out to be such a big deal (even if it’s not meant to be)
5. There are basically zero easy ways for youth to reach out and find spiritual guidance one-on-one, and almost no one is offering it.
And, to top it all off, even if they could get up the courage to ask for help, a lot of times there is no one they’d trust or could even think of to ask. Especially if they’re from a home where their parents aren’t very good/have issues and no one has ever offered to let them contact them, they may not have anyone to contact or ask, even if they’re in a church.
There is no consistency. A single time talking to a pastor isn’t going to help someone in the long run. One good talk with an older, wiser person in the church won’t magically correct what they’re struggling with. They need consistent, daily support and people who are invested in their lives and striving to lift them up, help them along when they fall, and show them the grace and hope of the Lord in their lives. And they’re not getting it in an hour-long message at church on Sunday (where they talk about how bad XYZ is. Where the pastor gives a giant list of traits Christians need to constantly portray and prey on their already unsure minds, leaving them to doubt their salvation more and more and build up guilt and fear until it’s all-consuming). They’re not getting it in the half hour youth service on Wednesdays and the hour of games afterwards (where they talk about topics that they need to hear, yet are too shallowly gone into to do them any good). And they’re not getting it at home, where often the only spiritual guidance they’re given is a list of “do”s and “don’t”s that make them feel continually more ashamed and less confident in their own salvation.
The church was never mean to run with a single pastor carrying all of the weight and struggles of their congregation. As Christians, we’re meant to lift one another up, help each other, offer help and encouragement and spiritual guidance when it is needed. But more often than not, we’re too busy in our own lives, caught up in our own problems, and living in our own little universes. We say, “There’s pastors for that.” “There’s counselors for that.” “There’s people more qualified for that.” “It’s not my job.”
Well, I hate to break it to you, but it is your job. God didn’t call us to his church body for us to ignore all the other struggling Christians around us and do nothing. Oftentimes, we’re so busy focusing on how we’re interacting with the unbelievers, how we’re witnessing to them, how we’re helping the hungry etc etc (which are all good things, and I’m not saying otherwise), that we forget to pay attention to how we’re interacting with our church, our families and our friends, how we’re witnessing and uplifting each other, and how the younger and more vulnerable Christians around us are doing.
We need to stop converting people and then saying that’s good enough. We need to stop sitting in our own little bubbles, tending only to our own little lives, and ignoring our younger brothers and sisters while they drown around us. I don’t know how many times people have told me, “I’m not cut out for ministry because I don’t feel like I can walk up to strangers and witness to them.” But they’re ignoring that ministry doesn’t end there. You don’t have to be talking to strangers on the street to be doing the work of God – you can be uplifting the people you already know, checking in with them and finding out what they’re struggling with and offering to pray for them, with them, or just talk about it so they know they’re not alone.
We don’t stop needing help when we get saved. God told us to form the church for a reason. And it’s not so we can sit in a bench for an hour on Sunday and then never interact with any other Christians outside of that. Let’s stop saying, “It’s not my job – that’s something the pastor should do.” And let’s start finding ways to get people guidance and help in ways that won’t blow it so far out of proportions that they feel like something is the matter with them.
Let’s normalize spiritual guidance. Let’s normalize counseling. Let’s normalize talking to one another about what we’re struggling with, so our young people – or our people in general – stop feeling so alone and cut off. Because we need to stop making people feel like getting help, encouragement, assistance, or guidance for very normal, very common struggles means that something is more wrong with them than the rest of us. Because it’s not true, and it’s making people fall away from the church, fall away from God, and collapse into self-hate/self-doubt, and become lost.
People want to know why more and more young people who are growing up in Christian churches leave the church after they become adults. Well, I’d dare to say that the lack of real one-on-one guidance and help is one of the main reasons. It doesn’t take a pastor to ask someone, “Have you been doing alright lately? I know I’ve been struggling with XYZ and talking to other Christians really helps. If ever you need someone to talk to, please feel free to contact me. Maybe we can figure things out together.” It doesn’t take a counselor to look around a room and see someone who you feel like you’d get along well with (or someone you already DO get along well with) and seek that person out to let them know you’re there for them if they ever need to talk.
I’m not saying we all need to be in everyone’s lives and doing so much that we wear ourselves out trying to help five million people. But if we all had a few people that knew they could rely on us if they needed something, that we checked in with and made sure they knew we were there for them if they need to talk, then I don’t think the epidemic of guilt, shame, and confusion we’re facing in our young people – and, really, in Christians in general – would be so bad.
We need to stop being apathetic pew warmers and start being workers of Christ, and it starts with the people who He has already put into your life. You don’t need to go out on the streets and hunt down people – just look around church the next time you’re there, or around your family, or your bible study, or your office building, or your “meets in the park to play games” group. Look at your friend group, look at your family, look at the people who already are in your lives, and take time to make sure they know they can talk to you about things, that you’ll make time and that you want to help them if ever they need it, about anything, big or small. Let them know you’re here to chat if they need it, or pray with them, or search Scripture together with them.
God put these people in our lives for a reason. I just think maybe it’s time we start acting like it.