Overwhelmed by their feelings, Christian teens today are losing track of their identity in Christ. We can help them overcome their feelings with the facts of faith.
Layla sat on the floor sobbing with a pill bottle next to her. She thought no one noticed her at school or at home. What did it matter if she were gone? Layla felt so unloved.
Andre lay on his bed, staring blankly at the blue haze of his phone in the dark. He was motionless except for one finger flicking up and down as he scrolled through TikTok videos to distract himself from remembering that he got cut from the team. Andre felt so worthless.
Tori stared blankly into her bathroom mirror at her puffy eyes and mascara-stained cheeks. What was wrong with her? Despite acting and dressing like others and trying so hard to create the perfect persona online, Tori felt so alone.
Layla, Andre, and Tori couldn’t put it to words, but all three felt a gnawing question down deep in their core—“Who am I?”
What’s going on here?
As the campus pastor at one of our Lutheran high schools, I often get asked, “What’s the deal with teens today?” Many things contribute to teen problems. Broken families and absent parents? Too many! School, academic, and extracurricular
pressures? More than adults could fathom these days! Peer pressure? Infinitely worse than ever before due to technology! Tough temptations? More sin grabs their attention faster than you can say Snapchat.
But while these things are all major problems today, I don’t personally believe any of them are the issue for Christian teens. Over years of ministry to family, children, and teens, I have concluded that the biggest problem for teens today is an identity crisis.
Christian teens today are losing track of their identity in Christ. How does this happen? I see teens experiencing so many problems and pains, and they become overwhelmed with feelings: “I feel so guilty . . . unloved . . . worthless . . . anxious . . . alone.” Quickly those feelings become a new identity to teens: “I am unloved . . . worthless . . . alone.”
The problem is that these feelings are clouding the facts about who they really are.
Who am I?
All Christians, including teens, need to be reminded constantly of their identity.
The first truth of my real identity is that I am a sinner. I am in fact guilty. I have sinned. I should be considered worthless. I am broken. I have ruined my relationship with God and with other people. I, and all others, have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
But the glorious truth of God’s grace is that I am also a saint. I have been declared innocent (justified) through the life and death of Jesus Christ. His life and righteousness cover all my sins and faults. His blood paid for my sin. His death took my place. His resurrection proves that I will have a resurrection to life in heaven—a new life without the worthless, anxious, and unloved thoughts.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest fact of all time. It proves who he is and what he has done. Moreover, Jesus’ resurrection is the fact on which I can build my new identity. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
Applying our new identity
When it comes to teens, I have found that sharing their identity in Christ has been a great blessing. How can we do that with our teens? We can help them overcome their feelings with the facts of Christian faith.
- A teen may have fallen deep into sin and say, “I feel so guilty!” Yet we can say, “But the fact is that you are innocent in God’s sight through Christ.”
- Another teen might have a broken family, a negligent parent, and friendship problems. They say, “I feel so unloved.” What a comfort to share, “The fact is that you are loved in Christ.”
- Still another might be overwhelmed with the pressures of school and life and say, “I feel so anxious and alone.” We can say, “The fact is that you have the peace of God that transcends all understanding in Christ and he promises to never leave you or forsake you.”*
In the end, we can’t repair a teen’s broken family or take away the pressures of the ACT or realistically remove technology and social media from their lives. All those problems are here to stay for now. However, we can teach teens to better understand their identity in Christ. We can teach teens to look in the mirror with burdened hearts and tear-stained cheeks and still smile. Such a smile comes from a joy that only the Lord can give. Such joy comes when all of God’s people—teens included—understand that they can make it through the struggles of life because in Jesus Christ they are forgiven, loved, priceless, and at peace—and those are facts!
Teaching teens today
What blessings we have in our synod through a network of believers walking together, including resources for churches and schools to use in their ministries to teens. These resources continue to evolve to better teach and reach teens of today. Here are a few brief suggestions that I think could improve ministry to teens.
Rethinking the home. Many teens today are not getting the Christian love and support that God originally designed. We need to continue to provide care and resources for every home structure so we can support those who raise teens.
Churches can emphasize Bible studies, seminars, programs, and more about marriage, parenting, disciplining children, home devotional lives, and family worship at home and at church. The statistics about children who grow up in homes that have devotions and regularly attend worship—especially with fathers present and leading—overwhelmingly show that they are far more likely to remain in the faith. The more we can strengthen families, the more prepared they will be to help their teens know and live their identity in Christ.
Rethinking catechism. Luther’s Catechism and our synod’s many resources to accompany it are blessings. We can continue to improve how we teach it, though. How can we employ parents in the process more? Can we think how to get away from memory work and fact learning and into real-life application?
Sadly, most of the “real world” problems and sins are already in teen lives long before they are in high school. Internet, social media, phones, and more have exposed kids earlier than ever to the “real world.” What is more, the other challenges and pressures of high school quickly overwhelm teens.
Perhaps we can apply catechism truths to practical discussions about how to use phones and social media. Perhaps we can consider supplementing catechism teaching with ways teens can defend their faith.
Here’s a crazy idea: Should we confirm and commune students earlier, like after fifth or sixth grade? Many Christians, including Martin Luther, have communed children much younger than our typical eighth grade. What if students had two to three years of sacramental life under careful tutelage of parents, pastors, and teachers leading up to high school? What if seventh and eighth grade were more about practical life discussions and applications of God’s Word and their Christian identity? What if part of eighth grade was a series of service projects that let teens put their Christian identity into practice, such as volunteering in church, canvassing, helping the homeless, or going on a mission trip?
Rethinking teen groups. When I was younger, teen group meant lock-ins, pizza parties, and fun outings with a few devotions interspersed. Teens today prefer things that are more meaningful and practical.
For example, my wife and I host a Bible study at our house every week. It’s a relaxed environment where we read some Scripture, talk about what it means, and then just talk about life. Teens love it. They rarely talk with people face-to-face and even more rarely talk heart-to-heart. These opportunities to open up, share feelings, and talk about Christ have been life-changing for many. If we give our teens more opportunities to build real and meaningful relationships with other Christians, young or old, it will go a long way to helping them remain strong in their Christian identity.
Life is difficult, the world is scary, and Satan is fiercely prowling. But we can help to support teens now and prepare them for the future when we help them to know who they are in Christ.
Not only do teens want practical things for themselves, but they also want to make an impact on others. I’ve gone on mission trips with teens all over the world. I’ve seen them serving food to the homeless, canvassing door-to-door, leading vacation Bible school, and more. I also work with students who volunteer in and around our high school. In every situation the repeated refrain is that students find joy in doing something that is meaningful and makes a difference.
These simple ideas, along with many more, are all part of a bigger emphasis in discipleship among teens. Life is difficult, the world is scary, and Satan is fiercely prowling. But we can help to support teens now and prepare them for the future when we help them to know who they are in Christ.
What joy and what comfort for teens and all Christians that Christ lives in us, with us, and through us every day!
*These are brief examples that summarize fuller conversations.
Read more about teens finding their identity in Christ in Dr. Huebner’s book, Who Am I? Understanding Your Identity in Christ through Facts not Feelings.
Author: Philip J. Huebner
Volume 109, Number 02
Issue: February 2022