As our students head back to school this fall, they want to make up for lost time.
Some will take their first steps into a school building in 18 months. Some will meet classmates they’ve only ever known through screens. Even for those who went in person some or all of last year, school hasn’t been the same.
Now, in the wake of all that wasn’t, our students will be trying to make up for what they lost: sports seasons, theater performances, dances, crushes, and even the monotony of a “normal” school day.
They so want to get back to normal. Just to be teenagers again.
But in our ministries, as much as we’re also dying to get back to normal, maybe “normal” isn’t what we should be aiming for. Maybe what we need—and what students need—is beyond “back to normal.”
If the old normal was overloading students with programs and expectations, maybe our new normal can be more focused on things that really matter—like relationships with adults who care enough to make it personal for every teenager.
If the old normal was barely scratching the surface of students’ toughest questions—or missing them altogether—maybe our new normal can drill down deep into what teenagers are really asking.
Every teenager is a walking bundle of questions
For students you know, the questions driving them today may be about friends, race, money, grades, abuse, justice, sports, or mental health.
Sometimes their questions leak out and are muttered aloud. More commonly, they stay bottled inside a teenager’s curious mind and conflicted soul.
Our team at the Fuller Youth Institute loves listening to teenagers’ tough questions, as well as the (equally tough) questions about teenagers asked by leaders like you. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been conducting surveys and focus groups with over 2,200 teenagers, as well as in-depth multi-session interviews with 27 diverse youth group high school students nationwide.
Out of this research, we’ve written our newest book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, for adults like you who care about teenagers and want to disciple them well.
We also joined up with the Orange Students team to create the Big Questions series available through XP3 curriculum for partners this fall!
Among the questions tumbling through any teenager’s mind at any time, three float to the top:
Who am I?
The first big question is one of identity, our view of ourselves. All too often teenagers find that being “themselves” feels inches—or sometimes miles—beyond reach. In part, this is because being yourself is too low of a bar. They want to be their “best selves.”
But a teenager’s self (best or otherwise) is actually a mixture of several selves. They’re constantly shuffling through identities—trying to figure out which self to play at that moment. Who they are in the neighborhood or at home is different from who they are at school or work. All those are different from who they are at church.
“Being yourself” is also tricky because young people feel the pressure of expectations swirling around them from everyone in their lives—including us!
Where do I fit?
The big question of belonging is all about connection. We say we “belong” when we’re with those who really know, understand, and accept us for who we are. And while we have friends, followers, and fans on social media, these connections may just elevate who isn’t following us or where we don’t belong.
We all know teenagers who want to belong so badly that they go to great lengths—even hiding or changing parts of themselves—to feel it. That’s why safety bubbled to the top in our interviews as the most important condition for belonging: “I fit where I feel safe to be me.” Teenagers feel belonging when they’re with people who accept them without judgment. Where they’re included, and they don’t have to be fake.
What difference can I make?
The third big question is about purpose, our contribution to the world.
Purpose can take a lifetime to figure out, but the search really takes off in the teen years. The students in our research felt a universal impulse to help others. Every single teenager we met with talked about “helping” at least once during our three interviews with them.
Purpose is also a pipeline for pressure. Especially for Christian teenagers who want to discover God’s plan for their future. Sometimes when we talk about God’s plan, will, or vision for students, it just sounds like another puzzle to solve. And they’re afraid of getting it wrong and disappointing everyone—including God.
How your new normal can support students’ search for answers
What if a “new normal” in our conversations with students meant tapping into these 3 big questions more? What if our time with teenagers could be more focused on what matters most to them?
Here are three steps you can take in your next conversation with a student:
First, listen for what is going on NOW in students’ identity, belonging, and purpose.
Sometimes the “now” is right on the surface: a friend group falls apart, college apps are almost due, she gets cut from the team, he discovers a love for music. When we’re present in these moments, we hear a teenager processing one or more of the big questions out loud.
Other times the answer is less obvious. We may get the put-together version of the story or the closed-door answers of “fine” or “good.” As we ask more questions and do more exploring, we can listen for the answers below the water—sometimes way below.
Next, we practice wondering and discernment. This puts us in a posture to look for how GOD is present with students and then explore better answers.
In this part of the conversation, we gain perspective in order to talk about the “now” concerns in light of God’s nature, promises, presence, and action. We wonder out loud how God’s Spirit is already in the situation and invite the student to see it. We can ask:
I wonder what God is up to here?
I wonder if you’ve sensed God’s Spirit with you in this?
How can I help you pray about this?
Together, explore Christ-centered answers that can free a young person to live out of a truer sense of identity, belonging, and purpose.
The HOW part of the conversation helps a teenager take a next step toward living out better answers. But be careful not to jump into this mode too soon. We become a trusted guide only after we’ve listened well. At that point, we can practice truth-telling, leading the student into more faithful discipleship.
We hope this NOW-GOD-HOW conversation framework will help your conversations focus on what really matters to students in your care. We wrote more about this, plus over 300 other questions you can ask students this year, in 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.
As this new school and ministry year gets underway, we believe in you. You can be that adult who meets students in the midst of their biggest questions and walks with them toward God’s best answers.
Preorder your copy of 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager before AUGUST 3 and get 3 amazing books for the price of 1—plus an exclusive digital workshop from Kara Powell and Brad Griffin!