By Helen Gibson
It’s likely many of the students sitting in your church pews are already dreaming about their futures—and for many of them, their biggest aspirations revolve around finding a career they enjoy and helping others in need.
This is according to recent data from the Pew Research Center, which found that 95% of teenagers say having a job or career they enjoy would be very important to them, personally, as an adult. This includes 97% of teen girls and 93% of teen boys.
Likewise, 81% of teenagers (including 84% of girls and 78% of boys) say helping other people in need would be very important to them as an adult, according to Pew.
Both of these goals ranked significantly below other common goals of teens, including having a lot of money (51%), getting married (47%), having children (39%), or becoming famous (11%).
In light of these aspirations, how can your church better understand, reach, and encourage the teenagers in your congregation? Nashville-based youth pastor Josh Hussung and Lifeway specialists Josh Straub and Mary Margaret West offer some suggestions.
Start by understanding the trends
Hussung, a youth pastor at Grace Community Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, isn’t surprised by these trends. In fact, he suggests these statistics actually point to a core value held by many in the next generation.
“Outside of the Christian world, the value of the culture is [to] make a difference,” Hussung says, “And whether it’s environmentalism or social justice or things like that, you see students really jump on board with causes.”
Today’s teenagers have also, in many cases, watched those in older generations spend years in jobs they disliked, Hussung says. This, too, could be a motivator.
“It may be that seeing a previous generation keep their heads down and be at a desk job that they kind of secretly hate so they can take a good vacation is something that students maybe don’t like,” Hussung says.
Lifeway Girls Ministry Specialist Mary Margaret West points to the impact of social media and the way it presents students with potential careers and opportunities, no matter how far-fetched, that they never would’ve seen before.
“Right now, I’m just so fascinated by all these Instagram influencers and social media influencers who are just sort of pioneering their own thing and just living their best life on Instagram,” West says with a bit of a laugh. “It’s not the typical [9-to-5]; there are so many things out there now that are not the typical 9-to-5 job.”
West suggests that teenagers’ desire to have a career they enjoy and to make a difference could point to a deeper desire. Teens today want to have a way to identify themselves in an image-based, social media culture, she says.
“They want to say, ‘This is my job, and this is who I am,’ in the same way,” West says. “They’re used to tagging things, like literally putting an identifier on everything.”
And for many of them, the ultimate goal is happiness, she adds.
“There’s this idea of creating this life for themselves that will bring happiness in the end,” West says. “[It] is where their brains are pulling from.”
Joshua Straub, Lifeway’s marriage and family strategist, expresses similar sentiments. In light of these trends, he points to an opportunity for the church to intervene.
“It speaks to the next generation’s desire to live for something bigger than themselves, and as churches, we have the answer to what’s bigger than ourselves, which is loving God and loving others,” Straub says.
How your church can reach today’s teenagers
In light of the most common aspirations of today’s teenagers, Hussung, Straub, and West each gave suggestions for how churches might better connect with and encourage their students.
Hussung points to missions. Mission trips and experiences serve as a way to connect students who want to make a difference with the truth of the gospel, he says, and they act as a way to break up the normal Sunday-to-Wednesday learning activity of a church with impactful, real-world experiences.
“It’s like, now that we’ve studied about this, we’re actually going to go out and do what we say we believe,” Hussung says. “Missions, whether they’re local or far away, kind of help [students] to buy into the bigger picture of the Christian faith.”
West agrees that today’s teenagers are likely to be inspired by missional experiences.
“This next generation, in that serving idea, in being missional, they’re finding creative ways to do things in the way that they’re wired,” West says. “What generations before them have seen as obstacles, they see as opportunities.”
Regarding teenagers’ desire to have a job or career they enjoy, Straub says parents and adults should help students discover who God has created them to be.
“Solomon wrote that we’re to raise children in the way they should go, and the thing there is to raise children in the way they should go, not the way we want them to go,” Straub says.
By this, Straub says he means that parents should “become students of their kids,” helping their children discover their passions and their purpose.
“Who has God created them to be, and what puzzle piece do they get to play in this grander puzzle that is God’s story?” Straub says. “As churches, we have the ability to really identify and press in on the strengths of our kids and help them learn what their strengths are, help them learn what their values are, and how they can be a part of glorifying God and making Him known in the world around them.”
This points back to a core responsibility of the church, West says. Churches today, as they always have been, are tasked with teaching the historic truth of the gospel to the next generation in fresh ways.
This, she says, will hopefully lead to lifelong commitments to Christ.
“In the church, the things that we can do are just to continue to hammer home the same things we’ve always done but in new and creative ways that will help students stay engaged with God’s Word, to walk in obedience to Him, and to pursue Him with their whole heart no matter what they end up doing,” West says.
HELEN GIBSON (@_HelenGibson_) is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.