the shape of leadership

Purposeful Discipleship

Helping youth discern and use their gifts

The pandemic cancelled most everything for her senior year in high school. Volleyball. The bowling club she had started the previous year. College visits. Prom.

Even her youth group had to move to Zoom. While seeing her Christian friends every week on screen felt like a lifeline, it wasn’t the same as being shoulder to shoulder for weekly worship and teaching.

The cancelled activities meant she had more free time. She just wondered what to do with all those extra hours. She felt lonely and restless, with no real sense of purpose.

Then her youth pastors, Perry and Julia, asked her to volunteer in the high school ministry as a social media intern. They knew she not only had the time to help, but that she also had Instagram skills and social media savvy far beyond their own.

Julia started meeting with her every other week, planning promotions and livestreams. While many high school students, especially seniors, drifted from the Church during the pandemic, this student was more engaged than ever.

Kara had a front-row seat to this, because that student is her 18-year-old daughter, Krista. Their church gave Krista — and Kara — a place to use God-given gifts to advance His Kingdom.

Why Purpose Matters

While Krista and the students in your life and church may have less free time this year as the world around them gets back on track, they have no less need to explore their purpose. In fact, one of their most fundamental questions is this: What difference can I make?

We often think of purpose as our contribution to the world. Like a compass pointing north, purpose provides each of us — at any age — with life direction. Despite the value of this orientation, 4 in 10 Americans do not report having a “satisfying life purpose,” according to a 2010 study published in Applied Psychology.

Though our sense of purpose evolves over our lifetime, adolescence and young adulthood bring the big question of purpose to the front burner and turn it up to a rolling boil.

As we conducted research for our new book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, we heard story after story of students figuring out how their lives matter and what kind of difference they can make.

Sometimes that clarity comes from resolving the tension of seeing unlimited roads to the future, while simultaneously feeling pressured to follow specific lanes prescribed to get into a good college or find the right job. Other times, increased certainty comes as young people finally figure out what they are good at doing, after years of knowing only what they are not good at doing.

The Pursuit of Purpose

In our research, we interviewed a diverse sampling of students from youth groups across the country. We asked them questions about purpose, identity and belonging. When it came to purpose, these students felt a universal impulse to help others.

Every teenager we met expressed a desire to help at least once during our three extended interviews. In fact, they talked about service and helping others more than any other path to purpose.

Like a compass pointing north, purpose provides each of us — at any age — with life direction.

One teenager said he tried to “help as many people” in his Boy Scout troop, church, and family “in as many ways” as possible.

“Whether it is talking to someone who needs to get something off their chest or helping someone move stuff out of their house, I find purpose any time and any place I can help someone else,” he said.

Helping is certainly an admirable pursuit and undoubtedly provides meaning in all of our lives. But we also noticed an underside to this drive to help. Teenagers often helped others at the expense of their own well-being, and sometimes sought validation through their good work for others. The positive feelings generated by helping were sometimes undercut by exhaustion, burnout or self-doubt.

Those of us who disciple students can put the pursuit of purpose in a bigger context — a better story — that helps counteract the negative impact of overhelping or overemphasizing works.

Our best Jesus-centered answer to the question, “What difference can I make?” is that our lives matter because we are part of the ongoing plot of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our world.

As much as God works through us, it’s ultimately God who does the work. We have purpose in knowing and following God’s lead — even when He reveals just one step at a time.

God’s story is the bigger story in which all of our individual stories find meaning. And that story can reframe our quest for purpose in light of being faithful to who God has created and called us to be.

Guiding Students Toward Purpose

The effects of 2020-21 will linger throughout the lives of young people, so this year is the perfect season to help those who feel like they’ve lost time, opportunities or experiences regain their sense of meaning.

A starting point is to talk about their “superpowers.” Young people need help learning to unwrap, and then offer to the world, their unique gifts — or superpowers — from the Holy Spirit. Whether students feel clear or uncertain about their gifts, try discussing the following questions with them:

  • What do you like or love to do?
  • When do you feel most alive?
  • What gifts or talents do others see in you?
  • What are you normally doing in those moments when you feel most connected to others?
  • What are you doing in those moments when you feel closest to God?
  • What are you interested in doing in the future?
  • How can you get some practice in those interests?

Once students identify their superpowers, they can ask God how He wants to use those gifts right now as part of His unfolding story.

For Krista, it was as a social media intern for her high school ministry. A 13-year-old who is great with technology can serve on the church’s tech team. A 17-year-old who loves to bake can bless senior adults with homemade treats. That 22-year-old who is majoring in business can partner with a mentor from church to launch a local business featuring ethically sourced products.

Pandemic or no pandemic, the good news is that God is constantly working around us — and through us. With the right conversation, you can help the young people in your church discern their unique page in God’s unfolding story.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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