Middle and high school can be a lonely time, especially for kids who march to the beat of their own drummers.
These are the days of growing from a child to a young adult.
With the issue of bullying in the news more than ever, we know that children can be faced with difficult, adult situations and might not have the emotional or spiritual strength to make good decisions.
Parents, schools and — perhaps most important — peers help define who a teenager will be as an adult. Kids are developing their moral compass.
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How do faith communities help kids? What do you tell youth who are trying to stay true to their beliefs? Do youth groups offer support or one-on-one relationships? How do parents and faith communities work together to benefit their youth?
We posed that to the Herald-Leader's Question of Faith panel. Here is a selection of their responses.
Joseph N. Greenfield, Help Me to Live Again Ministries Inc., Wilmore: The issues associated with child development can be very complicated. However, I like to keep things simple: If you were to plant your most prized flower, what would you do to make certain it would grow, thrive and blossom to its full beauty? You would water it, feed it, set it in a healthy environment, regularly nurture it and constantly watch over it. We must do the same with our children.
All children need love, boundaries and freedom so they might thrive, grow and blossom not into who we want them to be, but rather who the Lord has created them to be so they might fulfill his calling upon their lives.
Pete Hise, Quest Community Church, Lexington: If we had a glimpse of what God is poised and ready to do in the hearts of youth, it would blow our minds. The church is meant to lead the way in believing that wholeheartedly and investing in the next generation — not just because of the future, but because of what God stands ready to do in and through them right now.
At Quest, we do our best to create an environment for our students that's rich in love, community and passion for God so that each teenager knows that they are genuinely wanted, celebrated and believed in.
Debra Glenn Monck, wife of a minister at Vineyard Community Church, Lexington: My two teenagers thrive when given clear direction. They want to be challenged in their spiritual lives, most likely because they are challenged in most other environments. Most parents seem to desire a challenge for their kids in these areas and are proud when their children achieve success. Yet sometimes we adults are afraid of offering a model of spiritual discipline. We often don't consider helping them develop a regimen to keep them on course when it comes to Bible reading, prayer and other spiritual disciplines.
To stay true to their beliefs, kids have to truly know what they believe. That takes a purposeful focus, and that's what we parents and faith leaders are striving to offer.
Rabbi Marc Aaron Kline, Temple Adath Israel, Lexington: The youth of this generation struggle with the need to define their faith, even while the rest of the world is telling them what they can and cannot believe. In school, groups befriend others only to missionize them. If unsuccessful, the child is immediately dropped by those whom he thought were his close friends.
It is tough to be young these days. It may even be tougher to be a parent of a young person today. We have to put up with a technological world that molds and shapes our children, but for many of us, it is beyond our skills to keep up.
The Jewish tradition reminds our youth that life is evolutionary. As children, we respond one way; as young adults, another; and so on. Bar and bat mitzvah, while often tied to a ceremony, is the watershed moment when children become young adults, ready to begin accepting responsibility. As their personalities evolve, so will their idea of faith. Our job is to make sure that faith is relevant in their world for them, not that they must bow to its relevance in our world.
Too often we tell our children what they have to accept. If we want to help keep our children grounded, then we have to make being grounded relevant. When handled respectfully, vesting them in their own decision-making and partnering with them through the process, the results will be astounding.
Therese Warrick, Sisters Road to Freedom, Lexington: I tell youth who are trying to stay true in their beliefs to stay true to themselves and just continue to make the unpopular decisions: praying; going to church and paying attention in church; turning off the smartphones and the iPads at youth group and in church; attending Sunday school; reading the Bible; being respectful to themselves and being respectful and obedient to others.
Most parents do not support faith communities until they need the assistance of a church, youth group or ministry. Parents find excuses for their youth. However, when the youth gets in trouble with school or the law, that is when a lot of parents reach out. At youth groups, youth can identify with each other, understand the pressures that face them daily, and they can relate to the constant conversations and lectures of parents. It is very important that youth leaders quash any cliques, social associations, rumors and gossips among the youth so that harmony can prevail.
Mary Seeger Weese, Midway Presbyterian Church: No doubt that being a kid is tough. Tweens, teens and young adults have a difficult time, now more than ever before. They are more connected with their peers and have more access to knowledge but are more isolated and less likely to be part of communities of people of multiple ages.
I remember being a teenager. A lot of it really stunk. I felt angry and sad and alone sometimes. Especially when adults seemed to think my problems weren't real.
But two things really helped me get through it. One: Spending time with people older than me. Older people have perspective and wisdom. They encourage you. The retired folks I met at the nursing homes had stories of survival, and adults I knew at church (who weren't my parents — which was key) assured me that life does get better.
Two: It helped to spend time with people younger than me. As a Sunday school teacher, camp counselor, after-school tutor and neighborhood friend, I learned that little kids looked up to me. They needed my encouragement and perspective and wisdom. And I had a responsibility to them as others had helped me. I hope the church is a place where that kind of community happens.
Kory Wilcoxson, Crestwood Christian Church, Lexington: The one thing youth are seeking most is acceptance. They want to know they are OK. No one wants to be an outsider. So they will do whatever it takes — healthy or unhealthy — to gain acceptance to their peer group.
The message the church has to share is that everyone is accepted because they are a child of God. Youth group should be the one place a person can come and truly be themselves in all their unique glory and find acceptance. That message must be spoken louder than the messages of the youth culture, which say you have to look or act a certain way before you are "in." With God, you are already "in."
Roger Bruner, Mill Street Church of Christ, London: The only thing that will protect youth to face the trials and temptations of life is knowledge of God's laws. This begins in the home as parents must teach by word and deed. This is seen from Moses' instructions in Deuteronomy to the parents in Israel: "You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise." In this day of broken homes and families, the church is to reinforce these principles and teach the truth regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage.
Bob Evely, Grace Evangel Fellowship, Wilmore: For those young people who have lost their way, it is important to remind them that every day offers a fresh start.
We have freedom that allows us to make changes — where we live, how we earn a living, what we do with our free time. We can start afresh at any point. How wonderful is that?
The body of Christ is constructed in a way that each of us is different, yet we are all to work together for the up-building of the entire body. When one is hurting, we all hurt.
It is crucial that we look out for each other. This may occur within a faith community but it is more important that we do this one on one.
God has placed people in our path, and each of us is to utilize the gifts and graces given to us to help those we encounter along the way.
Youth groups can do this; but how well they do this is up to the leadership and composition of any given youth group.
A young person can just as easily be helped by non-church organizations or circles of friends. We place too much emphasis on organized groups and not enough emphasis on what we can do as individuals helping others in our path.
Rachael Brooks, New Hope Church, Lexington: Mentoring done by faithful Christian adults is far more productive than additional peer interactions.
New Hope's philosophy is centered on the idea of a church family that rarely breaks out into specialized demographic groups. We try to match young people with adults of similar interests and provide a high level of mentoring in and outside of the church. This creates friendships and provides spiritual and emotional support.
When well-matched mentoring occurs and continues on through the post-high school years, it is much easier to retain and maintain faith. This type of approach allows those feelings to flow across the demographic variances in the church.
Myron Williams, Southland Christian Church, Jessamine County: Teens need to learn to think for themselves, guided by parents and members of the faith community. Teens should feel free to ask the hard questions and expect some guidance for making wise choices. Adolescents need mentoring from adults who know what they believe and act accordingly. They also need groups where they can explore answers to life's questions.
Faith communities need to equip parents to know how to deal with questions and life issues, and to know how the faith community leaders will respond when asked the same questions.
Adolescents, ask the hard questions of parents, teachers, coaches and faith community leaders. Search for answers from respected authorities and do not blindly accept answers from any of these authorities. Develop friendships with other teens who hold common values, yet do not hesitate to challenge where those values come from. Ask young adults you respect how they handled the pressures of their adolescent years. Also seek guidance from God through prayer and the reading of your holy book.