Pastoral Care Among Teenagers
Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
As officebearers at this time in history we have much work cut out for us when it comes to necessary pastoral care among our youth. Let me add to that: It is important first of all that we take our calling seriously as overseers of the whole flock, including (I dare say, especially) our youth. Secondly, in this day when many scriptural principles are forsaken for theories of modern psychology, I would emphasize that we can only provide proper and profitable pastoral care by strict adherence to the principles of Scripture. But Scripture requires of pastors and elders especially that they provide spiritual direction and counsel for the youth of the church. That is not to overlook, and certainly not to exclude, the calling and responsibility that parents have toward the children God has placed within their own home. But we look now beyond the parental calling to that calling which is ours as officebearers, particularly as elders and pastors in churches with large numbers of young people.
Although all teenagers must go through the struggles and difficulties of adolescence and require careful instruction and leadership by home and church, there are a few who require the special attention of pastors and elders. And though their number be still small in comparison to the many young people in our churches, one wonders if we do not see an increase of such cases in our day. I think we do. It would stand to reason. Our young people today face open temptations that were not faced by us who are only one generation older. The temptations were’ always there. Young people have always been tempted to rebel against authority figures -be it the temptation to defy the rules set down by parents, or teachers; or to get away with violating certain laws of the land. All generations have faced the temptations of alcohol abuse and fornication, to mention but two others. Peer pressure is as old as society itself. But in no other age have these temptations been so open and the attacks so violent against the innocency of Christian youth. What was considered shameful just 20 years ago is now accepted matter-of-factly. Behavior that once was unacceptable even to unbelievers is now considered a part of growing up. To mention one example: some time ago I had an opportunity to work with two young men in their late teens, one of non-Christian background and the other nominally Christian. When these boys reached their middle teenage years, their parents actually encouraged them to go out and find an attractive girl with whom they could go to bed. They needed to find out what sex was all about. Now, you know that those parents had not been taught that in their youth. But the open fornication seen and accepted in our society has so influenced the thinking of people, even nominally Christian and church-going people, that they actually encourage their children to fornicate with the world! Our young people can go into any number of gas stations and convenience stores or book stores, and see pornographic material displayed right in front of their eyes. The development of the VCR in the past ten years, and the proliferation of video stores, has put within the reach of our young people any number of reprobate movies. Sad to say, the watching of video-taped movies within the family rooms of Protestant Reformed homes has reportedly become quite widespread. Advertising and television programming makes illicit sex glamorous, and puts increased pressure on youth to “join the crowd and get in on the action” -whether that be drinking beer to attract handsome men or beautiful women, or buying clothing and automobiles way beyond our earthly means (and to the neglect of our support of God’s kingdom), or having sex outside the marriage bond. Prosperity abounds in our day. This also has made a solid spiritual life all the more difficult for our young people. And when their parents set an example of running after every earthly idol and making a god out of pleasure (II Tim. 3:4), it is no wonder that with increasing numbers children are showing signs of deep-seated spiritual disease. We point out another factor causing an increase in troubled youth. Our churches have not escaped the breakdown of the family structure that has reached epidemic proportions in our society. The sad fact is that there are in our churches more and more children that are being raised in single-parent situations, whose stable home life has been tom to pieces by the devastation of divorce. All of these factors, in conjunction with the depravity of our natures, gives increase to the problems seen among our young people today. And the problems are real. It is easy as pastors and elders to bury our heads in the sand. After all, unless we have our finger firmly pressed against the pulse of our congregations, we will be the last to know about the sins with which our youth are struggling. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. But ignorance cannot address the issues properly or effectively.
Addressing the Problem
When it comes to addressing the problems seen among our youth, not to be overlooked is the preventive care essential in maintaining spiritual health among our young people. Foremost in preventive care is the faithful preaching of the Word. It is no mere coincidence that in churches where the faithful preaching of the Word has fallen by the wayside, there are multitudes of young people who show the effects of spiritual malnutrition, or have already spiritually died. Solid preaching has a twofold effect upon the church’s teenagers. In the first place, such preaching bears the fruits of spiritual youth. It should not be necessary to expand upon this particular point among us. Let us remember, though, that God has ordained the faithful preaching of the gospel as the means of salvation and strengthening not only of adults, but children and young people. Those regenerated children who sit under faithful preaching having been taught by their parents the need for attentiveness, will themselves grow spiritually and show fruits of spirituality. But in the second place, preaching which is faithful in its exposition of the Scriptures and the calling Christ has given the church also bears as fruit a strong family life in the church. Where a church has been blessed by sound preaching for any length of time, there will be found a church characterized by families that are faithful in their calling within the home. And when we speak about preventive pastoral care among young people, essential is a family life characterized by spiritual-mindedness and an openness to speak about spiritual things and to live in a spiritual way. Additional preventive medicine is to be administered in our catechism classes. Ministers do well to use those classes not only for solid biblical instruction in doctrine, but also to try to build a rapport with the young people. Here is an area where a longer stay in a pastorate is beneficial – when a relationship can be established beginning already when the children are young. But even in a new pastorate, the minister can make catechism a place very beneficial toward building a healthy relationship with the youth of the church. Openness needs to be encouraged. In this setting, doctrine may be applied very particularly and discussion encouraged. Especially in areas where we do not have our own Christian high schools or where we have catechumens going to college, our youth run into particular difficulties either from a doctrinal point of view or in practice. If opportunity is given them to ask questions of a general nature at the end of the class, or if there is an open relationship between pastor (or elder) and young people, there may be an opportunity for conversation even after the conclusion of the catechism class. Finally, still in the area of preventive medicine, we ought not be hesitant as elders or pastors to establish friendships with the church’s young people. Establishing a friendship does not detract from the God ordained authoritative function of the office. Rather it puts the office in the best possible light and makes the exercise of the office all the more effective. When a teenager sees an elder as a friend who is truly spiritual, and who cares for him in all areas of his life, that teenager will have much appreciation for that officebearer of God. And such a relationship between an elder and a young person also has residual effects. It will be appreciated by godly parents, and noticed as well by the young person’s companions and friends – with whom you, as an elder, may have opportunity to build more relationships. Cleland Boyd McAfee, in his book The Ruling Elder, published by the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education in 1931, wrote: When young people feel at home in the church, especially on the terms of real spiritual relationships, the strongest type of church develops…. In this relation to young people the session (consistory, SK) cannot be too watchful.” It is a mistake to suppose that young people object to true spirituality. We must not be afraid to use the Scriptures in our labors with youth. At the same time, there is no age group more sensitive to and contemptuous toward inconsistency in religious practice, which they will quickly term “hypocrisy.” They may not be so quick to see it in themselves, but you may be sure they will see it in others, and especially officebearers, if it is there to see. Here, as in all our labors, a godly walk is essential. When Peter wrote to the elders of the church (I Pet. 5:1-4), he did not pen an empty phrase, when he called us to be examples to the flock. And when the writer to the Hebrews calls Gods people to follow the faith of the elders, considering the end of their conversation (Heb. 13:7), the clear implication is that elders must set a good example for the flock. That godly example is of particular importance in our labors with young people, who, in all their striving for independence, are still looking to others for examples. True spirituality among officebearers will also serve as a good vaccine among the youth, provoking many unto good works and genuine Christian piety. But administering preventive medicine is only part of the calling of the pastor and elder. There are cases that arise in any church where a young person suffers from a spiritual malady that is beyond the effects of preventive medicine. These cases must be treated not only by the pastor, but also by the elders of the church.
Dealing With Specific and Individual Problems
In such cases several things are worthy of note. A relationship of trust is essential. And when I speak of a relationship of trust, I refer to the fact that the young man or young woman with whom we labor must have a trust toward us. There are some young people, especially those with serious problems, who will not allow a relationship of trust. But if there is to be positive fruit upon our labors with any individual, a relationship of trust must first be established. And crucial to such trust is the knowledge that we deal in confidentiality. In many cases it is necessary that a consistory be fully or partially informed about the labors with an individual. But where that is so, we had better be sure that such matters are kept within the walls of the consistory room. Woe to those elders or ministers who violate the trust of certain individuals by making private matters public and who spread confidential matters. Such an officebearer makes himself worthy of discipline and possibly even dismissal from the office. Secondly, genuine spiritual concern and care for the individual must also be conveyed by us in our work with young people. This should be our constant attitude as officebearers. Nor should this be difficult, when we bear in mind the truth that Christ has given us the calling to work with those “which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). If Christ so loved His sheep, we who stand as His officebearers must love likewise. A young person who is caught in the snares of a sin or who is struggling spiritually is generally intimidated ‘by authority figures. That is especially true of men who are regarded as spiritual bulwarks. If such a young person is to hear us, he must see that we are not “out to get him,” but that we truly love him for Christ’s sake and desire his good. We must also have a solid knowledge of the Scriptures, if we are to labor properly among troubled youth. This stands to reason. Our entire calling as officebearers is summarized in the calling to “bring the Word.” We must know our Bibles thoroughly, also searching them regularly to see what Word of God applies well to given situations and sins with which God’s young people struggle. But, more than bare knowledge, we must seek from God wisdom in how to apply the Scriptures to the given case with which we deal. Patrick Fairbairn, in his book Pastoral Theology, points out “that a pastor has often much more to do with those who seek advice from him regarding their soul’s interests than quote a few passages of Scripture and point their way to the Savior” (p. 286). Though the Scripture must serve as the foundation of all pastoral work, and must be our “tool for the trade,” that does not necessarily mean that we come with our Bibles in every situation with a passage to read and apply. Sometimes we have to be walking Bibles, simply applying the principles of Scripture, rather than quoting texts. But, in every case, searching questions need carefully to be asked, in order to provide sound spiritual guidance and instruction. In this connection it should be added that pastors and elders need to work at and develop listening skills. It is always a danger that we speak too soon, thereby bypassing the real needs. Always we must listen carefully and seek to listen more. We must search for the deepest need. Then we apply the Word. Too often as elders and pastors we tend to deal only with the symptoms of a person’s problem. We try to correct the most obvious situation, and achieving that correction feel as if we have solved the problem. This is like giving an aspirin to a person with bone cancer. To use one illustration, when a young person’s church attendance falls off, and there is neglect of the, means of grace, we must not be hasty in focusing on that one problem. The neglect of the means of grace is always a symptom of a deeper spiritual problem. What is the deeper problem? Why the lack of desire to attend the house of God for worship? To fail to address the deeper problem is to become guilty of treating the symptoms, but neglecting the killer disease. To listen is an essential aspect of all pastoral work, but most necessary in dealing with youth. Patience is another necessary virtue in pastoral care among teenagers. If you “blow up” in your dealings with a young person, you have just blown for good any opportunity to labor for his salvation. We must recognize that in most young people there is a certain level of immaturity and irresponsibility. This can become irritating at times. But in our care for such youth, our irritation must be suppressed. I do not mean to imply that with patience we must avoid all firm instruction and admonitions. Where there are particular sins, and a rejection of admonitions and instruction, there must be reproof given in a firm but loving manner. Patience must never prevent us from providing firm direction. But patience must be exercised with a view to the general weaknesses of youth. Immaturity and signs of irresponsibility must not anger us in a pastoral setting, so that it prevents us from dealing with the deeper issues. In addition, when we speak about patience, we must realize that the Spirit works in His children over a period of time and through consistent labors. We need patience also to wait upon the Lord, seeking His blessing upon our labors. This, however, points to another need – that of consistency in our work Consistent labors must be given those young people in whom we observe particular problems. It is a serious mistake, when there are concrete symptoms of spiritual illness or a sinful walk, that elders make an initial visit only to let the issue lie for several months. Though this matter reaches beyond our-work with wayward youth, it deserves emphasis. Our pastoral or disciplinary labors must be consistent and ongoing, until the person is completely restored or reveals unbelief and departs. I urge our elders to make regular and frequent visits in all cases where problems are evident. Such regular and frequent visits (at a very minimum once a month, while greater frequency is desirable in many cases) will prove to be the most effective and ultimately the least time-consuming way to do the work. A person who is walking in sin will often receive the elders of the church, if they visit only once a year or once every few months. Such a person can “put up with the elders for an hour,” if his receiving them “keeps them off his back” for another few months while he continues in his sin. On the other hand, visits made regularly and frequently will convey to the person a sense of urgency and deep concern on the part of God’s officebearers. The effects of such consistent labor will be seen much more quickly than with inconsistent and infrequent visits. Either the person will be given by God to see the seriousness of his sin, and will be led by the Word to confess and turn from his sin in the sorrow of repentance; or he will soon refuse to see the elders that are frequently darkening his doorstep. The Word not received will become an irritant to him. For the welfare of the church I urge you elders: Bring the Word with frequency to those walking in sin or struggling with various problems. Although such has been implied throughout this writing I want to emphasize the importance of elders becoming personally and directly involved in working with the youth of the church. The church in centuries past has recognized the importance of consistory’s laboring with the church’s youth. Article 44 of our Church Order, which speaks of the calling of the classical church visitors, requires them II to take heed whether the minister and consistory . . . properly promote as much as lies in them, through word and deed, the upbuilding of the congregation, in particular of the youth.” As a pastor I readily acknowledge that my calling is not only the pulpit ministry, but the pastoral ministry as well. Although, without question, the preaching of the Word must have the chief place in our labors as pastors, we also are called to follow the example of the apostle Paul, who ministered not only publicly, but from house to house (Acts 20:20). But let it be clearly understood, pastoral oversight is primarily the calling of the elders of the church. To you elders comes the calling of Acts 20:28, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Not to be neglected in your pastoral oversight as elders are the youth of the church. McAfee, in the book cited above, states that it can be most helpful in the consistory’s work with young people, that a fair number of young elders be brought into the consistory. At the same time, he points out that an elder need not be young to have a strong relationship with the youth of the church. He writes, “In one church this natural friend of the young people was the senior elder, well in his eighties, but any young person would have gone to him as naturally with a suggestion for the session as if he had been a member of the Young People’s Society. A deeply spiritual life is not forbidding or restraining to others if it is warm and winsome” (op. cit., p. 163). At the same time, we must recognize that God gives different gifts to each of His chosen officebearers. Just as all pastors differ in gifts, so do elders. Where one elder is not as comfortable as another in caring for the afflicted, such will be the case also in caring for the youth of the church. At the same time, elders must be encouraged to develop in the labors of their office. The most difficult part of any difficult task is usually getting started. An elder who devotes himself to labors among the youth of the church will grow through those labors. Fervent prayer is necessary in all our labors of a pastoral nature. This is a matter that can be emphasized in all areas of pastoral labor; but I will certainly emphasize it here. In dealing with difficulties among youth, and with particular individuals, you often will not know, at least initially, the problems which you must treat. For the most part, therefore, in the initial stages of working with an individual, you will not know what Scripture passages you might study in preparation for your meeting. Your preparation will be confined primarily to that of prayer. And let it be fervent prayer, prayer for wisdom, for patience, for knowledge, and for the presence of the Holy Spirit in your labors. Finally, I must say something about laboring with rebellious and impenitent youth. The remedy of Christian discipline must, according to Scripture, be exercised also toward the young people of the church who are obstinate in their rebellion against God. That is the clear teaching of Deuteronomy 21:18-21. There are those children of the church who, to our sorrow, do not walk in the way of Gods precepts, who reject all parental and pastoral care and instruction and show no impenitence for their sinful walk. Some of those are wayward only for a time; others go astray never to return to the shadow of the cross and the bosom of the church. We must not let our treatment of such young people be governed merely by our emotions and natural parental love. We must treat them with the love of God, which seeks God’s glory and walks in obedience to His Word and instruction. To the principle set forth in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 you and I must give heed and wholehearted obedience, lest the wrath of God rest upon us not only as families, but as a church. The children whose example is set forth in Deuteronomy 21– young people stubborn in their sinful rebellion- are a great threat to the church’s welfare. By their carnal lives they influence other young people in the church. And if they are allowed to continue undisciplined in their rebelliousness, not only will they go to hell, but they will take the church (as an institute) with them! And although the emphasis in the text referred to is that of parental responsibility, there is clear instruction given also to the elders of the church. The elders are called to execute judgment according, to the law of God. I do not mean to imply that the elders in the New Testament church should execute God’s judgment by stoning. But they are still called to declare the sentence of death upon all who reject Christ and His Word and way. The judgment that they execute is the judgment rendered in Christian discipline, and especially by excommunication (cf. Matt. 16:19; Matt. 18:15-18; I Cor. 5; II Thess. 3:14, 15). After the elders have worked faithfully and have brought the Word of God to that young person, only to see the Word rejected and the heart hardened, the elders must cut off such a rebel from the church. Such discipline is, according to Gods inscrutable purpose, “the last remedy.” In certain cases God in mercy will use such discipline eventually to work repentance in the heart of him toward whom this remedy is applied. Do we love the church? Do we love the youth of the church? Then let us heed our calling in providing preventive medicine for all our youth, and surgical remedies of counseling and discipline in the individual cases where necessary. Negligence is far too prevalent today in these things. May God be pleased to use us for the strengthening of the church by the nurture of her youth.