If the recent book The Jesus I Wish I Knew In High School is any indication, the desire to belong reverberates like a low, mournful bass note through the teenage years. Recalling his own high school experience, pastor and author Scott Sauls describes bullying two classmates in order to gain the approval of the crowd. Author Michelle Ami Reyes stopped bringing Indian food in her lunch because, as the only brown-skinned girl in her high school, it seemed to reinforce her status as a “misfit” with “no friends.” Singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken recalls following the cooler, more athletic crowd down the black-rated ski slopes, only to have them leave her behind, alone in the snowy woods with night quickly falling.
We humans are hardwired for fellowship. After all, we’re made in the image of the triune God. Learning to belong has always been particularly tricky for teenagers, but social media (combined with a pandemic) have stunted their opportunities for community and relational growth. Teenagers are missing crucial skills and experiences and aren’t learning to function as “members of one another” (Rom. 12:5, CSB).
Learning to belong has always been particularly tricky for teenagers, but social media (combined with a pandemic) have stunted their opportunities for community and relational growth.
As we teach teens to manage their dependence on technology, 19th-century pastor Thomas Chalmers offers a helpful framework. In his sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Chalmers suggests that discovering the rich satisfaction of God’s love causes “the things of earth to grow strangely dim,” turning our affection away from the world and toward God. With guidance, as they grow in affection for and relationship with their heavenly Father, teenagers can likewise grow to experience embodied fellowship in the body of Christ as far deeper and more joyful than anything social media might offer.
Whether you’re a parent, youth minister, youth volunteer, or mentor to a teen, here are three ways you can help break the grip of social media on the teens you love.
1. Teach teenagers to prioritize true community.
Instagram platforms and Snapchat groups are not communities. They’re helpful communication tools, but they cannot begin to replicate the joys or challenges of physical togetherness. The disembodied interactions of social media likes and comments fail to truly satisfy because we were created for communication not just with words and clicks, but with tone of voice, body language, and touch. It’s impossible to work, serve, worship, laugh, or cry together if we’re not physically together, frequently and intentionally.
Families need to go to church together weekly. Each of us needs the church, and the church needs each of us. Only in the church—in the pew, in the classroom, in the choir practice, in the missions meeting—will our teens experience God’s design for his family.
Only in the church—in the pew, in the classroom, in the choir practice, in the missions meeting—will our teens experience God’s design for his family.
But church membership in the biblical sense also extends beyond the walls of the church building. We prepare a meal for the family with a new baby. We rake the elderly widower’s yard and sip lemonade on the porch with him after. We ask our bored tween to make cookies for our small group before we welcome the group into our home. Most of all, we pray together for our church family, starting with the pastors who serve us faithfully. Doing life side-by-literal-side is a biblical mandate because God knows we need to give and receive hugs and helping hands (Heb. 10:24–25).
2. Show teenagers the joy of embodied community.
As adults, we encourage teenagers to engage in meaningful relationships both by participating in community ourselves and by opening our homes and our schedules. It’s one thing to text a teen and tell her to “break a leg” in the fall play; it’s another thing entirely to show up and sit through the performance. Again, technology serves as a relational tool, but the relationship actually happens when you hug her backstage after the show. If you can’t be there, by all means, send a message, but the message you send by showing up won’t be lost on her: presence matters.
It’s one thing to text a teen and tell her to ‘break a leg’ in the fall play; it’s another thing entirely to show up for the performance.
To demonstrate belonging, start small. Focus on establishing and strengthening one-on-one relationships. And do it in a way that’s fun—grab coffee, bake a cake, or shoot hoops. Connect, build a history of shared interests and experiences, be reliable, and follow up.
For families and youth groups, emphasize established belonging. Share memories, develop traditions, and enjoy inside jokes. Pray together regularly and reminisce about the Ebenezer stones in your shared history with God (1 Sam. 7:12). Invite newcomers with genuine warmth and gladness. Developing camaraderie will build trust for when relationships get tough. The kingdom increases as we share both our lives and the gospel together.
3. Help teenagers expect and navigate conflict.
Russell Moore wrote recently of his grandmother’s determination to take him to church every time the doors were open. She was equally faithful to skip the monthly business meetings with little Russell because she “wanted [him] to be a Christian.” Moore says, “She didn’t want me to see the sort of carnality that could break out in a Baptist congregational business meeting.”
Moore and his wife made a different decision with their 15-year-old son, choosing to take him to a contentious meeting where the boy would hear his dad criticized. Rather than shield him completely, they invited him to process what he heard and didn’t provide him with formulaic answers to the unchristian behavior he saw. They weren’t afraid to let him experience the ugliness of community; instead, they showed him how to respond when conflict inevitably comes.
Removing screens and engaging with real people in real time can be messier and more painful than digital communication. Our teenagers should be prepared for conflict, rejection, frustration, and misunderstanding when they interact with other people, Christians included. Even the disciples dealt Jesus some heartache.
Teenagers are just stepping into the first act of the lifelong drama of belonging. Let’s remind them of the grace they have received in Christ, which gives us the courage to risk heartache in order to gain the joy of fellowship. Let’s make sure our teenagers know that bear hugs and holy kisses (1 Pet. 5:14) beat XOXO every time.