I know addiction. And recovery. Because I’ve suffered and survived both. But I could have just as easily been another statistic with people mourning over my casket murmuring, “How didn’t we know?” So as I listen to the rise in recent news coverage about America’s growing opioid and heroin epidemic, I must raise a question, “How effective is the Church at responding to this crisis?”
Statistically, there’s not a kid in your youth group who isn’t aware of a friend using drugs. And don’t be so naïve as to pretend there aren’t teens in your church using or abusing. Youth group members were some of my best customers—I made more money on Wednesday nights than I did on weekends. And while I’m pretty sure people had suspicions about my behavior, no one ever confronted me. Or came alongside in support. Because it was easier to turn a blind eye—and it still is today.
THE PROFILE OF TEEN USERS
Seeing the signs of drug use isn’t as cut and dry as people believe. While there are physical and emotional indicators that should catch our attention, many users are difficult to spot because they don’t fit the profile. They don’t appear lonely, despondent, or depressed. More than likely, they’re the life of the party. Many are good students, friendly, and outgoing. And most adapt well to a wide variety of social environments. (Ironically, those are qualities we look for when recruiting young leaders.)
There are teens with genetic predispositions to substance abuse whose behaviors are more predictable. But often these young people use in private away from the crowd. They mask their dependency in public which makes detection difficult. But the majority of students aren’t genetically, physiologically, or psychologically vulnerable to addiction. They are self-medicating to survive their situations, fill voids in their lives, and plug holes in their hearts. And they are walking along a slippery slope to destruction.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Substance use and abuse is a cry for help when basic needs for human interaction and emotional safety are absent. In the end, chemical dependence is a paradoxical dance. While young people look for an escape from their internal struggles by ingesting external substances, they only intensify their incredible sense of loneliness which has the same mortality rate as smoking and twice that of obesity.
God made it very clear from the beginning that we weren’t designed for loneliness. And yet we still ignore the first revelation he gave in Genesis 2:18 about being alone. We preach and teach about the symptoms of our common human condition without adequately dealing with the root cause of this crisis—feeling alone. Wouldn’t it make sense for us to get to the heart of the matter and tackle the primary problem our students are facing every day?
THE REAL ISSUE IS OBVIOUS
There’ no wonder why loneliness and substance abuse are viciously linked. And while our society discusses the opioid and heroin epidemic stemming from overprescription by the medical profession for people living in chronic pain, there’s another segment of society we overlook—teens using drugs and alcohol to alleviate their pain of loneliness and alienation. And yes. It’s happening in our churches. While we are busy inoculating and isolating teens from the ways of the world, many are still stuck in a pit of despair.
Loneliness isn’t an issue of proximity; it’s an emotional state of being. Multitudes of teens attend youth groups week after week surrounded by their peers wondering when someone will notice them. They participate in worship while waiting for someone to recognize their deep desperation and feelings of unworthiness. And while we are busy planning and programming to provide an enticing experience, they are begging for something much simpler—connection.
THE CURE IS RELATIONAL
Am I suggesting that we are blind or that our youth groups are filled with addicts? Of course not. But are we aware of the possibility that perhaps our best efforts are falling short of creating a safe space where authentic relationships and belonging are being fostered intentionally? Relationships are the antidote for loneliness and addiction. It’s no wonder that most recovery programs call themselves a “fellowship”. And that’s exactly where we must focus our attention in youth ministry as well and communicate the message to all young people that they are not alone.
If the Church is ineffective at responding to the substance abuse crisis, youth ministry probably is as well. Teens need a place to come where real issues are discussed. Not discounted. And the greatest problem this generation is suffering from is loneliness. Only when we decide to deal with that crisis can we expect our youth to fully embrace their faith and find their identity in Christ. Until then, we’re simply applying Jesus as a band-aid when the real cancer lies within a generation who need us to stop creating artificial experiences and start cultivating authentic relationships where Christ is made incarnate through our deliberate actions.
If the #Church is ineffective at responding to the substance abuse crisis, #youthministry probably is as well.Click to tweet
THE NEED FOR BELONGING
Please forgive me for sounding indicting. My intent isn’t to throw rocks because my church is falling short in this area as well. We’re busy feeding the flock and making people feel good in 90-minute events but failing to be a place where real people with real problems can find a place of belonging regardless of their spiritual condition.
Youth ministry should lead the way forward and set the example for the Church to follow. I encourage you to consider how your youth program can work harder to become an even greater place of authenticity and community where Christian and non-Christian teens feel safe being themselves openly and honestly while we trust Jesus to work in their lives.