Jason Wilkinson
October 15th, 2020

I have been a bit more moody than normal recently. As September has now turned into October, I am grappling with the realization that fall is upon us.

There is a cool, crispness to the air. Leaves on the trees begin to explode into the most amazing colors.

And the holiday season is just around the corner, with trips to pumpkin patches and corn mazes, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas and New Year’s. 

With the fall comes a heightened sense of urgency and excitement within student ministry:

  • Youth ministry programming is usually going at full steam.
  • You’re usually running around doing Bible studies, school sporting events, worship nights, and events.
  • That doesn’t include the massive amount of communication to students, parents, volunteers, and other church staff that you’re also managing.
  • Usually, you’re surrounded by people, programs, and events at this point in the year. 

But 2020 has been so different. Covid-19 has made the world unrecognizable. And the effect is extraordinary.

It is not surprising for anybody reading this that Covid-19 has negatively affected the mental and emotional health of people across the world. The students in our ministries are hurting in very significant ways.

In a report released last October by the American Psychological Association, 91% of Generation Z reported that they have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom due to stress. Significant causes of stress reported through this report included the fear of mass shootings (75%), sexual assault (53%), and bullying (35%).

This was BEFORE what we know as Covid-19 even entered into our consciousness. Generation Z is very much attuned and connected to what is going on in society. Social media is being used and consumed to spread awareness of the world’s state of affairs, in ways both accurate in inaccurate. This attunement can be a powerful gift for a generation that values fairness and justice. And it can also lead to more stress on the mental and emotional health of our students.

Here are a few trends that are being seen that are causing significant stress for Generation Z:

1. Isolation

I know. This is one of those “No, duh!” types of findings.

But it cannot be understated.

While social distancing has been a necessary evil, a recent poll of 1,600 students showed that 62% of Generation Zers have shown symptoms of loneliness, stress, anxiety, and frustration.

2. Fear for the Future

Were you aware that there is a lot of talk about politics taking place right now? No…seriously. There is. A lot.

All joking aside, the upcoming election is causing a lot of stress and anxiety for everyone. In fact, (83%) of young people surveyed said they are experiencing stress over the future of the nation. This is the highest number ever recorded, which speaks to our time in history. Our students are not escaping this reality, with grave concerns over possible outcomes of the elections.

Not every congregation or every youth pastor is comfortable to delve into a political discourse. In many cases, that is wise. With such a hot button issue that so quickly leads to emotional dysregulation, it may be best to avoid a large group teaching around this topic. But there may be space for conversations with students in smaller formats. Not to influence a certain political ideology. But to listen and to learn.

And if you are desiring to teach on the topic of politics, I would suggest leaning more into what it looks like or means to citizen of God’s Kingdom.

What is the ethical standard of such a citizen?

Who does God invite to be a participant in this Kingdom?

Who is cared for in the Kingdom of God?

This type of teaching opens up a conversation of hope and the type of role each person can play in participation of the “already, not yet.”

3. Grief

As Covid-19 has caused great disturbance in what formally were normal activities, people have not known what to do with their level of grief. There have been some major milestones that Generation Z has missed out on much. We should not forget that. Think of the kids who have had to forego celebrations of major birthdays such as turning 13, 16, 18 or 21. How many kids have missed out on their final year competitively playing a sport?

Homecomings, proms, graduations, first and last days of school, and much more have been lost due to Covid-19. More is still to come. Young people often don’t know what to do with grief. Much of Generation Z have not lived long enough to have had the opportunity to experience it. Many times, the first reaction to grief is to ignore it or deny it. It can be embarrassing or feel like weakness to grieve. Many kids minimize what they are feeling about things, often explaining, “Other people have it worse.”

And our best kids will often feel shame if they admit some type of grief or sadness over losing a certain aspect of life. I’ve had many kids in my time in ministry immediately follow up a “Yeah, it was hard,” with a “but God is so good,” or “but I trust God.”

We do not want to discount any of that. Of course, it is good to trust in God and recognize God’s goodness. And…it is good and healthy to make room for a time to grieve. To be sad. To say that things just suck. And let that be that.

Of course, this doesn’t even include the number of kids that have been affected by the death of someone they know and love to Covid-19. That is a very different level of grief that requires a different level of immediate care.

4. Social Justice

I know this is a hot button issue within society. It can also be divisive within the church right now. But the statistics show that young people are increasingly growing concerned with the topic of race.

Of 38,919 individuals surveyed between the ages of 13-25, a whopping 88% shared a feeling that Black Americans are treated differently than White Americans. Of those young people surveyed, 77% shared that they have attended a protest. And 62% stated that they are willing to be arrested while participating in a peaceful protest.

Race is a stress point within the Generation Z culture and, as youth pastors, it would be wise not to ignore it.

Kids are talking about it with an increasing regularity.

The church needs to be leading in the conversation, and not reacting to it.

Personal Check In

This year has been a challenge on the mental and emotional wellbeing for so many of our students.

And with that being the case, I feel like it is important to ask:

How are you doing?

Where are you feeling isolated?

In what areas of life are you needing to allow more time for grief?

A youth pastor carries a heavy burden when leading a group of students and volunteers. There is a tremendous amount of stress on you and on your family relationships. Be aware of that stress.

Do not hesitate to seek help for yourself should the need arise. It is the best gift you could give yourself, your family, and your ministry. 

Jason Wilkinson

Jason Wilkinson lives with his wife and two kids in Portland, Oregon. After 18+ years of leading in various student ministry roles, Jason recently transitioned into the profession of mental health therapy where he runs Wellspace Counseling, a private counseling practice in Tualatin. You can read more about Jason at wellspacepdx.com or contact him at jason@wellspacepdx.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.