Empathizing with Today’s Young People - Growing… | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
April 2017

Empathizing with Today’s Young People - Growing Young Series 2 of 6

By Abigail Parker Herrera (SCJ)

In late 2016, a team from Fuller Youth Institute published Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. That book is accompanied by several free resources that can be accessed here.

Through their research, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin identified six things that churches who engage in meaningful ministry with young people do well. This series will briefly identify each of the six strategies and share a story of a place in the United Methodist connection doing that strategy well.


In Growing Young, we read about a leader who keeps a photo of himself as a teenager displayed to remind him of “that awkward phase” (pg. 117). I decided that I would begin this blog article by sharing me at the age of 16:

So. Amazing.

For some reason that date is wrong because this is not 1994, but 1996. This is a quintiessential teen-Abby photo. I liked to try on a, “I’m very adult and angry” look. I didn’t know my hair was curly so it was usually this weird, brushed out frizzy style you see here. I think I’m about to audition for something, hence the sparkly dress, practice tape, and make-up. I’m not sure if I thought this was a good look or not but I know I was fairly confident, and hadn’t failed enough to think otherwise. Paradoxically, I also remember feeling like I was just trying so many things on because I didn’t really know who or what I wanted to be. I often was who I thought my friends would want me to be. How can a person be confident, assured and feel grown-up and responsible while also feeling unprepared, unsure, and nervous all at the same time? I think that is pretty much the essence of being a teenager.

In the chapter “Empathize with Today’s Young People”, the writers in Growing Young ask us as individuals and congregations to remember being a teenager or a young adult while also learning how being young is different today. If we take the time to look at what most young people are experiencing we’d know that “growing up” is taking longer. Young people are hitting many of the “adult” stages of life later. Several of my friends have gone to school, worked, gone back to school, lived with their parents again, gone back to work at a job that is probably not a forever gig and by this point they are 30ish, maybe still single, with no children. This is generally when a lot of them marry and have children… or not. The point is, by the time people are in their late 20’s, they may still be in school and living with their parents due to numerous factors, some beyond their control. At the same time, we know that “growing up” also happens a lot faster. Teenagers are asked to know more information, read books we read in high school for their middle school work, or be well on their way to a professional level in sports or music by the time they enter high school. They engage deeply in the social issues of the world because of their accessibility via smartphones, and make many “adult” decisions before the age of 17 about career paths, expensive college educations, sexual choices, and choices around drugs and alcohol.

Young people are also asking “the ultimate questions” (p. 95) we all continue to ask and that we all asked most acutely as young people:

Who am I? What is my identity?

Where do I fit? How do I belong?

What difference do I make? What is my purpose?

We know they are often asking these questions without the help of a church or even trusted older adults in their lives. We can probably agree that navigating these questions of meaning and purpose with the faith of an elementary aged student and only peer-to-peer advice is probably not ideal. How can the church engage in this meaning making for the long haul, like we promised in our baptismal covenant? Creating relationships that allow us to help young people make meaning of their lives first requires empathy. Growing Young offers several ways to create empathy. One is to remember, like I did above. Another suggestion is to “ask why” when you see something confusing, new, or even offensive in the culture of young people. Invite conversation to learn more, rather than shutting the possibility of relationship down.

Union Coffee in Dallas is all about seeking to empathize with young people and people who feel far from the church. They do this most by creating a place that is all about fostering community through questions. This new church start was a plant that began as a coffee shop with the slogan “community with a cause”. Their community building spaces ARE their worship services. They center open mic nights, poetry readings, service opportunities, and communion around the ultimate questions young people wrestle with. Each time to gather is more about discussion and questions than providing answers and Union is OK with that.

What are ways your community could ask more questions and create space for conversation with young people?
Who can you talk to about the things in the culture of young people you don’t understand or find offensive?
Can you pray for God to give you eyes to see people to talk with, and open doors toward good conversation?