Youth workers. . . If you were to write a heart-felt letter to your students, what would you write?
Earlier this fall, I had the privilege of teaching a week long class on “Understanding Today’s Youth Culture” for The Coalition For Youth Ministry Excellence in Canada, where our students had to tackle this task. Their assignment had two parts. First, read Jean Twenge’s book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Then second, based on what you read, write a short open letter to the students in your ministry. . . giving them words of encouragement, exhortation, warning, instruction, and pastoral guidance.
This week I’ve started reading assignments from the class and I’ve been moved at times by the heart-felt words our class has been writing to the kids under their care. Yesterday I read Ben Jepsen’s letter to his students at the Gospel Chapel in Grand Forks, B.C. It’s a good one. I asked Ben if I could share his letter and he gave me permission. Perhaps you’ll find Ben’s words speaking to you. And, perhaps Ben’s words to his students will spark some thinking on your part regarding what it is you need to communicate to the kids you know and love. . .
To my students,
I write to you today with a heavy heart. Every generation that has gone through adolescence faces their own unique challenges and your generation is no exception. As one who writes to you being only one generation removed, I am shocked at the amount the world has changed and the different challenges you now face that were perhaps only on the peripheral when I was your age.
Let’s start with the most pressing concern you now face. . . you are the first generation to not know a life before the internet and the smartphone. Both of these inventions have impacted the world in ways we still do not fully understand and won’t for years to come, however your generation is at the forefront of the market and testing for these tools especially when it comes to smartphones.
The world has been taken by storm with smartphones. We love our smartphones and all that they can do in our lives. However, this tool has huge potential to do more harm than good. It must be handled with great care. Along with the ease of communication, enjoyment, and immense utility the smartphone is known to cause great harm by way of loneliness, depression, and mental health issues. Because of its highly addictive nature, you may end up spending far more time with a screen instead of actual people around you. This on the surface seems to promise an escape from loneliness because it connects us to so many people but it in fact only drives us further apart.
When you spend over two hours a day on your smartphone looking at pictures of other people, comparing yourself to others, watching pornography, and constantly being concerned with what others think of you, it will only drive you further into the depths of isolation and depression. Especially since the time being spent on these devices take away from practicing skills of proper social interaction with others.
My hope and desire would be that like your tongue you are able to tame the tool of the smartphone and use it for good not evil. That it will be something that helps you in life and not bring destruction to you and those around you. Practice times away from your devices, plug them in overnight in a different room than your own so you can get proper sleep at night, strive to look up in life and be present in the moment so you don’t miss out on some of the best years of your life. Putting these things into practice and habit will only bring you more joy and health for the long term. Start showing the older and younger generations what life can look like without being chained to a smartphone.
I want to celebrate with you the safety that you have corrected in your generation. Less sex before marriage, less car accidents, and binge drinking. These are some of the things your generation has brought way down from previous generations, but like anything even good things, too much of it can go too far. I want to challenge how far you push being safe as a necessity. The world we live in is most certainly an unsafe place. Even when constructing “safe spaces” in colleges, high schools, and at work no space is truly ever safe. You must start to learn how to deal with the unsafe world around you because it will always be there.
People will always disagree with you, not like you, and even be angered by you. This is simply a reality of life that no one can escape. Even within the church people disagree with interpretations of the Bible and how to live the Christian life. The key is knowing how to share thoughts, ideas, and opinions in a civilized way and not worrying about those who don’t agree with your view or may even not like you. Stand up for what you believe in and share it boldly with confidence, but remember one of the greatest ways we learn is through discussion with those who don’t agree with us. This helps us to think critically.
Have confidence in yourself and in your beliefs and convictions. Continue to make this world a better place for everyone. Just remember that it’s ok to have differences and these differences don’t have to be threatening to you. Look at them as a way to strengthen your mind. Don’t live in fear but instead walk in the truth that God has called you into. Stand for what is right and good and oppose what is evil. Learn to step away from smartphones and other screens and work hard in whatever task is set before you, be it school, work, or relationships. All of these things take great care and time so make sure you carve it out in the rhythms of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly life.
I have much hope and excitement for what your generation will accomplish in the future. I see this generation giving voices back to people who have none and stepping in the gaps for those who have been treated unfairly and unjustly. Remember to always have concern for the oppressed and remind the older generations how important that is. Never stay silent in these manners. Thanks for all you are teaching the rest of us, I hope I can pass down a few things too.