When it comes to anxiety and depression, our young people don’t need safe spaces. They need Jesus.
The numbers are shocking. According to the journal Translational Psychiatry, more than 36 percent of teen girls in America are depressed or have had a recent “major depressive episode.” For boys, it’s a slightly less alarming—but only slightly less—13.6 percent.
It wasn’t always this bad. Writing at the National Review Online, Mona Charen reports that rates for depression and anxiety “were much lower during the Great Depression, World War II, and the turbulent 1970s than they are today.”
Mental-health issues are spreading like wildfire on college campuses, too. Ohio State, for example, reports a 43-percent jump in students seeking mental-health counseling in the last five years.
As Charen writes, “Something is robbing young people of happiness and well-being.”
Indeed—but what, exactly? Charen looks at several factors, eventually landing on changing family dynamics, such as divorce and single parenting. And this is right, as far as it goes. Not having a mom and dad at home can be very hard on young people. But it goes deeper. I think religious myopia has something to do with it, too.
Back in 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton described a corruption of the historic Christian faith growing among young people in America, including those in our churches, which they call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is, they say, “centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amicably with other people.”
Obviously, that’s straight out of today’s relativistic, individualistic culture, and it’s far from the heart of biblical faith, which stresses, among other things, a holy God, a fallen humanity, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, salvation through faith, and the necessity of repentance and a holy life.
But despite Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’s focus on feeling good, it’s clear that many young people don’t. The question is why?
Perhaps what they need is not more encouragement to be nice, but more opportunities to encounter Love Himself—who gives them not a list of do’s and don’t’s, but an invitation to a banquet. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (Matt 11:28).
Somewhere deep inside, unhappy young people know that they were meant for more, much more, than this world can possibly offer. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
It’s not about mere happiness. As C.S. Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.” And yet Lewis claimed that there is something beyond mere happiness. He called it Joy, saying that the Lord uses it to draw us to Himself. “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong,” Lewis wrote, “but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…. We are far too easily pleased.”
So how do we connect young people with Jesus? Well, we need to pursue and know Him with this same holy dissatisfaction ourselves. Do we? You cannot share what you don’t have.
We also need to know the ways our culture shapes them. That’s why I commend my colleague John Stonestreet’s latest book—“A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World”—written with Brett Kunkle. Check it out at BreakPoint.org, and you’ll see why so many adolescents are struggling today—and how you can help them meet, not religion, but God.