Understanding the Cultural Realities of Children and Youth Today


Janet Craswell and Angela Pupino of National United Methodist Church say ministries with children and youth were severely impacted by the pandemic and are still rebuilding in most churches. They say a truly intergenerational church must embrace the voices and concerns of younger people and acknowledge the unique cultural realities that shape the lives 

There are very few intergenerational spaces left in our society. School, work, even some housing is segregated by age. One of the blessings of the church is that it is intergenerational. It always has been. But as an intergenerational body the church must also be “intercultural,” understanding and embracing the cultural realities of each generation.  

Children and youth have a different culture than adults. Children and youth know a lot about adult culture — they watch us, they must follow our rules, learn our customs, and read our moods. But do older generations truly understand the cultural realities of children and youth today? 

The pandemic was hard on adults. It was very hard on children. Small children lost some normal childhood experiences: learning how to make friends, take turns, respect personal space, or play with others. Academically, some kept up, but many show social and emotional delays that will take a while to make up.  

They are digital natives — they have had the internet their whole lives. This gives them a wealth of information at their fingertips and enables them to be in constant contact with their friends. For some, this was a lifesaver during the pandemic. Teens could not see each other in person but kept in touch online. But the internet also means children and youth are exposed to everything. It is difficult to shelter children from violent and hateful content. 

An alarming rise in anxiety and depression 

There is an alarming increase in anxiety and depression among teens — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 60% increase in the incidence of suicidality (suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts) in teen girls in the decade between 2011 and 2021. Boys record a similar increase; the numbers are even worse for LGBTQ youth. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011–2021 

Some of the depression stems from the isolation of the pandemic, and some stems from the effect of relentless images of perfection in social media and advertising. No one can measure up to the airbrushed, filtered photos on Instagram.   

Very real fears and concerns 

And some of this anxiety is perfectly reasonable. Children and youth worry about climate change. About gun violence. About the problems they will inherit. And the problems are real.  

Our country’s epidemic of gun violence is now in its second generation. Do not underestimate how much the children understand. They speak freely of the fear of violence sparked by every classroom drill and news report. Adult attempts to protect them have led to still more stress: the stress of encountering metal detectors or being forced to carry belongings in clear backpacks or bulletproof backpacks. And then there is the stress of strategizing what you would do, where the exits are, how to protect your friends and yourself. Today’s children and youth know that gun violence is real and frequent. 

The mistakes that come with being young are now fatal. Children and teenagers who trespass or goof off in public will face more than shaken fists and “Get off my lawns” — they may face a gunshot. Being young can be a criminal offense, especially for Black boys.  

Then there is climate change. Children know a lot about animals and what they need to thrive and survive. But they also understand how ecosystems collapse, and how the loss of one species can cascade through the whole food chain. Children understand science, which is wonderful. But the problem is that what they understand makes them anxious about the future. 

Rebuilding, recovering, resurrecting 

In most churches, ministries with children and youth were severely impacted by the pandemic pause, and many are still in the mode of recovery and rebuilding. It will take a long time to fully rebuild. But in our church, we see resurrection happening as children are encouraged to wonder, to question, to serve, and to learn.  

There are moments when the Spirit catches a child’s attention, when they gaze with wonder at the light coming through the stained-glass windows, when they hold their breath as we light the candle that symbolizes that God is with us. We get so used to it, but for preschoolers it is all new. Their perspectives refresh ours. The kindness, theological insight, concern and wonder of children make our whole church stronger.  

In our youth ministry, resurrection happens whenever a young person steps more fully into the person that they are becoming and every time a youth reveals a bit more about themself. They don’t want to listen to platitudes: they want to engage with the Bible fully, including stories that make many adults uncomfortable. They bring their full selves to church because they’ve learned that they can, even while they’re still discovering who they are. That is new life at work and good news for the rest of us.  

Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking of children and youth as the church of tomorrow. They are not. They are the church of now. The Spirit moves among children just as she moves among adults. The youth see the hurts and injustices of the world; if the church is to serve the world, we need their perspective and leadership. Not because young people are the church of tomorrow but because if they are not included now the church is not fully the church.  

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About Author

Janet Craswell is Minister of Discipleship at National United Methodist Church in Washington, DC.

Angela Pupino is a Master of Divinity Student at Wesley Theological Seminary and Student Ministries Coordinator at National United Methodist Church in Washington, DC.