Guest Column: How Leaders Can Help Young People Make a Purpose Pivot
Kara Powell, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Chief of Leadership Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary. Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. She is the author or co-author of a number of books, including 3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager (releasing August 2021), which Kara shares more about in a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode.
This blog represents her opinions, interwoven with recent Barna data.
Imagine this: You’re talking to two young people, perhaps after church or in your family room. Both of them are in a good mood—they answer your questions, engage in conversation and even crack a few jokes with you. They seem totally fine.
On the outside.
The inside may be a different story, however. Data from Barna’s recent study, Gen Z Volume 2, show that, in describing their experience with various emotions, 44 percent of 13–21-year-olds reported feeling lonely “a lot” or “some” of the time. So, odds are that one of the two young people you’ve just spent time with is struggling with loneliness.
That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news: Over the last couple of years, our research team at Fuller Youth Institute has conducted numerous surveys and focus groups with over 2,200 teenagers, as well as in-depth multi-session interviews with 27 diverse youth group high school students nationwide. Based on that data, our team believes that leaders may be one surprising pivot away from offering lonely teenagers and young adults the help they need to move from isolation to impact.
Purpose: An overlooked antidote for loneliness
When we as caring leaders, parents and grandparents fear that young people feel lonely, we try to get them to spend more time with others. We encourage them to reach out to new or old friends, often even suggesting the names of peers who might be available.
We’re well-intentioned, but often suggestions such as, “Why don’t you go be with more people?” fall flat. Teenagers are still just as lonely, and all we’ve done is increase the tension in our home, small group or ministry.
Instead, we would be wise to heed a second finding from Barna’s recent exploration of teenage emotions and experiences. According to nationwide interviews conducted for Gen Z Volume 2, only one in four U.S. teens (25%) feels empowered. Those who are categorized as “empowered” express a number of sentiments, including that they feel able to accomplish their goals and think someone believes in them.
That means the other 75 percent of U.S. young people don’t share those feelings.
In their provocative data about loneliness and empowerment, Barna Group has highlighted how young people—as well as all generations—are hungry for what we at the Fuller Youth Institute call “belonging” and “purpose.” Based on the interviews, focus groups and surveys mentioned earlier, we at the Fuller Youth Institute believe that belonging and purpose (as well as a third quest about identity) are the “big questions” that drive much of people’s attitudes and actions.
Belonging and purpose don’t live in isolation—they often rub shoulders. Multiple studies confirm that feeling a sense of belonging is an important prerequisite to discovering purpose. But here’s the surprising twist that enables us to help lonely young people: Our interviewees who were empowered to express their purpose through social activism shared that they enjoyed doing so with others.
In other words, living with purpose can bring relational connections that serve as powerful antidotes to loneliness.
The purpose pivot: From isolation to impact
Thinking back to the Fuller Youth Institute’s study of young adults, this link between purposeful service and a sense of belonging was evident in Kevin, a biracial senior we interviewed who had big dreams for how God was going to work in and through him. Kevin shared, “I think of myself like a pencil. I can try to be a utensil to eat with—like a fork or a chopstick—but that’s not my purpose. Either I’m writing and being used for God’s purposes, or I’m not.”
As he lives out God’s purposes for him, Kevin volunteers in his church, leads a Christian club on his public school campus alongside a few friends and attends a weekly small group of high school boys led by an adult mentor. When he serves and leads, he’s surrounded by friends who know him and remind him that he’s not alone.
During the pandemic, another high school senior who was deeply missing her friends was asked by her youth pastors to volunteer in the high school ministry as a social media intern. Her pastors knew that she was struggling with social isolation. They also knew that she had both time to help and Instagram skills that far exceeded their own.
While plenty of other high school students, especially 12th graders, drifted from the Church—and a lot of other things—during the pandemic, this senior was more engaged than ever. She grew closer to her two youth pastors and stayed more in touch with other kids from her youth group online.
I had a front-row seat to all of this, because that 12th grader is my 18-year-old daughter, Krista. During the pandemic, our church gave Krista—and me—the gift of helping her pivot from isolation to impact.
Without question, sometimes the loneliness struggles of young people are best addressed by mental health professionals and thoughtful therapeutic interventions. But with young people like Kevin and Krista, and perhaps some of the young people closest to you, feeling lonely might also be countered by serving with others.
As you take inventory of the needs of the young people in your church or community, be on the lookout for opportunities to invite teenagers into this purpose pivot.
 Kendall Cotton Bronk, Purpose in Life: A Critical Component of Optimal Youth Development (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Science & Business Media, 2014), 118.