Editor’s Note: Pre-Order 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, co-authored by the writer of this article, from the Fuller Youth Institute. It comes out August 3, 2021.
Despite all odds, the 2020 Olympic Games are happening now in Tokyo.
The irony of the “2020” Games taking place in 2021 is not lost on the young people around us—it’s like a lot of their own experiences this past year: delayed, uncertain, disappointing, but maybe still holding the hope of something real. A lot, perhaps, like their own faith journeys too.
Leading up to this year’s Olympics, my 16-year-old has been tracking closely with the US Women’s Soccer team—watching their pre-Olympic series, anxiously awaiting the final roster, talking about injuries and behind-the-scenes drama.
She’s so into it because she’s also a soccer player. While not on an Olympic pathway herself, she identifies with these women who embody the ultimate success in the sport she loves. But like so many young athletes, she will pay close attention across all the sports—following on social media, looking at record-breakers and style-makers, riveted on who is speaking up and about what.
The teenagers around us are eager for the stories and performances that will dominate our screens the next couple of weeks. That means Olympic season is the perfect time to engage young people about their faith journeys through 3 questions that we all face—whether or not we’re athletes.
The question of identity, or Who am I?
Our hunger for belonging that causes us to wonder, Where do I fit?
Our search for purpose, or What difference can I make?
We’ve been exploring these 3 big questions by listening to today’s teenagers in intensive interviews and combining our findings with the best research on Gen Z. Drawing from what we’ve learned, here are 5 ways to talk with teenagers about faith while we watch this year’s Olympics.
1. Talk about the Fleeting Nature of Fame and Success
In many sports, Olympic athletes gain glory or get crushed by mere hundredths of seconds. Athletes prepare for years, sometimes hyped by media coverage and large social media followings, only to get trimmed from the team at the final trials. For others, the difference of one-half arm’s length in the pool or a fraction of a stride on the track separate medalists from could-have-beens. It’s maddening to watch—and sometimes heartbreaking.
This year’s absence of Olympic spectators reinforces the reality that cheering fans ebb and flow—or disappear altogether. And our kids are watching as more athletes (including teenagers like them) test positive for COVID at the last minute and lose out on their chance to compete.
Talk with young people about the fleeting nature of fame and success, and how important it is to center our identity in something beyond the arena. Athletes work their whole lives for one moment, but then go on to live whole lives after that moment is over. Ask teenage athletes in your life who they are outside their sports, and how sports can be part—but not all—of their identity. Talk about how success or fame might feel good, but can fade as quickly as it rises.
In our research with teenagers, we heard a lot about how young people feel like they’re not enough. Not pretty enough. Not athletic enough. Not smart enough. Not spiritual enough.
In the face of all that not-enough, we believe a better answer to the big question of identity is that we’re enough because of Jesus. We don’t have to try so hard to win everyone’s approval or become their preferred version of us. God says we are enough because we are created in God’s image as beloved children—regardless of others’ expectations and disappointments.
Let’s invite young people to center their identity in Jesus, who turns all our not-enough into enough. That’s so much more permanent than performance, success, or fame.
2. Talk about What’s Inspiring
Watch stories together with teenagers about athletes who break barriers, especially age—both those who are the youngest on their teams as well as those who keep performing past the age when others tend to retire in their respective sports. Look for athletes who break records of speed or skill, or who introduce new moves and try new approaches.
There’s so much to be inspired about, including stories of hardship, struggle, and overcoming obstacles to perform at the Olympics. And so many stories of faith. Listen together, and connect these stories to young people’s sense of purpose. What does it mean to be significant, to be inspiring, to do something meaningful?
Among the answers teenagers find to the big question of purpose, we believe the most meaningful is to help them see their own stories through the lens of God’s bigger story. Our best answer to the question, “What difference can I make?” is that our lives matter because we are part of the ongoing plot of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our world.
Paul uses the metaphor of sports in 1 Corinthians 9 to connect the believer’s purpose to the greater story of God: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (v 24-25).
3. Talk about How Athletes Are Using Their Platforms to Advance Social Issues
As we’re talking about what’s inspiring and how it connects to a sense of purpose, teenagers are likely to bring up how athletes use their platforms for influence. Today’s Olympians speak out on social media and in interviews about women’s rights, abuse, racial justice, environmental care, suicide prevention, and a host of social issues that matter to young people.
One of the reasons gymnastics icon Simone Biles is returning to this year’s Games is to highlight survivors of sexual abuse. Her 4.3 million Instagram followers—many of them young people—are paying close attention.
Advocacy is also tied to the big question of purpose—how we make a difference in the world. Ask young people what they’re hearing athletes speak up about, and how others are responding to their advocacy. Discuss what it means to pursue justice and pair voice with action. Explore what your young people care about and how they want to make a difference. If given the platform, what cause would they elevate? How would their faith influence their voice?
Tie all this to the bigger story of what God is doing in the world, and how we can be part of that story and find meaning through faithful advocacy and action.
4. Talk about Athletes and Mental Health
This year our family watched the Michael Phelps-produced documentary The Weight of Gold, exploring the intense pressure athletes feel and its impact on their mental health, specifically highlighting the crisis of depression and suicide among top-level athletes.
The mental health struggles of young athletes in particular are often tied to questions of identity. Who am I if I’m not a winner? What am I worth after I’ve maxed out my performance potential? For many Olympians, a great empty void follows the greatest competition of all time, but athletes at all levels can relate to this to some extent.
Ask your teenagers questions like: When do you feel overwhelmed as an athlete? How would you know when you or a friend needed help? Do you know who you could reach out to?
Talk about the ways prayer, reading Scripture, and talking with friends and church leaders might be helpful practices for attending to anxiety, but also the reality that sometimes any of us might need help through other means like professional therapy or prescription medication.
It can be tough to know when a teenager needs outside help. Experts tell us to watch for trouble managing anxiety, struggles dealing with everyday life, pronounced intensity in any given aspect of life, and use of unhealthy coping strategies like alcohol, drugs, or self-harm.
Note: If you have urgent concerns about a young person you know, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
5. Tell Your Own Athletes That They Belong, No Matter What
One of the great thrills of athletics can be the sense of belonging tied to being on a team. We all need to know we belong, and for young people in particular, the drive to know where they fit is a core question. But belonging to a team is, by nature, limited. Teams last a season, maybe more, then dissolve. For Olympians in particular, an athlete may be “on the team” for less than a month altogether!
Teenagers we’ve studied in our research talk about belonging on teams, but also talk about the deep belonging of being part of a family. When we sense that we really belong in our families, we can enjoy these other temporary connections without losing our sense of belonging when they fade.
To foster this in our families, we can affirm and reaffirm what we love about our young athletes, both on and off the field. Do this by noticing out loud what you observe: how much she passes to teammates, how he cheers others on when he sits the bench, or how she stays behind to clean up. Name what you love about how they play, not just what they accomplished on the field, floor, or mat.
Or keep it much simpler. One infamous study of college athletes found that the six words they most wanted to hear from their parents after games were these: “I love to watch you play.”
We can also foster belonging in our churches. Young people are hungry to be accepted, known, and welcomed for who they are in a church community. As they search for an answer to the big question “Where do I fit?” we can help them discover the Christ-centered answer: I belong with God’s people. We don’t have to earn love, acceptance, or our place in the body of Christ. We belong to God and to one another.
Ask a young person, Who are the people in your life who make you feel like you fit—like you belong? How do you know you belong with God’s people? Where do you feel like you belong, no matter what?
This year’s Olympics will feature resilience, courage, and faith like perhaps no other Games before. While we take it all in, let’s capture the moment to have great conversations and connections with the teenagers in our lives.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Sam Balye
Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content at the Fuller Youth Institute and the coauthor of several books including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.