As a youth leader, teacher, or parent it can be difficult to know how to help our children and teenagers process something as tragic as a mass shooting, such as the one that happened this week at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. Six people—three children and three adults—were killed, as well as the perpetrator. But when traumatic events happen, it provides an opportunity to speak into young lives in a deep and meaningful way.
It’s important to take time to help young people sort through their thoughts and feelings about tragic events. Whenever news of a school shooting spreads, our young people are impacted. Innocence ebbs away, and students—many who already struggle with anxiety—can spiral into confusion, fear, and even depression. Or, on the flip side but perhaps nearly as worrying, they can become numb and hardened to reports of evil and death.
The CDC recently reported that 57% of teenage girls in the U.S. feel “persistently sad or hopeless.” Around 30% of girls admit they’ve seriously considered taking their own lives.
As the father of a teenage girl, this breaks my heart!
Every report of every school shooting adds fuel to the fire and chips away at young people’s hopes. It steals a little more innocence. It adds a little more fear.
It was a school shooting that catapulted me out of being the preaching pastor of a church into leading Dare 2 Share, a ministry focused on reaching teenagers, full-time.
On April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School massacre took place in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of my hometown of Denver. The news hit me hard, because not only did I know a lot of the students who attended Columbine at the time, but my wife was (and still is) a public school teacher in the same school district.
I’ll never forget heading down to Clement Park, right next to Columbine High School, to reach out to the teenagers and parents who had gathered there to pray and to mourn. Amidst the massive amount of reporters, I did my best to speak into the lives of terrified and traumatized teenagers who had gathered there.
Hearing the stories of the survivors and watching their tears impacted me to the point that I eventually resigned from the church to lead Dare 2 Share full-time.
It’s been almost 24 years since the Columbine shooting. Sadly, school shootings have increased, not decreased, over the last few decades. During this time, I’ve spoken to hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of teenagers at our Dare 2 Share gatherings and other events. I’ve had the privilege to personally connect with students, parents, teachers, youth pastors, and school administrators who’ve been affected by school shootings and other mass shootings in one way or another. Even my own son had a shooting take place on the grounds of his school campus 15 years ago.
Of course, empathetic listening is a huge part of ministering to teenagers. But over the years, I’ve also discovered a few ways of encouraging them to respond to the sad and scary reality of mass shootings. As you help young people process tragic events, encourage them to:
1. Cry for those who cry.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.Romans 12:15
It’s a good thing to shed tears over those who’ve lost their lives or been hurt in an attack. Our hearts should break for those who’ve been broken. They should also break for those countless others who are struggling with loss and grief.
Many teenagers live in fear today—fear of failure, fear of rejection, and fear of this brand of violence erupting in their schools. It’s good for teenagers to learn how to grieve for those who grieve, like the people of Nashville, who are grieving right now for the loss of so many of their own.
One of the best ways we can help them hurt for those who hurt is by spending time in prayer as a youth group for the victims and the victims’ families. Maybe this week in youth group, you can lead students in a time of prayer for the victims of The Covenant School tragedy.
2. Refuse to live in fear.
Our teenagers who believe in Jesus do not need to live in fear of death. Hebrews 2:14-15 reminds us that Jesus shares in our “…humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
For us, as believers in Jesus, death is not a tragedy as much as it is a transition into the presence of God. As painful as it is for those of us who are left behind, those who die as believers in Jesus are experiencing the unspeakable joy of a real Heaven.
This is why it’s so vital to make sure your teenagers understand the Gospel message and have put their faith in Jesus. We can’t prevent mass shootings, but we can make sure our teenagers are ready to die, if that day comes.
3. Take their worries to God in prayer.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:6-7
Sadly, we live in a country where violence is all too common. I wonder how many times a day teenagers look at a closed classroom door, asking themselves: What if…?
But we can help our young people learn how to transform this nervousness into an excuse to turn to God in prayer. We can teach them to bring their worries to God until they experience His peace, which transcends all understanding. This peace does not remove the threat but allows teenagers to face any threat with a deep, steady hope in their hearts.
4. Reach out to the broken, bullied, and belligerent.
Often, the shooters in these kinds of tragedies are those who have been bullied, ignored, or marginalized in some way. When they finally snap, they retaliate with deadly violence.
We can help children and teenagers become change agents by equipping them to reach out to their peers with the Good News of Jesus. They can actively look for those at their schools who seem to be hurting, hated, or hate-filled and begin to pray for them, care for them, and share the Gospel with them, out loud with words.
At Dare 2 Share, our goal is to mobilize teenagers to be ambassadors of the hope of Jesus on their school campuses. We challenge them to sit at a different cafeteria table over lunch, to befriend the kids who sit by themselves, to pray for them, and to share the love of God with them. The last Saturday of every month, we mobilize teenagers across the world to participate in Go Share Day, during which hundreds of youth groups go out to serve their communities and share the Gospel, with love and humility.
This prepares them to go back to their schools on Monday morning with missionary eyes, looking for the hurting to minister to, looking for the lost to find. God only knows how many school shootings have been prevented because some teenager reached out with the message of hope to a young person on the fringes.
5. Be ready to act when the time comes.
Jesus said His disciples should be “as shrewd as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We can apply this truth to dealing with violent situations.
Challenge your children and teenagers to take immediate and decisive action if they see or sense danger. That action may be to run, lock a door, jump out a window, hide in a closet, or charge a gunman. It all depends on the situation. But the last thing they should do is nothing. Law enforcement officials have seen this proven true in countless situations.
And, it’s not just young people who must act—it’s also the Church. It’s time churches rally around the schools in their communities, both public and private, to pray for them, serve them, volunteer in them, and protect them.
What tragedies might be prevented and what hearts might be healed if the Church rose up as guardians of our nation’s schools?
I pray this blog equips you to help your children and teenagers dialogue about the recent mass shooting and gives you some practical truths you can encourage and challenge them with this week.