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How Your Students’ Sleep Deprivation Is Affecting Your Ministry

sleep deprivation

How Your Students’ Sleep Deprivation Is Affecting Your Ministry

I stumbled across some research last week that absolutely blew me away.

I mean, I already knew that this generation of teenagers was sleeping less than every generation before them.

But I guess I just didn’t realize how much less.

According to this, more than half of teenagers are now chronically underslept.

And while I know that a student’s salvation is a more important priority than a student’s sleep habits …

… this issue matters more than most of us realize, and it’s already affecting our ministries.

Poor sleep habits lead to a host of other problems for teenagers, and those problems quickly become your problems.

DEPRESSION and ANXIETY
Sleep deprivation is a key indicator of and a direct contributor to depression and anxiety disorders.

You’ve probably noticed it in your own ministry, and the statistics would prove you right. The number of students fighting depressive disorders is skyrocketing, and it’s happening at almost the same rate and on the same timetable that sleep hours are plummeting. This is no coincidence.

In my career, I’ve been likely to recommend Christian counseling and prayer as effective tools in combating depression.

I should also recommend sleep. It’s effective and it’s biblical too.

EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING
You know those eighth-graders who are always riding an emotional roller coaster? They make friends and enemies at the same time, love and hate the same things in the same day, or regularly laugh and cry in the same sentence.

Some of that is media- and culture-driven. Some of that is the cost of being 14-years-olds and excessively hormonal.

But much of it is a direct result of a lack of sleep.

If you’ve ever dealt with an emotional student calling or texting you at 2 in the morning because of social drama, the temptation is to want to talk them through their issue.

But sometimes, the solution they need is just to go to sleep.

APATHY and DISINTEREST
If you’ve got students who sit in your Sunday school classes with blank expressions and silent mouths, it’s natural to issue the classic youth worker’s lament:

“They just don’t seem to care about their faith!”

But would those students act any differently if they were simply exhausted instead of spiritually apathetic?

The truth is that those two states look nearly identical, and the good news is that what we see as apathy could simply be a total lack of sleep. Sometimes when we’re dealing with apathetic students, we’re really dealing with very tired students.

What should youth ministry do about sleep habits?

This is a significant challenge to overcome. Helping students to develop Bible-reading habits or to adopt a prayer plan requires them to find 10 extra minutes throughout the day.

But the data suggests that if students are going to solve their sleep problems, they’re going to need to track down an extra hour or two. That’s tough, and it’s not something we can fix on our own.

Here are four quick steps you can take starting right now to address the silent problem that’s hurting our students more than they realize.

EMPHASIZE REST AT YOUTH GROUP EVENTS
When you’re at camp or on retreat, build your schedule so that students sleep eight to nine hours without exception. Be militant about maintaining lights out, for your students’ sake.

When everyone’s feeling that “camp high,” make sure to point out the very valid reasons for it. Fellowship with others, quiet time with God, intentional periods of worship …

… and for the first time in who knows how long, actually sleeping like humans are supposed to sleep.

It’s not lost on me that while many students will hang on to the spiritual habits they developed at camp for at least a few days, they return to poor sleep habits almost immediately, and everything falls apart shortly after that.

DON’T GLORIFY BAD SLEEP HABITS
I am so guilty of telling awesome stories about the epic all-night cram sessions that I pulled in college fueled by insane quantities of caffeine and sugar.

I don’t tell those stories anymore, because the last thing I want to do is to tell students how amazing it was when I did something certifiably unhealthy.

I wouldn’t tell them about how awesome it was that time I got super-drunk. I wouldn’t tell them about how awesome it was that I drove 120 down the freeway. Neither would you.

Sleep deprivation is a very real problem that very often leads to other very real problems. It’s not something we should lift up or tacitly encourage.

EDUCATE PARENTS
Sleep-science is an emerging field, and so much of the data that it holds is new. Adults already know that their teens aren’t sleeping much, but there’s an excellent chance they’re not fully acquainted with the consequences of that.

Twenty years ago, the common thinking was that the primary consequence of not sleeping was that you would feel tired.

But today we’re armed with information about sleep and its affect on overall health, sleep and its affect on academic achievement, and sleep and its affect on attitudes and behavior.

Maybe it’s not terribly likely that the parents of a 17-year-old will start implementing a strict bedtime, but a little well-placed parental encouragement can go a massively long way.

ENCOURAGE STUDENTS
Jesus said it first: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

Today’s teenagers are nothing if not weary. They’re flat-out exhausted.

Students hear that it’s a very Christian thing to go and do and love and serve. But they also need to hear that it’s a very Christian thing to rest.

Years ago, a well-known teen-evangelist told my students to do “whatever it took” to reach their friends for Christ and added that “you’ll have plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.”

And while I’m no prophet, I can say with some degree of certainty that those are not the words that Christ would have used in the midst of the most underslept and overstressed generation that we’ve ever tried to reach.

P.S. Everything that I wrote about students? It goes for you, too. Sleep deprivation is absolutely a contributing factor to youth worker burnout. Take care of yourself.  

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Aaron Helman is on a mission to help end the epidemic of youth worker burnout. He writes at Smarter Youth Ministry to help youth workers with their biggest frustrations—things like leading volunteers, managing money, and communicating effectively. He is also the youth minister at Firehouse Youth Ministries in South Bend, Indiana.