Student pastors have found an unlikely example to emulate in their mission to positively influence teens: the country of Iceland.
In the mid-’90s substance abuse amongst Icelandic teens was epidemic: 42 percent of teenagers reported getting drunk in the last month, 23 percent regularly smoked cigarettes, 17 percent regularly consumed marijuana. The teen culture in Iceland was violently spiraling out of control.
“You couldn’t walk the streets in downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it felt unsafe,” Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University, told The Atlantic recently. “There were hordes of teenagers getting in-your-face drunk.”
Decades earlier Milkman contributed to research claiming that teens who regularly abused substances were candidates for addiction before touching a cigarette or beer. Milkman found that teens experiencing high amounts of anxiety were abusing substances to self-regulate. He concluded the most effective way to limit substance abuse was to provide teenagers with alternative activities that produced a natural version of the “high” they were looking for. Milkman’s theory was that by giving teens easy access to after-school activities—activities like sports, music or dance—they could train teens to find a natural “brain rewiring” from the positive endorphins the body produces while exercising, socializing or learning a new activity.
When Iceland discovered Milkman’s research, they went all-in with implementation. They established curfews, parental education classes, nationally funded after-school programs and even tax credits to families specifically designated for recreational activities. The radical approach paid huge dividends: cigarette, alcohol and drug use rates plummeted, while teens’ times with their parents and involvement in afterschool activities doubled.
While Iceland’s success has drawn notice around the country, there is doubt over how transferable this model would be in America. Iceland’s total population is around 330,000, the equivalent of the 57th biggest city in America, approximately equivalent to rust belt metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Two-thirds of Iceland’s population lives in the capital city of Reykjavik, meaning that both culturally and geographically Iceland has been able to focus its efforts on a condensed area. Not only is the United States population both spread out geographically and culturally diverse, but the income inequalities mean programs that could be funded in one area wouldn’t work in others.
However, Iceland’s approach should be very intriguing to youth ministries (perhaps especially to ones in small churches). Here are three key takeaways for student pastors:
1. Student Activities Make a Difference
As exhausting as overnighters, broom hockey, game nights or scavenger hunts are to organize and implement, research suggests these sort of events really do make a difference in the lives of students. Beyond the community building, youth ministry events train students’ brains to be stimulated by something other than a substance, smartphone or television show.
2. Parental Engagement Is Key
Milkman’s research found one of the key elements that made students substance-abuse resistant was regular, quality family time. Students with a stable, peaceful, loving home-life had more regulated brain chemistry, creating less of a desire for chemicals to self-regulate.
Student ministries across the country are all trying to crack the code of partnering with parents, and the challenges—families are busy, student pastors are maxed out, and some parents aren’t interested—are real. However, if churches are truly committed to the lives of their teens, all this effort is worth it. One thing the Icelandic example illustrates is that this message might be more effective coming from the senior pastor. Iceland’s efforts came from the government, which used curfews and tax breaks to directly impact the lives of adults, which trickled down to their children. For student ministries to effectively shape family cultures, the entire church will need to be on board.
3. “Replacing” Works Better Than “Preventing”
Studies find educating teens about the danger of behaviors is limited in its effectiveness. Iceland solved this by replacing what teenagers were looking for—a way to cope with anxiety—with a healthier alternative, rather than focusing solely on prevention.
Student pastors carry the weight of their student’s decisions on their shoulders, concerning themselves with their sexual, social and substance abuse behaviors. This study proves what many pastors who grew up in the era of purity rings and pledges already know: Simply telling teens to abstain from certain behaviors isn’t as effective as offering a replacement for the behavior. Fortunately, student pastors have the good news of God’s kingdom to preach, guiding students toward a replacement—the fulfillment of a God-focused life—over pure prevention.
While America will likely never adopt Iceland’s model on a federal or state level, the church is equipped to do something similar organically, with the added bonus that the message of Jesus can truly transform teenagers’ lives. If nothing else, the report from Iceland is an encouragement to student ministries that what they’re trying to accomplish really can make a difference in the life of a generation.