Next Gen leader: It’s time for mental health to be a part of student ministry

By Scott Barkley

NASHVILLE (BP) — Shane Pruitt’s background in observing students is tough to top. Last year alone, he spoke at 117 events to more than 260,000 in attendance, recording more than 30,000 salvations and 1,500 called into the ministry. He also helped coach more than 6,200 collegiate and student leaders.

Arguably, no one in Southern Baptist life has spent more time with students and their leaders in recent years. Over that time, a particular observation has arisen that Pruitt feels churches can no longer ignore.

Shane Pruitt is national next gen director for the North American Mission Board.

In the fall of 2020, Barna released a study claiming that mental health is the new domain of ministry to the next generation. Shortly thereafter, Pruitt wrote his own column on the matter, saying the church in America had taken positive steps to address the issue before adding “but we still have a long way to go.”

A quick Google search shows the topic’s proximity to discussions over social media, family constructs, gender identity and, of course, the COVID pandemic. Harmony Healthcare IT, a data management firm in the healthcare industry, reported in 2022 that 42 percent of Gen Z had a diagnosed mental health condition, with anxiety far and away the most-diagnosed condition.

Pruitt, National Next Gen director for the North American Mission Board, says the pandemic didn’t lead to an increase in anxiety among young people, but was significant in revealing it.

“I think there are some healthy and unhealthy contributors to it,” he said. “A healthy contributor is that the church is doing a better job shining a light on it. For many churches, mental and emotional health were those things they didn’t really know how to treat. They might say to just read your Bible about it and pray more.”

It would be unequivocally foolish to draw from the sentence that Pruitt doesn’t believe in the Bible. He points to passages such as Matthew 6:33-34 in placing one’s trust in God. His point is that churches have become wiser about seeking biblically-based counseling for mental health issues they aren’t equipped to handle properly.

“The church has done a better job of teaching about mental health, highlighting it and saying this is a safe place to speak up and get the help you need,” he said.

Pruitt recently discussed the subject with BP Editor Brandon Porter on an episode of Baptist Press This Week.

There are cases when students are struggling with mental health to the point that professional help is needed, Pruitt said. However, it would be naïve not to assume some cases are more related to the normal moodiness associated with the teen years.

“This is an unhealthy contributor,” he said. “Because there is so much focus on anxiety, it can create a bit of a social contagion where groups of teens are diagnosing each other.”

Confusion over sexual identity and gender also contribute, he said. “When God has designed you one way, but the culture is saying you’ll be celebrated going another way, that will create a lot of unrest in you.”

As a father of six, Pruitt noted how anxiety is by no means reserved for young people. Recent health issues for his son, who has cerebral palsy, reminded him of this.

“Anxiety is worrying about what will happen, whether it does or not” he said. “It may happen, but even if it does the Lord is faithful; the Lord is with you.”

He agrees with the premise of the Barna study that mental health is a significant ministry area for churches, to the point that he advocates churches have a staff member for it if the resources are available.

“Of course, most of our churches aren’t going to have the means to do that,” he said. “Just don’t wade into waters on your own where you don’t have the training. You can find a Christian counseling center in your area and partner with them.”

He urges parents to be proactive in talking with their children about anxiety and mental health.

“If it’s not your child, it’s a friend of theirs,” he said. “Look for the signs. Some things work themselves out, but others require help. Find a Christian clinical psychologist and, if there is ever a crisis, you already have a plan.”

Addressing mental health isn’t just for the mind. It’s a part of discipleship, he said.

“Teach what the Bible says about it. When we allow our heart, or feelings, to dictate things,” he said, “it never goes well. Equip people to understand the Word of God.”

Published February 1, 2023

Scott Barkley

Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press