Brad Griffin: What Difference Can I Make?
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Brad GriffinBrad M. Griffin is the senior director of content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books.
“What difference can I make?” Fuller Youth Institute’s Brad Griffin helps you answer teens’ big questions and locate purpose they crave.
Brad Griffin: What Difference Can I Make?
Brad: We think one of the best Jesus-centered answerswhen it relates to this question of“What difference can I make?” or ”How will my life matter?” or ”Why am I here?”that purpose questionis the idea of story and being caught up in God’s story.
My story doesn’t live in a vacuum. My story isn’t just about—even our family’s story—it’s not just about: “We’re going to build a family legacy,” or “You need to do this or that, because you’re part of this family,” or any of that. Our story matters because we’re caught up in the story of God: and what God has done, what God is doing now, what God will do. This is His story, and we get to be a part of itwe get to have our chapter in the bookbut the book isn’t about us fundamentally; it’s about God.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: I think I know the answer to this question; but do you remember the first time you wondered why you are here/your purpose?
Ann: Yes. [Laughter] Isn’t that funny that I remember?
Dave: I want our listeners to hear this; because, when you told me this 40-some years ago, in our first year of marriage, I was sort of shocked.
Ann: I was in the second grade, and I was in bed. Mind you [emotion in voice]—I’m going to get teary talking about this—because of sexual abuse in my past, I would ask deep questions, like: “Why is this happening?” I would ask: “What’s wrong with me? Who am I?” But the big question that I would ask is: “Why am I here?” I would ask that continually, “Why am I on this earth? Is there a purpose to it?”
Because I had a great familybut that abuse was outside the familyI just felt like: “Something must be wrong with me.” We didn’t have much God in our family; we didn’t talk about Him much. But I thought, “If there’s a God, is there a purpose to my life?” Those are big questions for a little eight-year-old girl.
Dave: Yes, that’s why I was shocked. I don’t remember thinking that until I was in college.
Ann: I was with my parents when they were like 84; I’m on this trip with them. I said to my dad, “Dad, do you remember the first time you asked the question ‘Why am I here?’”
He goes [imitating his voice], “I’ve never actually thought that until this very moment.” [Laughter] I’m like, “What?! You’re 84!” He goes, “I’ve never thought of that,” which is so interesting.
Dave: Her dad, Dick, became sort of my dad; because I didn’t have a dad. He’s my kind of guy[Laughter]I’m like, “I relate to that,”it’s like, “You’re 84 years old”; he had neverand he meant it
Ann: Oh, absolutely.
Dave: he’d never really thought about it.
I remember Ann telling me”second grade”I’m like, “Wow! This woman is deep.”
Ann: Well, there was a lot of pain.
Dave: Yes, and it’s interesting that that was behind it.
Ann: Why are we asking this question today?
Dave: We’re asking this question because we’re talking about the three big questions teenagers ask. We have Brad Griffin back in the studio with us today, who’s a parent, but also has studied teens and knows what these questions are.
Brad, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Brad: It’s so great to be here.
Dave: We’ve had a great conversation with you about the book that you wrote with Kara Powell called the 3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections. Obviously, this is important for all of us; but especially, for us as parents.
Ann: I’m going to say, too, for our listeners: “If you have teenagers, get this bookmaybe preteenagersget this book. You’re going to be fascinated. We couldn’t put it down. It’s so helpful/encouraging to guide us and helping us.”
Dave: Tell our listeners a little bit about what you do. I know you’re at the Fuller Youth Institute. What is that? How does it work? What do you do there?
Brad: Our mission is equipping parents and leaders to really surround young people with support. We talk about helping young people change the world. The way that that happens is that they have adults, in their lives, who are with them/who are really with them and on their team.
We do that through research. And I just love—I’m a research nerd, [Laughter] so I love listening—research is just a fancy way of saying: “Listen to people, and tell stories about it.” That’s what we do. We really want to equip people to do what they want to do, which is be better parents/be better leaders. We serve a lot of youth ministry leaders, because we focus in on the adolescent years.
Ann: I thought it was interestingeven in your book, in Chapter 1, you say“The following questions were by far the most common questions that emerged from the interview surveys.” I want to hit some of these; because every parent—I would be leaning inlike: “What are our teens asking?”
Dave: By the way, these were not the three biggies. These were like, they’re in these; but you’ve got to sort of filter through these to get to: “Okay; they’re really asking these three.”
Ann: They’re asking:
- “How do I manage anxiety and stress better?”
- Technology: “We don’t have questions; we’ve kind of got it,” which I thought was interesting. [Laughter]
- Three: Generation is diverse; but they have questions about navigating racial pain; question handling gender identity/sexual orientation; questions about sexuality; questions about safety; questions about drugs, alcohol, vaping.
These are all these big questions, but then you and Kara took it down to the big three; because underneath these surface questions, you’re saying, “No; they really come down to…” Will you name those again/the big three?
Brad: Yes, yes.
- The big question of identity: “Who am I?”
- The big question of belonging: “Where do I fit?”
- The big question of purpose: “What difference can I make?”
Dave: Today, let’s talk about purpose a little bit. But real quickI know, in the book, and we’ve talked about thiswhen they ask, “Who am I?”you say, “The better answer is: ‘You are enough.’”
Brad: —“’in Jesus,’”; yes.
Dave: That’s where we sort of landed that one.
Brad: We did.
Dave: There’s a better answer than: “I’m who my friends say I am”; “I am enough in Christ.”
Brad: Yes; and then with belongingthere’s that better answer/that Jesus-centered answer of “with”: “I belong with God,” “I belong with God’s people.” The sense that we can provide the presence of God through other people, and that they know they’re not alone. That’s kind of the heart of belonging: is that you know you’re not alone.
Brad: With purposeto go that direction, it may actually be helpful, first, to talk about the ways that young people are talking about purpose themselvesbefore we get to that Jesus-centered answer.
Brad: What we heardand we spent over a hundred hours in in-depth interviews, just listening to teenagers talk. We paired that with survey data, and we looked at other research that’s out there on Gen Z and how all this worksand what we heard was a couple of dominant answers.
One of them was around following a script, that: “I’ve been given a lot scripts about how I’m supposed to: ‘Why my life matters,’ ‘Why I’m here,’ ‘What kind of purpose I have in the world.’” Those scripts are sometimes/they have a lot of God language around them, for kids who grew up in the church and in churched families.
For example, there’s actually pressure around finding God’s will. We heard—I remember this one teenager, named Carriesaying, “I want to know what God’s will is for my life, but I’m afraid I’m going to get it wrong. I’m afraid I’m going to go to college, and study this thing; and then it’s going to be the wrong thing, and I’m going to have wasted this time and money.” It was almost this sense of: “There are such high expectations for meto know God’s will and to get it rightthat if I get it wrong, I’m going to be disappointing the people around me, and I’m going to be disappointing God.”
Ann: The parents’ intent is good.
Brad: Right! Our intent is good. [Laughter]
Ann: It’s goodbut the kids are feeling pressure from the parents—maybe they’re dreaming big for their children:
Ann: “I see you doing this…” Is that what you’re kind of saying?
Brad: Yes, absolutely. Sometimes, the way we use God languagewe don’t mean for it to come across as pressurebut it does. Sometimes, it’s honestly because we don’t tell enough stories of failureand of stories of our own journey of discoverywe don’t tell enough stories of not figuring it all out ourselves right away. The way we sort of narrate what that looks like to find God’s will or God’s plan for your life, sometimes that sounds like there’s not room for mistakes or there’s not room for discovery. That’s not actually what we mean to mean at all.
Another narrative we heard was around helping: “I feel like my life matters if I’m helping someone.” Helping is a really good thing, and there’s all kinds of positive research correlations with helping. We could talk all day about how great that is. And there’s sort of a shadow side, toothere’s sort of this sense of“I only matter if I can make somebody happy,” or “I only matter if I do all these things that”again“people expect me to do.”
In some kids’ cases, there’s a lot of expectations around helping in the home/taking care of siblings. With one young man we talked to, his dad is chronically ill. Part of this kid’s daily work, as a teenager, is taking care of his dad. There’s a lot about that that’s beautiful, and that is really mature, and just what it means to be family. And then, there’s a part of it, too, that it’s hard for him to see past kind of being stuck in this family situation to what else his purpose might look like in life; because right now, he’s just helping his family survive.
You’ve got a whole span there; you know?
Ann: I’m thinking of kidsthat maybe their parents have gone through a divorce; and now, they’re in a blended family situationso they’re really asking: “Where do I fit in?” And maybe the families are really different in how they’re answering those questions too. Did you get any of that in the survey?of kids trying to find that balance and identity in that situation.
Brad: Yesdivorce, and family separation, and blended familiesthey raise all kinds of questions around the three questions/this: “Who am I? and “Who am I here, and who am I there?”if you’re juggling between two homes“Where do I fit? What does that look like?”
On the purpose front, it’s interesting, toobecause parents can have very different versions of who they think you should be, and different perspectives on your career path, and on how to lean into those thingsit’s a lot to navigate. We definitely heard from kids, in those situations, who felt pulled. Sometimes, what it does is you have to hold a lot of yourself as a kid/as a teenager; because you are making the decision about how to present in these, and how to answer, and how to navigate.
Honestly, sometimes, kids end up seeing part of their purpose of caring for their parents. This is not only about divorce; but sometimes, kids feel like their parents are emotionally dependent on them; so: “I’ve got to make Mom” or “…Dad happy.”
Dave: Here’s what I’m thinking: I was in a blended family. I don’t know about you twoI want to know if your teenage years were like mineI’m just sitting here, thinking, “I was so selfish. All I cared about, when I was a teen, was making me happy.” I didn’t think about making a difference; I really didn’t.
I’m thinking: “Is the teenager today/are they less selfish than we were?” Because I really didn’t think—Ann was thinking about her purpose in life in second gradeI didn’t care. I was like: “I want to play football,” “I want to date this girl,” “I want to get a scholarship,” “I want to make money.” I don’t think I—and I guess I’m just showing my immaturity and my lack—I didn’t think about any of that. I was just like: “What’s today? Who’s going to love me today? How am I going to be successful today at my high school?”whatever.
Is the teen today different? Again, I’m not saying everybody’s like mebut they do wrestleI mean, we raised them. It’s a different world, and there are stressors and anxiety that they carry that I think is unique to their generation, that makes them ask these: “Who am I?” “Where do I fit?” Am I right; is that what’s happening?
Brad: Yes, a couple of responses: Adolescence—
Dave: Go ahead; you can say I’m very elementary. [Laughter] That’s what you want to say/is first thought is: “Wow, Dave, you just told me everything I needed to know about you.” [Laughter]
Brad: I’m going to set your personality aside for a minute, and your own self-absorption; alright? [Laughter]
Dave: I’ve matured; I don’t think about me anymore. [Laughter]
Brad: We can explore your purpose in a little bit.
First, adolescence very much is a phase that is self-centered and, developmentally, the focus turns inward. You know, every teenager, in a lot of ways, feels like they’re on a stage.
Brad: Of course, they’re going to be performance-focused or feel like: “Everybody’s staring at me,”that’s a really common experience in adolescence.
We also have a research colleague, who says, “When I was 15, I just wanted to play video games all day; I didn’t care about all these things that you all are talking about.” [Laughter] There’s certainly are kids, who experience a wide range of motivation. But I also think we, as a society, we put so much into entertainment, and distraction, and numbing. We actually provide a lot of ways for teenagers to numb themselves from looking right at the big questions.
For that kid, who just wants to play video games all day, or that kid, who isn’t really thinking about: “Why am I here? What’s my meaning in life?”like the big existential side of thatsome of that is because we’ve given them so many ways to be distracted from what matters.
Dave: In some ways, it is an escape.
Ann: I was going to say—
Dave: Even when I think about my experience, that was an escape for me.
Ann: You were escaping, Dave.
Dave: Broken family, alcoholic parents, adultery, blended family—I didn’t know where I fitI felt lost; I felt left. I found my identity being an athlete; I found my identity being popular. It was just an escape; I was searching.
I think, as parents, we need to watch our kids and see those symptoms: “Are they looking for something that we know they’re asking this question by the way they’re behaving?”
Ann: Brad, let me ask youthe questions/the interview process that you went through with all of these teenswere they church kids?
Brad: They were all nominated by ministry leaders, so they were connected with churches.
Ann: So yes.
Brad: Some of them were more active than others; but yes, some of that narrative was there.
Dave: You’re probably getting the best of the best. If I’m a youth pastor, I’m not going to send you some—
Brad: In some ways, we said, “Don’t give us the best of the best.” [Laughter]
Dave: Okay/okay; good.
Ann: But the reason I’m asking is because all of the things you’re talking about what kids feel, I think I put that on our kids:
- “Hey, you need to be serving, because that’s what we do. We give our lives away for Jesus.”
- ”You want to know who you are? This is/Jesus has made you for a purpose…”
I’m hearing all the things that I’ve said to them over the years; and I’m thinking, “Man, I think I put a ton of pressure on them.”
Now our adult sons, some of them, have come back and said, “When you said all those great things about me, I felt you were heaping pressure on my back to become that person. Deep down, I felt like I was a fraud; because I had to live up to all these expectations: ‘I need to serve,’ ‘I need to love Jesus,’ ‘I need to be in the youth group.’”
[I was] not realizinglike my heart was goodlike, “You’re going to find life there.” I wish that I would have kind of sunk down into their world. I feel like I did thatI asked them a lot of questionsbut I didn’t realize I was putting a lot of pressure on them. Do you think parents are relating? Do you relate to that because your heart’s so good?
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Brad Griffin on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear his answer in just a minute; but first, we’d love to send you a copy of Brad’s book, 3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager. It’s our gift to you when you partner with us and make a gift of any amount this week to support the work of FamilyLife Today.
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Alright; now, back to Brad and the pressure parents can inadvertently put on their children.
Brad: A lot of us, too/we don’t want our kids to be entitled. [Laughter] We don’t want them to—
Brad: We hear these narratives about young people, and we’re thinking: “Nope, not my kids,” “My kids are going to know hard work,” “My kids are going to know responsibility; they’re going to know what it means to serve.”
Ann: And those are good things; yes.
Brad: Those are good things; absolutely. There’s a few pieces to that. I think we can relieve that pressure by—so now, I’m going to get to this Jesus-centered answer for purpose—we think one of the best Jesus-centered answers, when it relates to this question of: “What difference can I make?” or “How will my life matter?” “Why am I here?”that purpose questionis the idea of story and being caught up in God’s story.
My story doesn’t live in a vacuum. My story isn’t just about—even our family’s story—it’s not just about: “We’re going to build a family legacy,” or “You need to do this or that, because you’re part of this family,” or any of that. Our story matters because we’re caught up in the story of God: and what God has done, what God’s doing now, what God will do. This is His story, and we get to be a part of itwe get to have our chapter in the bookbut the book isn’t about us fundamentally; it’s about God. In some ways, that can relieve pressure.
Back to God’s will or God’s plan for your life situationI think we can talk to our kids about that in a way that isn’t so pressure-ladenit’s not like: “You need to know God’s will so that you don’t make a wrong decision about college,”or whatever”or whether to take this job or that job,”it’s:
God is with you. God’s put you in a story. It’s going to be a beautiful and complicated story. There’s going to painful parts of the story; there’s going to be amazing joyful parts of the story.
As your parent, if I could, I will make sure that you never ever experience loss, or pain, or anything uncomfortable; because I don’t want you to go through it, and that’s not how life works/that’s not how you grow. [Laughter] This storywe don’t know what it’s going to turn out to bebut it’s God’s, and God’s with you in it. You will never be alone. You will never be alone.
That’s one of the—back to bedtime prayers—that’s one of the prayers I pray over my teenage kids every night is that they would each know that they are not alone/that God is with them. I think that’s about identity, belonging, and purpose.
Ann: Me too.
Brad: Knowing that the presence of God goes with uswhen we sleep; when wake; when we stumble through our day; when we fall down, embarrassingly, in middle school in front of everybody, and rip our pants, and scrape our knee, and we feel so embarrassed and humiliatedyou know, I want my kids to know, in that moment, that they’re not alone/that God’s with them.
Ann: That can happen when they’re toddlers/when they’re babies, of saying—like we have a grandson that’s twoand I remember just talking to him, saying, “Isn’t it amazing that God hears you? He sees you all the time; there’s never a time He doesn’t see you or hear you.”
Even our six-year-old and seven-year-old grandkids, asking this question: “I wonder what He has for you?” You’re not painting the picture that: “This is what it is…” but you’re kind of creating the question: “I wonder what it will look like?”
Then, I remember even telling our kids: “I see this in you…”the gifts and their strengths/their passionlike, “Isn’t it cool?” I think, too, as they get older, of even asking them questions about that, as you were saying, Brad, like: “What are you passionate about right now?” Even just posing the question: “I wonder how God will use that,” or “…if He’ll use it in some way.” It could just be posing the question.
Dave: I think it’s good for us, as parents, to remember that God’s got our kids. Because even as we’ve discussed over the last couple of days, these three questionsidentity, belonging, purposeI think we can get so fearful, as parentsyou know, the anxiety and the stress that our teenagers are feelingthat we forget that there is a God that’s got them.
We’re older now, and have grandkids and have adult sons; and we can look back and go, “You know, all the stress we felt…and we get it; it’s normal; it’s part of being a mom or dadyou look back nowdon’t you?and you go, “God was there. God had a purpose for them; they found that.”
Again, we’re not saying they’re perfectwe’re not saying every kid turns out that way but at the end of the day, you can lay your head on a pillow at night, and rest, and go: “You know what? As stressed as I am, as a parent, and even watching my kids be stressed as teenagers, there’s a God that sees them, knows them, loves them, sees us, loves us, is with us, and will take them to the right answer to these three big questions that are still the questions we’re answering ourselves. But we can trust God at the end of the day.
Brad: Yes; and our mistakes and their mistakes are not going to stop God from being present and being active in their lives.
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Brad Griffin on FamilyLife Today. Brad has written a book with Kara Powell called 3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections. You can get it at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”
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You know, a lot of blended families are comparing themselves with families that seem harmonious. This can be problematic for several reasons; but tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be talking with our very own Ron Deal about the complexity and beauty of being in a blended family. That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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