After the most recent shootings, the talk of prevention has increased all the more – as it should. Everyone should be involved in the nationwide conversation, and also involved in doing whatever can be done to prevent more nightmarish tragedies.
This is not just an issue for politicians, safety officers, educators and mental health workers. It is an American issue, and that includes churches, coaches, volunteer groups, community clubs, neighbors and parents. But it should start with parents.
An unfortunate by-product of our school system and public services is that many parents depend on these institutions to "fix" their children. Our nation's schools and public mental health systems do not have the resources to effectively address every child's issues. They are not designed to do that. Parents must use every opportunity available to positively shape their children's values, attitudes and worldview from an early age.
I got an anonymous call from a desperate single mother concerned about her teenage son. She came home from work and found him involved in a harmful activity that she could not tolerate in her home. He stormed off, threatening never to come back – a threat he made several times before. My heart went out to her, but I told her that it sounded like his problems should have been addressed a long time ago.
She did not want to hear that. I don't blame her. I recommended family counseling as soon as possible. Their issues called for something far beyond any friendly advice from a minister. I could listen to her, pray for her, sympathize with her, but I could not offer her anything that would change her son with one anonymous phone call. It was far too late for that.
The struggling, heartbroken mother was likely not satisfied with my answer. I was not the first pastor she spoke to. She called me, she said, because she did not like what she heard from the pastor she spoke to moments before, and I have a feeling a third pastor got a phone call shortly after she hung up with me. However, these problems don't happen overnight, and whether it is a health problem, family problem, spiritual problem, the saying holds true that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Of the preventative treatments for spiritual ills, I don't have anything new to offer. I believe in the basics: Bible study, prayer, fellowship, worship and Christian service. Most of our spiritual problems result from neglecting one or more of these basics of Christian growth.
I'm not saying that prayer and Bible study will resolve any particular mental health issue. In fact, some people are frustrated when I refer them to mental health professionals, thinking that I should be able to "fix" them with a prayer and a Bible verse. But I do know this: the more positive influences young people have from an early age, the better off they are when problems arise. Whatever the explanation, there has long been a statistically undeniable correlation between religious practice and greater emotional health.
Sunday school teachers are also role models, and can give you additional helpful insights about your children's behavior and attitude from an early age – but only if your children or grandchildren are consistently in their classrooms. Churches also have the added help of intergenerational relationships. One junior high kid told me he loved talking to a certain gentleman at church because the elderly man always asked him about his football team and kept up with the young man's progress, encouraging him to do his best.
Call me idealistic, but when a sweet old church lady gives a weekly hug to a young girl who feels like an outsider in her world, nothing but good can come of that. I've seen cynical kids brighten up and find purpose when they are involved in a service project at church for younger children or homebound adults. Positive peer groups make a difference in the lives of teens.
The positive influences that are waiting for your children at a nearby church are too numerous to here, and that is just one more way parents can be vigilant about raising their children with love, healthy values and respect for others. And when children are involved in several healthy social activities from an early age, warnings signs and unhealthy patterns are more likely to be identified earlier, giving parents more options, more opportunities for assistance, and more reason to hope.
See this article citing several studies regarding the positive impact of church invovlement on such things as violence, crime, mental and physical health.
Read this summary of a study on the positive impact of church invovlement for African American girls.