We love students! It’s why we do what we do! Why do we love them? Lets count the ways:
- They’re so full of life
- They don’t take themselves so seriously
- They’re funny as all get out
- They’ve got all the energy we wish we had
- They’re so full of untapped potential
- They’re world changers
- They’re yet-to-be-tainted versions of us
- They just wanna have a good time
- They’re hungry for something real
- They haven’t yet perfected the art of lying and deception
- They start prank wars
- They love our own children like family
- They’re ready to get after life
- They’re relentlessly optimistic
- They greet you in public like a puppy greets you at home
- They know all the great videos on youtube
- They keep us young
- They remind you that life is a joy
On and on I could go. And I know you’ve even got a couple in mind right now to add to the list. Students are just great! But you know that already. It’s why you’re reading this. It’s why God’s called you to minister to them. You lucky person, you.
So God’s called you to them. You’re there. In front of them. With them. They’re surrounding you. Now what?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it happen, whether in church or school or anywhere. Person X feels led to work with students. We’ll call Person X Malachi. Malachi is what I wanted to name Owen, but Megan said it sounded too Amish. But that’s neither here or there. But ‘chi wants to work with students. And he’s all hyped up to do it. ‘Chi even read a book about it before starting. And he walks into the room full of students and life does one of those super-fast-tunnel-vision-zoom-ins right up to his face and he’s terrified. I had a volunteer one time tell me that their first Wednesday night was like going back to high school itself. Like they were the new kid in school standing in the lunch room not knowing where to go. So what does Malachi do? I mean, he’s read a book on mentoring, so he knows how to share wisdom, but that’s for down the road. How does he build a relationship with them at all?
Well since I made up the guy and I made up the situation, I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve got the answer. I’m even going to share it with you. Malachi needs to be the guy God created him to be. That sounds too simple. Lets dig a little.
Malachi needs to walk right up to some guys in the room and be the most him he can possibly be. Because rule number 1 with students is always be real. They’ve got a nose for b.s. and they can smell it a mile away. Acting like you’re someone you’re not? They’ve got you picked already. Pretending to be into something you don’t care about? They already noticed. Students are surrounded by lies all day every day. They know real when they see it because they’ve been trained since infancy to doubt everything and everyone. They’ve grown up in a super cynical world. That’s why you’d be hard pressed to find a young Trump supporter (sorry it just got political, but it was low hanging fruit). Because of that, authenticity jumps off the page. There are so few genuine things in their world, when they see it, it stands out.
Maybe this first group of guys clicks with him. Great! If not, this isn’t the end of the world. Too often, it’s at this point that bubbles are burst and hopes sink as swiftly as Jack & Rose and their beautiful Titanic in the icy Atlantic waters. This is not a deal breaker. I don’t develop deep relationships with every single person I meet. You won’t either. This is why your first several weeks in youth ministry should look a bit like speed dating. Jump around, hang out a bit, laugh, be the you you’re comfortable being, move to another group, and do it all over again. Sooner rather than later, you’re going to find a group of students you genuinely enjoy. When you find your crew, settle in to a nice, comfy spot.
Now it’s time to invest. Start just in conversation. Ask them about themselves. Show them you’re interested in them. Make them the focus. And when they talk, listen. Make mental notes of things worth remembering: family, birthdays, hobbies, interests, extra-cucciculur activities, etc. When you see them next time, follow up on a previous conversation. This tells them that you care enough to remember them. Unfortunately, not enough people do. Especially adults! When they ask about you, give them you. Be real. Don’t try to be perfect or have every answer. Just be you.
Maybe one night for church you bring your group drinks from Sonic or DQ. Give them a little something to tell them you care and you’re willing to do a little something extra for them because you value them. Or maybe you’ve always got gum you give away. Think of silly little ways to bring them in.
Hang out with them outside of church. While you’re at church, they’ll see themselves as your ministry. Outside church, they’ll see themselves as part of your life. This is where the relationship gets real. Because until you show them that you truly care for them, they’re going to keep you an arm’s length away. They even will a little after. But it’s when you go to their games or plays or have them over to your house that they start seeing themselves differently. Suddenly it’s not just about church. You care about them. And when this relationship is fostered, you’re finally able to really pour into them. You’ve earned the right to speak into their situation. You’ve earned the respect. They know the truth you speak is in love.
The funny thing is that none of that is groundbreaking at all. That’s just relationships. The problem is, we realize how vital a mentor can be in a student’s life. So we make it all serious and programmed. And when we do that, we stop building genuine relationships because we’re no longer being genuine. We think that we need to memorize the Bible so we can quote it to them. Or we have to walk perfectly in our own lives so we’re not being hypocrites. And we make the joy that is youth ministry something much more difficult than it really is. Sure, you need to have wisdom to help them along. Sure, you need to live out your faith the best you can. But when life gets hard, they’re not going to the most scholarly person they know. They’re going to the ones who have best show them love.
And isn’t that why we do it? Life is tough. It’s a long, difficult road to manage. We just want to help them like we needed help. And this is such a great place to take a moment and ask a very important question: what type of adult did you need at their age? Maybe you had that adult in your life, maybe you didn’t. But what did you need? Be that for them! Be that person who loves them well. Be that person who lets them in. Be that person who is truly concerned. Be that person who isn’t afraid to speak truth. Be that person who genuinely enjoys their company. But I want you to stop reading for a moment and actually give that some thought. That has the potential to be a game-changer. So don’t just read on, take a moment. What type of adult did you need growing up?
Students don’t need a babysitter. They don’t need someone who is always pointing out their faults. They don’t need someone reminding them of how they got it wrong. They just need someone to walk beside them. They’ll give you opportunities to speak truth and they’ll give you moments to help them grow. That will come with the relationship. But they’re not going to seek that type of relationship out. That’s what God’s called you to do. That’s why you’re involved.
So who are your people? What students form your squad? What can you do to bring them closer? How do you get to know them better? How do you let them see you?
Or maybe you don’t have a crew yet. Keep meandering and talking. Keep working the room. Pray that God would show you. Then do what you can to build on what He gives you.
Building relationships isn’t easy. But it’s one of the few things in life that will just happen. If you commit to just being there, you’ve taken the most important step. So be a person who’s there. You just being the you that God’s made you so far could have more impact than you could possibly imagine. God has made you, equipped you, and led you to be exactly what a specific student needs to help conquer life as a teenager. Are you in?