Meeting Students On Their Turf
I'm sitting in my office and glance at the clock. It's 10 minutes past 11 on a Tuesday. In 20 minutes a group of youth pastors from the area will be meeting at the school cafeteria at one of the local high schools. They'll circulate around conversing with their youth group students. Most of them have 10 to 20 students who attend this school. Jeremy is my one and only student at this particular school. He's a sophomore and on the varsity soccer team. It has been a few weeks since I visited Jeremy at lunch. Staying in the comforts of my office with my serene instrumental music and cinnamon scented candles is more appealing than walking into a loud, overcrowded, chaotic cafeteria. I feel awkward and somewhat nervous as I approach his table where he sits surrounded by his soccer buddies. Oftentimes I have a list of five questions in my head to start a conversation, and I usually breeze through them in three minutes or less. I wonder if Jeremy and his friends think I am strange, off balance, or trying too hard.
If youth ministry is relational, why are some youth leaders failing to connect? Why do they feel more intimidated than the youth group students? Sometimes I'm jealous of my best friend who's a high school teacher. She connects with her students primarily in the classroom. They have to show up to 9th-grade English. People expect her to teach grammar and literature to her freshmen students, whereas I feel people expect me to be best friends with all the kids in my church. Sometimes I don't think they want another friend.
We put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves. Our intimidation and fear of rejection keep us from being effective servants of the Lord. We have to move beyond our feelings of self consciousness and start meeting students on their turf. Students can read our uncertain feelings. Our goal is to love and care for students in whatever practical or creative way possible using whatever means we can wrap our fingers around. Not to win approval. Can I walk into a youth room of rowdy boys throwing spit wads, girls gossiping about the latest break-up, and a freshmen guy camped out in the corner listening to his iPod, without worrying what these students think of me? Can I be secure in task God called me to do?
We have to realize we cannot be best friends with every single student. Some students will brush us off. I recall several incidents of sipping a Coke at a fast food restaurant waiting for a student to show up. I was a little further down his priority list. We have to cultivate relationships that are bearing fruit without forgetting the kids we are less close to. When Jeremy became a junior,
We need to find creative ways to reach students. I love sitting in a restaurant, devouring a hot fudge brownie sundae and drinking a hot cup of coffee. This kind of environment is intimidating and uncomfortable for some students. It's important we find out about our students interests and how they use their time. For some it's sports, others it's music; some students are into academics while others have interesting hobbies we can discover. Alex was very quiet in youth group meetings and sat off to the side. His parents told me he liked taking care of rabbits. So I asked Alex if he wanted to teach me how to trim my rabbit’s toenails.
We also have to empower others to reach out to kids. Perhaps someone else can have a closer relationship with a student we struggle to connect with. I do not enjoy role playing games. Although I have tried on many occasions, I cannot get into Risk or Settlers of Catan. My leader Bob could not get enough of these games. So Bob had a group of boys over on Sunday afternoons to play these games. Most people are willing to pray for a student. Some can even commit to calling kids or taking them on a special outing. Still others will serve as mentors. It is important youth leaders do not try to handle the incredible task of connecting with students on our own. They owe it to church members to involve them in some creative way.
While I realize it is awkward to spend my Tuesday lunch hour in a high school cafeteria, I understand it is a place I have to set foot in. I know Jeremy may not choose to follow Christ as a result of our five-minute conversation. I don't have that kind of power. But I'm walking on his “turf.” I'm showing him there is a place he can turn to and there are people who care about him.