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“Engage” – Captain Picard, Star Trek
Do you remember the days of walking into your middle school cafeteria and looking for sympathetic eyes of those who might let you sit at there’re table? I do. My self conscious jr. high self was definitely looking for clues of engagement. Who wanted me and who didn’t.
These kids exist in our youth ministries. They are looking to the adults, in and out of the church, to notice them and engage with them. Sadly, even in a youth ministry context, kids get overlooked. Engagement with every teenager is important.
I ran across this clip of Nick Saban talking about relationships and how important they are to the mission.
Every youth pastor agrees that relationships are important, but before a relationship happens, engagement must occur. So, my students said they appreciated how I engaged them. Here’s what I think they meant.
No one went unnoticed
My youth group averaged around 20-25 students and I made sure I said hello to every one of them before service. They weren’t all long conversations, sometimes it was a high five, a handshake, a side hug or a “what up!”. I made sure ever kid know I knew they were their and their being there mattered.
Here are two general principles of engagement that are just in my bones.
Everyone was welcomed
Everyone has had the new kid experience. You walk in and ask, “Do I know anyone?” or ‘Who can I connect with?” . That thought always ran through my mind on service nights and Sunday mornings. I made sure I engaged with every guest, even though it’s awkward. My leaders were not always as engaged as I was and that’s why I taught students to take the lead.
Now, I did not have to push my kids too hard. At least 3-4 students would gather around a guest if they came and welcomed them. Some of this came from me asking them, “Would you go and say hey to ______________, I think you’d like them.” I asked them to do this on Sunday mornings as well and they stepped up. Sometimes, the kid who was visiting on Sunday came back and visited on Wednesday because they did so.
Their questions and answers mattered, even if they were wrong
I like awkward silence. I have no problem sitting and waiting on a group of teens to speak up. I refuse to let them off the hook. I don’t make anyone answer, but I know there are those who just need the encouragement to speak out. That requires that we not be afraid to engage.
I would often direct questions directly to a student who I knew could speak up and then I would ask, “What do you think about what she said?” . Now we had something, once a peer speaks up, that gives everyone else permission to speak.
I made sure I valued ever question with ” That is an excellent question” and every answered with, “Thanks for sharing. Good stuff.” I even love when kids raise their hands in the middle of a message to ask a question. Love that they sense the freedom to do that. Even if I’m blowing in going, I take time to engage because their question matters to them right now.
Now, let me offer four ways I engaged students.
I engaged with them beyond the church
I have gone to my share of plays, band recitals and ball games because there is not such thing as youth group Jesus. That’s what I told my students, but more importantly, that is what I showed my students.
Either Jesus is really every where or he’s not real anywhere. Part of us leaving the church and showing up a their stuff is to be the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus left heave to be with us, live with us and suffer with us. So we, as youth workers must do the same.
I went to restaurants my students worked at, even though I didn’t enjoy them, and ordered at least a coke; just so I could make eye contact with them.
I went to plays so I could engage with parents, teachers and their friends.
I went to ball games because I wanted them to know me and Jesus were cheering them on. Some kids had no one there but me and Jesus.
We have to leave the comfort of our office, the church, etc if we are to engage our students and our community live. If you are only engaging with students during your youth meeting or during church, students may think that is the only place faith is of value.
I engaged the trouble maker
Yep, it’s awkward, but how else would I find out why he or she acts the way they do. Not many people like conflict, but a positive engagement can result in the two sides growing closer together.
A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed. Nelson Mandela
To ignore problems or problem people will only result in a conflict that, chances are, will not end well. Students knew I would not let anyone intentionally sabotage our group so they watched me, multiple times, handle the hard stuff in ministry. They saw me win and lose, but they always saw me engage.
I engaged the difficult
I had a young lady who had grown up in the church and went through multiple phases of hair styles, even no hair. She had made a lot of progress since the the first day I met her. She was homeschool and shy and troubled and little out of my wheelhouse.
Homeschool kids and parents were always the toughest group for me to minister to. I did not understand their culture or the hyper need to stick their kids in hermetically sealed bags so culture would never spoil them. More often than not, I’ve seen these kids come off the rails.
This young lady was now 19, and had started to tell her friends she was interested in paganism and witchcraft. I can’t say was surprised, but I knew I had to talk to her. I had eight years with her and still love her very much. We talked, I tried to make come cogent arguments for the gospel and again paganism, but she was having none of it. Nothing changed. Which is good and bad. The good is, we still chat ever so often and she said she wants to bring her friends to our house to do a cook out.
I don’t love kids just because they’re in our youth group or consistently come. I was never afraid to call, text or reach out to a kids that’s been missing for a while. I knew after a while when I had to stop engaging because I always wanted kids to have the space to think and feel without the pressure.
I made room for God to engage them
People from different backgrounds may not have natural affinity, but when the Word of God is treated right and the Holy Spirit is allowed to engage, it can bring together things, people, backgrounds, histories, races, colors, and cultures and hold them together in a way that natural affinity may not be able to do. – Tony Evans
There is only so much we can do as humans. We can engage, build relationships but, ultimately, God is in charge.
I know it sounds like everything I did was perfect, it wasn’t. Somethings I just blew. Failed. Sometimes I failed because I engaged at the wrong time and in the wrong way, but I kept at it until I got better. There are times I blew it and had to disengage for a while until I got my heart right.
The best times of disengagement is when I created space for God to engage our students and I stayed out of it. Sometimes I allow worship to continue and God snuck in and changed hearts without ever telling. Next thing I know, two girls who had been fighting are crying with each other, the trouble make is at the altar and the new kid is giving their heart to Christ.
Sometime the best engagement is no engagement. Wait, be patient don’t try to fix anything too quickly. Pray and create opportunities for God to do some of the heavy lifting.
Part Seven: Relevant Preaching