It is not easy engaging teens. Sometimes we feel like we have to have some kind of formal to be attractive and appealing. In my many years of working with teens, I have found that there are three realities that ring true when trying to engage teens. I like to call them the 3 R’s.
These realities are not easy. In fact, they take great intentionality and vulnerability. It requires a person to open himself or herself up and let God use them in a special way.
The 3 R’s
It takes more than knowing a students favorite pizza topping to be in relationship. It takes more than asking students to participate in activities and taking them on trips to be in relationship. Real relationship is about being a part of a student’s everyday, normal life. Sitting with them. Not being afraid to talk to them. Talking to parents. Creating opportunities where they see you smiling, laughing, engaging, eating, and worshipping. Contrary to popular belief, students actually want to see you and be around you. They are craving relationship. They want you to check in on them. They want you to see them for who they are and more. I know that students can sometimes give you the feeling that they don’t want to be bothered. Sometimes that may be true. But, most of the time they need someone to break through all that “teen angst” and engage with them on a personal level. As students build solid relationships of trust and honesty with adults it, ultimately, nurtures that student’s relationship with God.
Take a moment: Think about the best relationship you have ever had. What are some characteristics of that relationship could be helpful in your work, now, with your students?
Students have an incredible super power. They have the ability to know when someone is being authentic with them or not. Early on in my youth ministry career, I made the mistake of not portraying my true self. I wanted to appear “cooler,” “more hip” to a group of students in New York City. I am a Midwest girl! I worked so hard, in our first meeting to impress them with my “cool” NYC attitude that I almost didn’t really notice they weren’t buying it. It wasn’t until I stopped talking and realized that none of them were engaged that it hit me. I remember ending that night early and vowing that the next youth group I would introduce them to the real me.
That next meeting I apologized for not being authentic and not sharing who I was with them. I started to tell them about growing up in Ohio and how interesting it was to be in NYC. I confessed I wasn’t as cool as I wanted them to believe I was. That was a turning point for our group. Slowly, they began to engage. The more I shared about myself, the more they began to share. I realized that I didn’t have to make stuff up to gain their respect or win their interest. The “real” me was more than enough.
There is something about you that is worth sharing. So share it. Being real means you are honest with them about them and about yourself. Not best friends, but honest caring adults willing to share something that could maybe save their life.
The Gospel message will always be relevant, it is the method that has to change. To be relevant is really about how we share this Word of God, this Gospel and make it connect for this generation. Honestly, this kind of sharing and relevancy comes through our relationships and authenticity. When we build strong relationships with our students and are willing to be open and vulnerable, something beautiful happens. The Gospel message comes alive! The themes of love, forgiveness, community, and service are lifted off the pages and put into real life situations.
Often times we can get caught up in old traditions and attitudes and miss opportunities to share the Gospel in fresh and personal ways. We miss the chance to help our students see that even though the world may seem crazy and it is always changing… the Word of God remains the same. And, it is this Word that can be brought into their everyday situations to help navigate all that craziness.
We, as youth leaders, have been called to be in appropriate, spirit led relationship with our students. We are called to offer our real selves to them as living examples of God’s love and work. And, we are called to help our students see and experience the relevancy of the Gospel in their everyday lives. We are called to engage this generation of believers for the building of God’s Kingdom.