Only Connect: Working with Youth
To borrow a phrase from E.M Forster’s novel Howards’ End, I think the essence of youth ministry today can be summed up with two words, “Only connect.” For the years between 13 and 17, when that strange creature we call a teenager goes into its cocoon to hibernate, I would say the best way to serve them is to keep them connected.
In as many ways as possible we need to connect young people to His Word and to His people, and to His relevance to our lives. But in order to accomplish this, it may take a little adaptation on our part.
Being open to new things
Ministry has always thrived by adaptation. Paul’s mantra in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 was that he became all things to all people that he might save some. To the Jews he became a Jew, to the Gentiles he became a Gentile, etc. I suppose to reach teenagers, he would have become a teenager as well.
We must try to become interesting and interested in what teenagers find interesting if we hope to reach them. I do not say you have to listen to the music they listen to, or dye your hair, but we do need to make an effort to “connect” with them in a meaningful and effective way.
Connect through technology
One way to connect is through technology. It is amazing how much a teenager will communicate through technology but not face-to-face. Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Podcasts, etc. are fast becoming ‘normal’ ways of communication for this generation.
If at all possible, become friends with them on Facebook so that you can at least be part of the conversation. You will gain firsthand information of their likes and interests, not to mention have the ability to hold them accountable to what and how they are posting.
Texting is king
But above all, get connected to them via texting. Like a wallet or a purse, a teenager always has his or her cellphone in their pocket. Through texting we can pass on encouraging Scriptures, check in daily with them and speak to them when they are “ready” to talk. Should a crisis arise or the need for immediate intervention, we can be right there at the touch of a button.
For those who prefer the face-to-face, skill sharing is another way to connect with youth. If you are a good cook or enjoy baking, there are many young people who would be interested in learning these skills through mentorship.
A friend of mine in Northern Ontario has an effective ministry with young girls on Saturday afternoons in the kitchen of her home. She calls it “Bible and Bake,” where teenagers learn helpful skills, feel loved and learn what the Word of God teaches.
Perhaps the same can be achieved with someone who has piano or guitar skills, or with someone who has carpentry, fishing, golfing, or photography skills, you name it. Teenagers are in the business of discovering who they are, and what abilities they might have, and if we can help them do that, we may gain a life-long friend – or better yet, a converted soul for the Kingdom of God.
Find your own way
The way I connect with youth may not be the way you connect with youth, but connect we must. My method of connecting with the youth is spending one-on-one time with them, usually over food. Not everything can be accomplished at Youth Group Friday night. It may take more.
So I may play sports with them, play video games, take them fishing or visit them at their places of work. It is during these short excursions into their lives, when they are alone, that I mostly have the opportunity to speak into their souls. It is amazing how much a simple a car-ride-home generates a good conversation about spiritual things.
My wife’s method of connecting with youth is entirely different. I use my mouth; she uses her ears. I speak; she listens. She starts off by asking them to describe a “rose and thorn” from their day and this gets them talking. After that, she guides the conversation into spiritual matters by asking them questions of a more serious nature.
Youth love to talk, we just have to ask the right questions and be willing to listen.
Be present in their main events
Another way of connecting with youth is to be there for the milestones. Never miss a grade 8 or grade 12 graduation ceremony. Be there to congratulate them or to give them flowers. If possible, be there for their major sports games or presentations, their achievements, anything where they are being recognized for their hard work and dedication.
Above all, be there for their tears. Be near and by their side when they lose that relationship they thought would last forever. Be there if one of their grandparents or loved ones die. These are the “one-time-only” moments where the roots of faith can potentially sink deeply into the soft soil of tender hearts – if only we connect, and help them connect with God.
Sharing the gospel
In the process of sharing our lives, we share the gospel. This is the key to youth ministry – to give yourself to the youth first and then to give them the gospel. The Apostle Paul did this with everyone he could. Listen to the words he wrote to the Thessalonians: “So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thess.2:8, NKJV).
In closing, I share something I heard long ago. Someone once insightfully told me that when working with youth we need to “build the bridge of relationship strong enough to bear the weight of truth.” This statement has proven true over the years.
When working with adults in spreading the gospel, fellowship and relationship often takes place after conversion but when working with youth it seems the opposite is true: conversion follows after relationship.