I am preparing to teach a group of high school girls this weekend at a youth retreat. I have the privilege of talking about Deborah, a model of Biblical womanhood, and her partnership with Barak, a picture of God’s design for men and women partnering in mission as we reflect the image of our Creator. It’s a privilege to return to this retreat and reunite with some special individuals whom we have known through our time in youth ministry. It reminds me of something I wrote this summer after leaving this position and this church–and reflected on my teachers, the young people in that ministry. This reflects some lessons learned, and if I am wrong with my observations, I hope some of these young people can correct me!
Lessons Learned While Ministering to Young People:
Leaving Calvary, we left a family. We left a ministry. We said goodbye to a role and a large part of our lives for the last 10 years. We left the focus of our mission for this season and therefore, we left a piece of our hearts. Hearts held by precious young people to whom we were parents, siblings, teachers, mentors and friends.
I can relate to Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica and His love for them, devotion to them and praise for their faith. In chapter 2:7, 8, he describes his role as a nursing mother, ready to not only share the Gospel, but “also his own self, because they had become very dear to him.” He reminds them of his labor and toil to proclaim the Gospel. He talks about His role as father to exhort and encourage them in their walk. He knows the pain of being “torn away” from them, hindered by Satan, though longing to be with them. He calls them his glory and his joy. He praises them for their faith, their love for each other and he prays for them-the the Lord will establish their hearts….glory and joy. I love this and can totally relate as I consider the hundreds of teenagers we have encountered in the last 10 years. I can’t begin to summarize what they have taught me and how they’ve changed me.
- Young people are underappreciated. They can handle more than adults have expected from them. They rise up intellectually and relationally as they are challenged and given opportunity to do so. They have wisdom and insight if we would take the time to believe this. They rise up if we offer respect and freedom with limits.
- Young people crave authenticity. They want you to be yourself and not try to be some presumed version of who we think they want us to be. They can sniff out insincerity and they will accept any level of authenticity-awkward, old, nerdy, cheesy—if it is real and loving.
- Young people need support and lack it. I was always surprised when a teen profusely thanked me for a ride, a breakfast date, a sleepover or adventure. What seemed like a simple, easy gesture seemed to greatly impact them. I’ve come to realize today’s youth greatly lack role models, mentors or any supportive person in their lives outside of family, and some even lack it in family. We provide a valuable, life-shaping influence even with the gift of time.
- Young people require and desire bold honesty. I grew in 10 years. There was a time when I dreaded confrontation, feared their reactions and the possibility of losing trust or relationship when speaking truth to them. I grew to recognize that truth speaking is a necessary reality of love. This compelled me beyond my insecurity and I realized: they stayed. They thanked me. Most of the time our relationship grew. Some would thank me again later in life and return to a conversation or a forgotten sentence that to them was life-forming. Now I surprise myself at my direct, boldness whose impulse is care, love, protection, and instruction. I’ve experienced the fruit of weaving the fabric of trust in longevity when it comes to truth-telling. When woven slowly and tightly, it can hold the rock of truth.
- Young people love adventure and remind us to practice discovery. Everything is new for them. As they enter adolescence, they have yet to experience many of life’s pleasures, but have the blooming independence that craves it. So, it’s a precious time to model and facilitate discovery, new foods, places to visit, songs to sing, and games to play. Everything is an adventure.
- Young people have the power to be lifetakers or lifegivers, but it’s adults who decide our perception of them. So many people groan, or express their condolences if we tell them we will be going away for the weekend with teenagers. Did I need to mentally and physically prepare for a sleep-depriving, people-packed weekend? Sure. But the reality is those weekends were so joyful and energizing. Filled with laughter, activity, conservation, music and FUN. Fun. I return from interaction with a full heart and engaged spirit because they are still ripe with energy and involvement.
- Young people value and practice togetherness, and as adults we’ve failed to model and nurture this. They linger at mealtimes on weekend retreats. A highlight of girls’ sleepovers is sitting around the table eating breakfast together. As they get older, they stay as long as possible on Wednesday nights, just to sit and talk. Yet, as families, we have encouraged and enabled over-involvement, which prohibits family mealtimes. We’ve failed to provide boundaries with electronics, which inevitably has fostered isolation. In our societal distraction and individualism, we’ve lost the art of conversation. Spending time with teenagers provides a return to the designed need of every soul: life in community.
- Creating fun memories are some of the most profound life-shaping times. When I first begin ministering to youth, my intense personality and my profession as a counselor led me to relate in interpersonal ways, desiring heart-to-heart conversations that included emotional or spiritual depth. This is who I am, how I relate and there is nothing wrong with it. But, I came to chill out, just have fun with them, and realize the value of presence can be just as formative as a deep conversation. Perhaps this created more freedom for me to enjoy the moment, allow them to govern the time, and trust God for the results.
- They are the future church and future society. When we hold this perspective and give them opportunities for influence, they rise up and we will be encouraged and taught by them.
- When given the true Gospel, many accept it and it will bear fruit as a result. They articulate more than I ever knew or understood at their age. They show discernment when exposed to various teaching. They grasp the Gospel, they live it, share it, wrestle with it and it has changed them, their futures and those around them.
I can only hope, pray and trust God that my future includes interaction with young people. Selfishly, they’ve kept me youthful and energetic, inspiring me to live life fully. They kept me discovering and adventuring. But even more, they are the future church and God’s precious Creation. To invest in young people is to change the world.