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5 tips for engaging students on a Sunday morning

Newsflash. It can sometimes be difficult to connect with a teenager at church.

Our culture does a lot to communicate to us that teenagers and adults shouldn’t engage with one another. As adults we think, “What could I have in common with a 14 year old?” And teenagers assume that adults don’t really want to be with them. So when thinking about engaging with a teenager at church or youth group you have to start with the understanding that there is naturally a gap or divide to be crossed. You’re going to have to fight past some stuff to really get there.

And frankly, I need to know that the 2-3 hours per week I volunteer with the youth group make a difference. If that time isn’t going to be valuable than I’d much rather invest that time at home than at church.

Getting past “Hi” and the craptastic world of small talk involves some skill. Here’s 5 tips for getting past small talk and helping you really engage with the teenagers at your church.

  1. Take the first step. In my life I’m used to people taking the first step to begin a conversation. But most teenagers, even the most outgoing ones, assume that you don’t really want to talk with them, so you’ll have to take the first step. So push past the awkwardness of initiating a conversation and just go for it. An easy in is always, “Tell me about your week.” Then make sure you listen, not just for an in to talk about your week, but really listen.
  2. Don’t play 20 questions. When taking the initiative to start a conversation it feels easy to play 20 questions. My rule of thumb is that I don’t want to ever get one-word answers so I tend to kick off a conversation with something open-ended. You’re looking for paragraph responses, you want to know what they think, and you want to make sure they know you are someone who really wants to talk to them.
  3. Don’t beat around the bush. About 10 years ago I had a volunteer in my ministry who taught me just to skip small talk altogether. He had this warm, strong way of putting his arm around a guy and saying, “Talk to me about your devos this week, whatcha reading?” I promise you, the reason half the guys in our group read the Bible was because they knew that question was coming and that Jeff really cared about the answer. So skip the small talk about sports, the weather, and TV shows and just get to the point. You want to make a difference and they want you to make a difference— small talk is a sell out.
  4. Go for the heart, share your heart. When we’re engaging with God’s kids at church we need to remember that God cares more about our heart than our feet. We are all going to make mistakes and part of being an adolescent involves trying to figure out who you are. Don’t make the mistake of talking to students about merely what they do. Make sure to drill into who they are when they are doing stuff. And share your heart. You don’t have to relate everything to when you were a teenager, relate what they are saying to your daily life. It’s OK to share your heart… they want to see that you are real and really can relate to them.
  5. Level the playing field. Some of this is body language and some of it is how we position ourselves in conversation. I always want to be at eye level with students. If they are sitting, I sit. If they are sitting on the pavement eating pizza, I pop a squat next to them. The same is true in conversation. They know that in society you are more powerful than they are… culture tells them that. It’s your job to communicate in word and deed that you seem them through God’s eyes… we are all human, we all have the same needs for Jesus, we all have things we are working through and big questions. I’ve found when I level the playing field I go deep, but when I fall into hierarchical habits all of my relationships with students default back to small talk.

What are tips you use for engaging with the teenagers at your church? Share your ideas in the comments. 

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18 Responses to 5 tips for engaging students on a Sunday morning

  1. KJ October 11, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    great post.

    One thing I’ve learned is to “proceed at their pace”. In other words, be respectful of their openness and receptivity to engaging. Read their body language, engage at a level that they respond to. This approach takes time, because it might require a conversation, or two, or three that feels wasted or not deep enough initially before the student(s) warm up to me.

    I typically hate the idea of engaging students without having an agenda, because we obviously have one, BUT that is a decent mindset for initial contact with a teenager….our agenda when trying to connect should possibly be simply to recognize and honor THEIR agenda, or complete lack of one.

    • Adam McLane October 11, 2012 at 7:48 am #

      Agreed, not sure I’d take a deep dive the very first time I meet a student. Well, I guess that’s not true because sometimes students come who are just ready to explode/implode… it’s almost like the Holy Spirit is saying… “Look, I got ‘em here… now minister. Go.”

  2. Mike October 11, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    Good advice, not just for the people directly involved in student ministry, but for the body as a whole. While the student ministry may get them in, if the rest of the body neglects the youth, we won’t keep them long.

    • Adam McLane October 11, 2012 at 7:30 am #

      That’s a great point, Mike. Indeed… the ghetto is an invitation to leave.

      • Mike October 11, 2012 at 11:58 am #

        Our pastor’s wife asked about a print out of this, so I guess this is an official request for re-print permission :)

        • Adam McLane October 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

          Yep, feel free to copy/paste. Sorry the print options are lame. I’m working on a new look, so maybe that’ll be better.

  3. Stephen - Youth Workin' It October 11, 2012 at 7:34 am #

    I’ve found that it helps to speak to them like I would someone my own age.

    One of my favorite memories from when I was about 13-14 was having my youth group leader just chat to me like I was a peer. That’s not to say that I treat them as my best mate, but talking to teens like they’re an adult makes them feel more special.

    It helps encourage them on their path to adulthood as well as with conversational social skills. Most young people are used to having adults to talk down to them, so taking this approach can have more of an impact on your relationship with them.

  4. youthleadergina October 11, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    Food. I do use the “interview” technique…asking top 3 (movies, books, tv shows, what’s in your ipod) questions until I find a common ground we can connect on. Then it grows from there. The more time I invest with kids over the long haul, the more natural it is to engage with students. As to not boring them on Sunday mornings…My goal is to strategically incorporate teaching strategies and brain based research into everything we do.

    • Adam McLane October 11, 2012 at 9:07 am #

      Thankful for this comment, yes… integrating research into what we do is hopefully why people do research!

  5. Mike Andrews October 11, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    Consistency is huge. I can’t have a ten minute conversation with every student who comes through the doors – but I can make sure to have one with a couple students each time I see them. I’m processing through my students and leaders now, trying to make sure each student has some adults that connect with them regularly.

    • Adam McLane October 11, 2012 at 9:08 am #

      My encouragement would be to encourage the whole church to have this mentality. Adolescents are asking, “Where do I fit in?” Wouldn’t it be good news to students to know that they fit in at church? (Rhetorical, I know!)

      • Mike October 11, 2012 at 11:57 am #

        I shared this post in our Church’s FB Group for that very reason. The Student Ministry teams can only go so far, the body as a whole needs to take ownership of the youth and children or the respective ministries will only go so far.

      • 6drews October 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

        I completely agree – that mentality is so important to have in the whole body. Your ending question may be rhetorical… but it’s also an important issue for the church to work through. “How do we show students they matter with us?” The result of not wrestling with that question is a generation of young adults still wandering around and looking for their place… (I just finished reading Kinnaman’s You Lost Me the other day, so I’m sure that’s coloring my thought right now… I’m getting the feeling this could balloon well beyond a comment post, so I’ll stop there.)

  6. Timbo October 15, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    Great article. One of the toughest things for a lot of youth workers is getting past the small talk and the initial awkward stuff but you’re right, your level of comfort will set the tone for their level of comfort. Sometimes talking to a student you’ve just met like you’ve known them your whole life is all the excuse they need to do the same.

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