youth ministry

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. 

Christian Living San Diego Living

Helping Dan feel human

Can you help me with my bike? My wrist is broken!

I barely heard the question. But speaking over This American Life was the voice of a man on the platform struggling to get his bicycle up the stairs and onto the trolley.

With my bike pinning me against the retractable wheelchair lift on the ancient, yet retrofitted ADA accessible trolley car, it took me a few long seconds to get to the door. With the door trying to close and an annoyed trolley driver belching over the loud speaker, “Please board the trolley immediately, we have a schedule to keep,” I arrived to press the button and fling the door open in the nick of time.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The man said as he pushed from behind when I grabbed the front handlebars. As I yanked the front handlebars, decorated with tennis balls and aluminum foil, it’s weight revealed that this wasn’t just a bike– it was this mans worldly possessions.

Lifting (more like heaving) the bike it seemed stuck between the edge of the platform and a bar that divided the doors. With pressure to speed up and a dose of adrenaline, I gave it a bigger yank and the bike let out a loud yelp!

Just a second, let me untangle Wile, he’s chained to the seat post.

As I looked to the right of the bike, sure enough, there was a collie-mix tethered by the collar to the mans seat post.

OK, here we go. I’ve got it now.” I said, giving it one final tug as the now-free rear of the bike lumbered up the steps.

By this time the whole car full of riders glared back at me. In the process of helping with the bike and dog– my bike had fallen down and made a horrible noise. So, as I was guiding the bike, rear-loaded with about 50 pounds of stuff in a box wired to a makeshift rear-carrier, his dog, and it’s owner having a long conversation with himself about needing to buy dog food– I also picked up my own bike and wedged myself back into my safe corner.

It was clear that the people were not glaring at the man. They barely noticed him. But their ugly gaze was at me. They think I should have left the old man on the platform.

I quickly popped my headphones back in just in time to hear Ira Glass introduce the next segment of the show.

The trolley doors finally close. The driver instantly kicks it into high gear, as if to say… “I’ll show them!” The bike and the dog were secured, but the man had just made it to the top step and hadn’t quite measured his balance when the car leapt forward. His arm reached out and grabbed mine as he winced. Given the impossible choice of falling backwards or gaining his balance with a broken wrist, he chose to grab firm onto my forearm.

Thanks for the help. I couldn’t have made it without you. What’s your stop? I’m going to Old Town.” He said, now settling into a comfortable place to stand at the rear of the trolley with his whole life at his feat.

I get off at the college. So when we get close, you’ll have you slide forward so I can get by.

And then he started talking to himself about some sort of gibberish I couldn’t make out. And then about 10 seconds of silence.

In that silence I had to decide. Am I just going to tune this man out and go back to listening to the latest episode of my favorite podcast? Or am I going to take my headphones off and see where this conversation goes?

The Holy Spirit was screaming at me. “Talk to this guy.”

Sliding my headphones into my pocket– the man told his dog to lay down as he twitched and pulled and talked to himself.

So, what’s the dogs name?” I said, startling him with my question and breaking the newfound silence between us.

Wile E. Coyote. He’s part coyote. He’s the best dog in the world.”

Oh, I see that. He’s a great dog. How long have you had him?

He stared off into the horizon as the trolley slowed towards the next stop seemingly thinking about the question for a minute and came back with, “You know, these trolley cars weren’t built for bicycles. I asked a transit cop one day why we get these cars on the green line instead of the newer ones which let you roll your bike right on. He said it was because of the graffiti on the other lines.

I just rolled with it and for the next few minutes listened and talked to the man about whatever he talked at me with. The Chargers. The canyon he calls home. How he broke his wrist. Florida. The weather. A fishing trip. It was like our conversation was the random setting on my iPhone, you never know where it’d land next.

At first, I wasn’t certain he knew I was a real person as he had a tendency to look through me more than at me. He’d also stop in mid-sentence and start a different thought. I kept wondering if he thought I was a figment of his imagination. But over the next few stops it seemed like the blurriness of his life started to narrow a bit and things became slightly more in focus. As I kept chatting with him his eyes gradually drew more into the trolley car, even noticing me a couple of  times for his pupils to focus on me, or my bike, my backpack. His ticks and pulls dramatically slowed down. About 10 minutes into the conversation I think he realized I was real. The longer we made small talk the more relaxed he became.

And the more relaxed I became in talking to him, too.

To him, I think I became less a random object that helped him get on the trolley and more a person. And to me, he became less a homeless man with a dog and an impossibly heavy bicycle making me late and more a man who probably just needs someone to regularly talk to.

In that moment we were just two normal men engaging each other in small talk on the trolley.

It was the most healthy thing either of us had done all day.

I’m no psychiatrist. So I don’t know if this is true or not. But in my experience I think anyone who is a little mentally ill probably gets increasingly worse when they become isolated from people who aren’t ill.

And zooming by on the freeway at 70 mph or driving everywhere in my car isn’t going to put me in contact with the Dan & Wile’s of the world.

Sure, I ride the trolley for my own reasons. But one reason I think God has me ride the trolley is to slow down and take notice of people the rest of the world largely ignores.

Church Leadership hmm... thoughts

The church is shifting

Last weekend I had the opportunity to meet a ton of people for the first time. Convention attendees, authors, speakers, and ministry leaders from across the US. And it was interesting because there was a phenomenon among the conversations that I found fascinating.

Somewhere in the conversation there would always be this thread of “do you see what is working in youth ministry?” In other words… “what’s worked for me in the past is presently not working.

Here’s how I described what I’m seeing in my work.

There is a shift towards the small. While I see large ministries getting larger, more organized, and reaching more masses of people than ever their successes come via the small and intimate settings of community, micro-community, and stuff that happens outside of programs. But outside of churches in the 3,000-5,000 range I see tons of head scratching frustration. Leaders are sensing the shift, they are seeing numbers change, yet they aren’t coping with it well. Their response to the shift towards the small is to create a program that appeals to that. In other words… their people want something small and not programmatic but ministry leaders desire to create a program of ultra-small groups. And they wonder why it isn’t working.

Here’s a problem to be overcome. As soon as I say “the church is shifting” many people’s brain automatically label “shift” as “emergent church.” And that includes a whole slew of people the church at large seeks to ignore and marginalize. I really think they would rather fail than admit that some of those people were right.

Here’s what I am not saying. I’m not proposing that the church should change. (future tense) I am recognizing that society has shifted (past tense) and that the church is shifting to respond. (present tense)

Here’s what I am saying. This isn’t about theology. It is about the church, the timeless truths of God’s Word, and it’s leaders responding to a seismic shift in how culture works in our society. Society is shifting and many church leaders are clinging to programs as if they were the Gospel!

Instead of purpose-driven churches we need to see mission-driven churches. Instead of copying what we see at conferences and mega-churches, we need church leaders to spend serious time studying their communities doing the hard work of ethnography. (This isn’t new, A.B. Simpson said the same thing 120 years ago!) We need to see churches working within their communities instead of asking the community to come to their buildings.

Let’s make it even simpler.

Churches who build their ministry around their community are succeeding.

Church who build their ministry around the short cuts of copying megachurches are failing.