16 things I’ve learned about loving teenagers

16 things I’ve learned about loving teenagers

Reynolds, Rebecca

For five years, Rebecca Reynolds focused all her energies on learning to love teenagers well. Here’s what she wishes someone would’ve told her at the beginning.

What is it about youth ministry that produces a cold sweat on the forehead of a 6-foot criminal lawyer when he’s asked to teach Sunday school?

How can five pimply faced sophomores with skateboards reduce a successful businesswoman to wide-eyed stammering when she’s asked to chaperone a missions trip?

Why do so many church people-including an older senior pastor friend-casually assert, “You couldn’t pay me enough to be a youth minister”?

Six months after that minister pronounced impending doom over us, we rolled into the parking lot of a new church-my husband was about to step into his first youth ministry assignment. My own adolescence was hard enough, and I really had no desire to get caught in the crossfire of all those hormones again. What have we done? I wondered, silently grabbing my husband’s knee. Could he really handle a roomful of hostile teenagers? I didn’t really want to find out.

But God had different plans.

Now, five years later, my experience in youth ministry is totally different than I expected. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been wonderful. I have a deep love for the kids in our ministry. And because I’m a stay-at-home mom, I’ve had a unique opportunity to work alongside my husband in youth ministry. While he’s busy doing all the “official” things that come with a church staff position, I’m free to simply spend myself loving the kids. Not a bad deal.

Along the way I’ve learned a thing or two (16, to be exact) from my own experiences and from watching my husband. These are truths I wish someone had told us when we rolled into that parking lot five years ago.

1. Expect to be hazed.

If you’re new to youth ministry or have just moved to a new church, you’ll almost certainly endure hazing as you’re initiated into the group. The guys will test to see who’s really the dominant male baboon. The girls will swarm around like disturbed bees, trying to find their place.

As often as you feel threatened or uncomfortable or even angry, just tell yourself to relax. Guard your heart well during these first stages-determine to have a thicker skin than is normal for you. If you don’t get your feathers ruffled too quickly, the hazing will most likely ease up when the next “new kid” in the group comes along.

2. Stick to your guns. Whatever rules you establish, your kids will test them. They will treat your boundaries as unreasonable, unfair, and impossible. Then they’ll respect you for sticking to them.

When we first came to our youth group, some of the girls were wearing skimpy bikinis to church swim parties. The guys were having a hard time keeping their eyes and hands off. So we decided a “one-piece swimsuit rule” was the best way to handle our problem. Girls in our group who showed up wearing bikinis to parties had to wear big navy T-shirts the rest of the night.

So how did this go over? Well, they acted like we’d asked them not to breathe! We got heat from parents, kids, and even church leaders. But then an interesting dynamic surfaced. If you’ve ever trained a stubborn dog to heel you’ll understand-our teenagers “pulled against our leash” less and less. And soon the atmosphere changed at our swim parties. The kids walked with their chins a little higher, and everyone seemed to have more fun.

3. Give them a hand.

Touch is a difficult issue in church landscape that’s been polluted by a few abusers. And nothing will derail your ministry faster than a false accusation of sexual impropriety. However, if we overreact we deprive our kids of something they really need from us.

In our church, I’ve noticed that people reach out to touch babies, little kids, seniors, and young couples. But they rarely touched teenagers in any way. The sad thing is that so many teenagers communicate through touch. They punch each other in the arm, embrace their friends, jump on each other’s backs, braid each other’s hair, and paint each other’s toenails.

In our ministry, we’re determined to offer appropriate touch to our kids as often as we can. My husband never initiates a hug with the girls; and if they initiate, he tries to keep it to a side hug. With the boys, he trades friendly arm punches, bear hugs from behind, and plays contact sports with them.

I hug the girls. I braid their hair and paint their toenails. They love it. They’re desperate for the warmth of touch-it helps them feel grounded and affirmed.

4. Find ways to feed them.

I was surprised to discover that even the roughest-looking teenagers still want someone to give them warm cookies and milk after school and listen to what’s happened during their day. They’re looking for someone who will listen to their small-scale tragedies and challenges-like a broken faceplate on a new cell phone or the application they’re working on for a job at the YMCA. And they need someone who can handle the big stuff, too-like the rude thing their dad’s girlfriend said to them last night. For so many of them, “home” is only something they hope for. My full kitchen table and a listening ear provide a close approximation.

Several months ago, on the night of the high school prom, a group of teenagers stopped by our house to show off their duds before they headed out on the town. They looked stunning in their dresses and tuxedos. But as we asked them in, we noticed their conversation was a little nervous. They were trying to be so careful and grown up and didn’t know exactly how to act. Almost out of habit, I asked if they wanted something to eat. I went to the fridge and pulled out a container of Jell-O and some lemonade. Their response was, “Yes!”

I watched as this group of sophisticated teenagers tore into a bowl of Jell-O on prom night. They giggled a little and started to relax. And we had the chance to remind them about seatbelts and upright behavior.

5. Include them in your family.

If you’re known for offering food to teenagers, expect them to pop over to your house around dinnertime. I used to apologize that our supper was “home cooked,” assuming they’d rather have pizza and nachos. But the first time I saw them devour a pot roast and mashed potatoes, I realized the disposable life they live is often not their preference. Many of them come from families that aren’t willing to take the time to be with them (or make them a home-cooked meal). They love to be included in a family.

So, as much as possible, we let them hang out with us as we move through our everyday life. I’ve often waited to fold my laundry until after school. When they come over, we fold and talk. Our students have loved playing LEGOs with our 5-year-old, filling up coloring books with our 2-year-old, playing with our dog, and helping me set the table. All of these activities actually lay the groundwork for real conversation. When the focus is on something else, they’re more eager to talk casually about what’s really going on in their lives. In direct, eye-to-eye conversations they often clam up. But they don’t feel cornered when we’re matching socks.

6. Be excited to see them, every time.

Remember on Cheers when Norm walked into the bar? Everyone shouted, “Norm!” That kind of welcome is something most teenagers ache to hear.’ So whenever I encounter a student, I light up with excitement. They love knowing that they’re wanted and enjoyed.

7. Ask them how their friends are doing.

Even the most withdrawn teenager in your group will often know way more about what’s really happening in the youth group than you do. I wouldn’t have believed that five years ago. But more than once I’ve assumed a teenager was thriving, only to find out through the grapevine that much more was boiling under the surface.

Information runs freely among the kids at school, but is carefully channeled away from adults. So I’ve learned to information graze and use what I learn to take the pulse of the group. You have to be careful what you do with this kind of information because it can be dead wrong. But often we’ve used it to reach out to someone who’s really in need.

8. Be real, especially about the small stuff.

You already know that teenagers have an acute ability to sniff out fakery in adults, and they tend to be ruthless when they find something false. So know your own weaknesses and don’t be afraid to let your kids see some of them. I’m a terrible driver. I worry too much. My face still breaks out. My toes look goofy in sandals. This is the kind of stuff I readily reveal to our teenagers. They trust me because of it. And it gives them a template so they can learn how to deal with their own weaknesses.

9. Don’t tell them everything.

When we arrived at our first ministry, some of the soon-to– be freshmen girls told me of an older Christian girl who’d tried to help encourage them in their morals. She did it by telling these girls the gory details of her sexual exploits in the past that she now regretted.

My stomach turned as I listened to these tales. I could tell from the expressions on their faces that these young ladies were enamoured by the details they’d heard. The girl’s strategy had backfired.

I’m not sure why people tell others their sins in such detail. Perhaps it makes them feel better to get it off their chest. Perhaps they think it will win the allegiance of curious teenagers. But I don’t think it does much good. I believe in honesty, but I think it’s better to be vague about specifics when it comes to your past mistakes? Teenagers often reason that because you did something and ended up okay, so will they. Or you might plant a struggle in their mind. Be vulnerable and intentionally vague about your sins. But be graphic about the damage they’ve caused you.

10. Pay attention to details.

Know who’s first chair in their section of the band. Know what teachers are royal pains. Know who they have a crush on, and who’s crushing on them. Know their hobbies. Know when finals are, when they’re grounded, where they like to shop, what kinds of cars they like, and who’s dating whom. Be curious about the style of their prom dresses, and know who has a weakness for pink milk and animal crackers.

These details may seem insignificant, but they’re exactly what teenagers think about most of the day. If you know this stuff, they’ll feel more confident that you understand their world and will be more open to trusting you.

11. Don’t correct everything at once.

This one is so hard for me. I often felt angry with a certain group of girls who liked to wear tight, skimpy shirts and short skirts to church. But for months I swallowed my frustration and lived with the situation before I said anything. Why? Because I wanted these girls to realize that I loved them as they were. We had already “drawn the line” in some other areas (remember the bikinis?), and I didn’t want them to feel scolded to the point of feeling rejected.

A year later, our relationships were firmly established, so I had them all over for a Girls’ Night and did a lesson on modesty. That sparked an interesting discussion that gave me a perfect opportunity to mention that I’d actually seen one girl’s Tweety Bird undies one Sunday because her skirt was so short. That produced a roomful of horrified gasps, quickly followed by a cacophony of “Was it me?”s and “Will you please tell me if you ever see me wearing anything like that?”

Talk about a teachable moment! I didn’t see one short skirt the next Sunday. And I’m certain a scorched-earth policy wouldn’t have produced the same response.

12. Never embarrass them.

You can wear your favorite jeans from 1988 to a young couples’ meeting. But don’t you dare wear them to youth group. I’m not saying you need to spend your next paycheck at Abercrombie & Fitch. Nor am I arguing that you attempt to look 17 again (you won’t). I’m just saying, as much as possible, be “neutral” in their eyes.

Neutral means your clothing neither distracts nor embarrasses them. It doesn’t draw attention to you. Neutral says you’re familiar with their world but not overcome by it.

13. Be bold in affirming them.

When a guy in your group gets a new haircut, tell him it makes him look older. Praise their sports or band accomplishments. Ooh and ahh at their new cars (even if they cost more than your house). Cut out their newspaper clippings. Brag on their grades. Talk about how responsible they’re becoming-in front of their parents.

Your teenagers hear so many negative comments every day. Your affirmations give them a new lens through which they can see themselves.

14. Fight your pride and empathize.

It’s easy to give in to pride when you’re ministering to teenagers. There’s that one guy in your group who’s had three speeding tickets in the past week. Another got caught smoking dope at a party last Saturday. That girl on the fringe of your group has fallen in love with four losers in a row. This time she might be pregnant. How can they be so dumb? I’ve asked myself this question more than once. Yet when I’m honest, I have to admit I never dealt with a tenth of the temptations that these kids do.

Adulthood is so much easier. Instead of looking down your nose at their “dumb mistakes,” put your arm around their shoulders and help them take the next step uphill.

15. Know their family situations.

You know that kid who came to church with a rotten attitude last week? Sure it bugged you, and there’s no place for that in youth group. But did you also know that his dad came home slobbering drunk the night before and smacked him.

Some of your kids, like ours, are shouldering a world of hurt at home. They walk into youth group with tough-guy attitudes but gaping, painful, festering wounds on the inside.

A wise man once advised my husband to visit the home of every youth group kid. Once my husband got a feel for what’s “normal” for them, he said, it would open his eyes to why many of them act the way they do.

16. Let them see you walk with God.

How many times has a group member stood up after one of your well-prepared lessons and announced, “From now on, I’m going to live my life differently”? I hope it’s common. But in our group, the more common response is ‘Are there any more brownies?”

I’m sure our teaching times “get in” more than it appears to us. But our biggest impact always happens when we invite our kids to watch us walk with God. What does that look like? They see me when I admit I’ve lost my temper with my 5– year-old, then apologize to him. They hear me tell them my morning study of James helped me make it though a terrible day. They listen as I confess during a shopping trip that I really wanted to buy that cute outfit but felt it was too revealing.

When you live like God is ordering your steps, you show them how Christ can have a real-world impact in their lives. You lift God up as the sustainer of your life and theirs. And you show them how to drink from the Source, so that on the day you roll out of their church parking lot forever, they’ll know that he remains.

Rebecca Reynolds is involved in youth ministry through her husband, who’s a youth pastor in Arkansas.

Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. Jan/Feb 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved