(This article was originally posted on YW Journal, you can read & comment on it here on this blog or over at YW Journal)
When was the last time you had a significant conversation with a student? I’m not talking about the “I want to give my life to Christ for the first time” kind of conversation. I’m talking about the conversation where you hear about a recent fight with a parent. Or the conversation that details a student’s struggle to control anger and the desire to get a handle on it. Maybe it is centered around the difficulty of being a Christian example at school.
Having any type of conversation that goes beyond a surface-level can be difficult for many adults. Let’s just be honest, teenagers can be very moody and hard to understand, which makes talking with them intimidating to many adults. To make the situation even worse, most adults are so intimidated that the paid youth worker has to carry the responsibility of talking with 100% of the teenagers who come through the church doors, plus a few extra from the community. But there is a better way.
It’s not just for paid staff
Paid youth workers are not the only people qualified to have significant conversations with teenagers, in fact any adult can do it. But these significant conversations do not happen by accident, it will take effort and a better understanding of teenagers. First of all, students do not withhold talking to someone just because the person is not a youth worker. In fact, there are many students who are less willing to talk about certain issues with a youth worker than anyone else.
Being on both sides of the youth worker role, paid full-time and volunteer, has given me a new insight into one of the keys to effectively communicating with teenagers. The key is not in asking just the right questions. Nor is the key found in the location of the conversation (ie. better conversation is not had while drinking coffee at the local coffee shop). The key to effective communication with teenagers is having a relationship with them.
A listening ear
This truth became vividly clear to me one day while I was subbing in the local high school. At the time I was not in a full-time youth minister position, but I had been in the area for a few years and knew most of the students in the school. Most of the students knew who I was and they knew one of the reasons I was subbing was because I genuinely care for teenagers. During this particular day, I had three significant conversations with students – the kind of “ministry conversations” every youth worker longs to have with students.
I did not plan to have these conversations, in fact I almost missed one because I was reluctant to stop what I was doing to talk to the student. (I’m so glad I stopped and listened) Since I did not plan these conversations, what made them happen? The only connection between all three conversations was my ongoing relationship with the student. I had known them for years and they knew I truly cared for them and desired the best for their life. My relationship with the student was the key to unlocking significant conversation and that day I was reminded of how much students will share when they know you care.
So, how does an adult who cares about teenagers take advantage of this relational aspect to significant conversations? For starters, if you sit down with a student and its the first time you start thinking about having a significant conversation with them, then its already too late. This relational communication will take foresight and planning on your part. The first step happens when you begin to intentionally focus on building a relationship with the student. Now, this is not a form of manipulation used to get the student to talk to you – if you are not genuinely concerned with the student’s life, then they will know and they will not talk to you anyway. You cannot be fake with a student!
Actually if you are involved with youth ministry in any fashion, the desire to build a relationship with a teenager will come naturally. The first step is to take an interest in the student’s life; learn about hobbies, family structure, interests, and what they are gifted in. You cannot have an ongoing relationship if you do not know about their life and you will also struggle to carry a conversation if all you can ask is, “How was school this week?” Asking questions about specific aspects of a student’s life is important, but do not be afraid to stop and listen to what is on their heart.
The relational key
Being given the opportunity to have significant conversations with students does not involve a mysterious formula or collection of the right “buzz words.” The biggest, and strongest, key is simply caring enough about a student to have a relationship with them. Not a relationship based on what the student can do for you or the ministry you are involved with, but a relationship based on one adult showing God’s love to one student. If you have that strong relationship and listen to a student, then every once in a while you will find yourself on the listening end of a significant conversation. A conversation that just might change the future of one special teenager.
It does not matter if you are a full-time youth worker, part-time youth worker, a volunteer, a bus driver, or an “extra” adult – if you have a relationship with a student, then they will willingly talk and share with you. Most students do not talk to an adult based on the title that goes along with their name. They talk to an adult based on the relationship formed over the years. Knowing this truth and not utilizing it will lead to dozens (hundreds?) of missed opportunities to speak into a teenager’s life.