Engaging Resistant Students in Youth Ministry
Ok, this is a lengthy post today but one we felt was needed. Too often kids get a bad rap because they are resistant to engage in the life of our ministry. Hear me on this…IT’S NOT ALWAYS THEIR FAULT. There are many variable that contribute to a student becoming a part of a faith community. I see this in counseling and I see it in “Big Church” as well. Let’s dissect why students are resistant and what we can do about it.
Ethan came to our youth ministry every Sunday and Wednesday. He came only because his parents made him attend. Ethan was an over-churched kid who went to the local Christian high school. He grew up in church and his dad was an elder and his mom taught Sunday school for as long as he could remember.
Whitney did not grow up in church. She was only coming because of our “evangelism daters” had convinced her to go with him. She was uninterested but came because she really liked Jake. She was emotionally distant and often snickered when another student would share openly about something they wanted prayer for.
Carissa was a wild child. She was ADHD and ran on caffeine from the minute she woke up until the moment of the inevitable crash later into the night. She was disruptive and impulsive. Carissa loved to show up late so she could make an entrance and equally loved getting attention from the boys in the youth group.
These three students have something in common; they were all very difficult to engage in the spiritual life and practices of our youth community. In spite of many attempts to get these kids under control or to peak their interest they remained stagnant and distance with their heels dug in.
It seems so obvious years later, but we learned that spiritual growth can’t occur unless a student is first engaged in a spiritual community. Most students show up at youth group or church for the first time with a combination of issues and often are on the defensive and initially resistance to change. Every student we encounter is a product of a process that has been going on in their lives that impacts how they connect and open up to others. Let’s look at some of the reason why a student might be resistant to our efforts to engage them:
They are forced to go: Many students are only there because their parents are making them go. This is not the kind of “soil” in which growth can occur. If we’re honest we’d say there are quite a few kids that fit into this category. This mandate automatically sets up resistance.
Lack of motivation to change: The great majority of young people who come to youth ministries are ambivalent about whether or not the want to stop their “sin”. Most aren’t even sure what sin really is, let alone whether they are prepared to surrender it to a God they know very little or nothing about.
Discomfort opening up in front of peers/strangers: From the perspective of the student, youth ministry can be a strange experience. It is so different than anything else they experience in their world. Often the youth leader knows something about them (because of their friends) but they know very little about the youth leader and the world of youth ministry. In addition, youth ministry thrives when its members are vulnerable and transparent, both pre-requisites for change and growth. This also creates discomfort for students to open up to a room of virtual strangers or even worse, give their closest friend ammo to use against them later.
Multiple life stressors = Spiritual growth not a priority: A combination of family stress, school commitments, relationship challenges, identity struggles, brain development, physical changes, mental health concerns and a host of other stressors can push spiritual growth down on the list of urgent needs to address.
Difficult emotions to manage: There are myriad emotions that accompany being an adolescent, including anger, rage hostility, flat affect, depression, apathy, and hopelessness as well as love, excitement, fear, exhilaration, and freedom. Likewise, there is distorted thinking to combat, such as; the imaginary audience, grandiosity, catastrophic thinking, minimizing risk, failure to see long term consequences, desire for immediate gratification, and a sense of entitlement. All of these make engaging a young person like walking through a minefield.
Initial ministry approaches that increase resistance: There are a number of ministry approaches that, when scrutinized, would reveal that they actually decrease a student’s engagement. At best the drive the kids toward shallow compliance, acting and saying the right things but not actually changing hearts. This is like cleaning the outside of the cup but not the inside. These approaches are aggressively confrontational and leave the student feeling defensive or shamed, they lack empathy, warmth, genuineness, and focuses exclusively on what students are doing wrong to the neglect of what they are doing right or have to offer.
Unresolved grief/trauma: Painful emotions connected to loss or trauma can make engagement difficult due to the anxious nature of both conditions. Fear of abandonment or exploitation can lead to a student leaving the group and never returning (early termination). There is fear that the community it not safe or may trigger the trauma or grief.
Cross-cultural tension: All ministries are cross-cultural because of issues related to race, gender, religious backgrounds, sexual orientation, age, and so forth. Tension can exist in the context of ministry and can be barriers to establishing a relationship between the ministry (people) and student (people).
Negative prior YM/Church experiences: Students who have previously attend church or youth ministry will bring with them preconceived notions about what they can expect. If they had negative experiences they will likely filter your ministry through that lens, potentially tainting the new experience.
Adolescence: Adolescence by its very nature is a journey to autonomy, making young people resistant to engaging adults. In addition, many adolescents do not believe that sin is problematic. Many simply think they are behaving normally and that it is normal to drink, party, have sex, etc.
Evan eventually began to engage and share his gifts and strengths with the group. He entered into a mentoring relationship with Art and discovered he had leadership skills. When Ethan went off to college he became a leader at his campus ministry and now leads dozens of other students as they seek to grow in their faith.
Tiffany, as it turns out had a recent suicide attempt and regularly engaged in self-injury. She had difficulties trusting others due to trauma she experienced as a child. She found hope and healing through a mentoring relationship with Jillian who taught her how to love and be loved. She is married today and lives a whole life.
Candice has settled down, SOME. She was able to discover her heart bled for orphans after the youth group went through the 30 Hour Famine. Her heart was wrecked by the overwhelming need she saw in the kids. She finished high school and became involved in the organization International Justice Mission that her mentor Trudy told her about. She is currently in school working on a degree in International Law and intends to devote he life work to freeing captives in the sex trade and bringing justice to the oppressors.
Engaging students in an important skill youth workers must have if they are to be effective in impacting the world through the students they are called to reach. Before we can invite them into the redemptive kingdom work God has for them they first need to be engaged in a community that will equip them for such work.
So what are some strategies for engaging resistant students…
Hospitality has to be a high priority: We must invest our resources in creating a culture of hospitality. Students are more likely to let their guard down when they enter a warm, friendly environment. This includes everything from how we train our volunteers and student leaders to the décor of our meeting spaces. We lose a lot of kids within the first few minutes after they walk through our doors.
Focus on what the students have to offer: Many students feel like they are failing at life. Many reel like this faith thing is simply too complicated for them to engage. If they feel they serve a purpose and that the community is incomplete without them, they are more likely to feel valued.
Explore and validate past ministry experiences: Admittedly, the church wounds people. There is a chance that some of your students have been hurt by the body of Christ. If this is the case we increase the likelihood that those students will engage in our ministries if we validate their experiences and feel like someone takes them serious. You do not have to run down the other youth ministry but a simple acknowledgement of pain or betrayal is often more than enough.
Match levels of spiritual interest with appropriate ministry expectations: Like we mentioned earlier, most student are ambivalent about changing. When we put them directly into intense discipleship situations we end up with a mismatch of motivation and expectations. Having various points of entry for all students regardless of where they are in their walk will allow the students to experience your ministry without adding more pressure to a young person who is already overwhelmed with the rest of their life.
Minimize confrontation: There is a time and a place to share the truth about someone’s choices and the consequences. That is a right that is earned first and timing is important. A student is more likely to listen to hard truth when you have invested the necessary time for them to know you care. It may be wise to tolerate certain behaviors until a healthy and appropriate trust is established. Once this occurs the relationship will be more likely to withstand the tension of confrontation because love and trust has already been established.
Engage the student in their spiritual growth plan: Another reason students are resistant is because they typically have very little input into their spiritual growth. Each student is created uniquely by God to connect with him in a unique way. There are multiple pathways to encounter God, such as; intellectual study, worship, community gatherings, being in nature, enjoying fellowship and relationships, and acts of service. Too often we create experiences that are born out of the youth leaders natural way of connecting but don’t necessarily lead to connection for the student. Individualized feedback from the student provides a personal investment and more buy-in.
Avoid power struggles: This will lead to an immediate decrease in student engagement if they come to believe that you are a power hungry, control freak. Remember each student has a right to chose or reject God and that right comes directly from God Himself. View the power struggle as a sign that maybe you need to take another approach with the student to try and engage him or her. Pay attention to non-verbal body language. Folded arms across the chest are often a sign of disinterest. Re-evaluate your strategy with this student and try again.
Avoid labeling student: Students are constantly in development. What you see before you is not what they will be some day. Be careful to avoid labeling them with title slike: He doesn’t care, she just wants attention, and they’ll never change. Grace will and should cover a multitude of sins.
Be aware of countertransference: By definition, countertransference involves negative reactions that youth workers have towards their students. Youth workers who have negative reactions to the students can contribute to those students’ resistance to youth ministry outreach. It is during these moments when we must search our hearts for the barriers that stands in the way of our being able to love this specific student. It may be as simple as a personality conflict or it may be deeper, this student may be unintentionally triggering a memory of a bad experience or relationship the youth worker has had in their past. Either way, these situations should be discussed with your supervisors and consulted with other volunteers to see who can step in and reach out to this particular student.
Maintain a sense of humor: It’s been said that the shortest distance between two people is laughter. Humor can reduce resistance in the most obstinate youth. When one individual is perceived to have the most power in a situation, humor can be the great equalizer, leaving both parties on equal footing. Humor can also make the leader more human in the eyes of the student. This requires some discernment as we can be too flip or crass or even hurtful if humor is not used appropriately. When used properly a well placed comment can make all the difference in the world.
How have you engaged those students that appear to be resistant? What strategies do you have built into your ministry that directly addresses this posture in students?