After a workshop I facilitated on working with kids who are abused, an elderly woman approached me to ask me a question. She shocked me with the simplicity and depth of the question.  

Here’s what she said,

“I love the kids in my community but I don’t know how to connect with them. I want to reach out but don’t know where to start.  How do you do it?”

I can’t really remember what I told her, probably an overly simplified answer. I honestly never thought about it. I just did what felt natural when reaching out to others. Plus, I have the added benefit of being pretty simple, if I don’t know someone I would just introduce myself and talk to them. It wasn’t until I talked to my wife that she opened my eyes to the idea that for some this comes easy.  For others though it is an anxiety inducing event. I imagine we all long to reach out to this generation, a generation that is slipping through the cracks right before our very eyes, but the words escape some of us when needed most.  Some of us struggle with how to connect beyond a simple “Hello, how are you today?”

My wife and I talked about this for several hours over the next few days. We explored why connecting with these kids that seemed so different from us. Asking me how I connect with fringe kids is like asking a fish to describe water. I spend so much time out there on the fringe that it has become normal. Truth be told, I struggle to make connections with “normal” people. The “weirder” the better and easier. My wife often tells me I have a superpower: TEEN WHISPERER! (I think that sounds rather creepy and would definitely send up red flags to those who don’t understand youth workers.)

But, I have developed, over the years, skills to build bridges with teenagers. Still, many others report they just don’t know where to start.

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about ways to connect with teens on the fringe:

Bridge building

How to make that first contact in a meaningful way? Look for low-hanging fruit. Is the student wearing something you can connect over, like a sports jersey? I am a die-hard baseball fan. If I see a student wearing something related to baseball, I know I instantly have a bridge to walk across. If they are wearing a concert shirt from a band I know, that’s another bridge. Rainbow gear, they are likely a part of or a supporter of the LGBTQ community. Listening to Spotify, there’s a natural connection when you ask about what’s on their playlist. These are simple ways to get the conversation going.

Cultivating a spirit of learning

Curiosity is key in connecting with others.  How do we foster a spirit of curiosity? I always have back-pocket questions available when interacting with a resistant student. Such as, “Who are you listening to?” or “what have you read lately that either bored you to tears or inspired you?” Another question is, “What are you hoping to do after you graduate?” or “What problem do you hope to solve as you move into adulthood?” Occasionally I’ll bust out with a fun request, such as; “using only 5 words, tell me about yourself.” and when they give me those words, I ask them to “Tell me more about that.”

It is also important to stay curious about youth culture. What are teens paying attention to in popular culture, what type of technology are they using, and what other cultural artifacts are capturing their attention? Another area to stay curious about it adolescent development. We are learning so much about the body and brain that we can barely keep up with it. This is immeasurably helpful when working with teens.

Law of the lid

We should explore our preconceived expectations of these fringe kids and how they impede our interactions with them. Adults are prone to make quick assessments of kids, with limited information, and then make a universal determination about that particular kid is like. For example, a new student comes to youth group. You reach out and make no headway towards a connection. In fact, the student basically ignores you. If we use that single experience to judge that kid, it will likely impact all of our future experiences with them. We set a limit on what we expect from certain kids and often underestimate others who seem different. When we do that we place a “lid” on them and after repeated hitting their head on that “lid” may decide to throw in the towel and give up trying to push beyond it.

The culture of an individual

Each student is a culture unto themselves. How will we  explore that culture as it relates to effectively building a relationship with them? Some examples of what makes up the culture of an individual: Country of origin, race and ethnicity, religious background, parenting styles that shaped them, generational influences, abilities and disabilities, personality traits, gender and sexual orientation, political leanings, thinking styles, values and beliefs, as well as style and tastes.

Doing away with my agenda

How my agenda actually breeds a distrust that is nearly impossible to overcome. Teens have an innate ability to smell an ulterior motives like a fart in a car. Our approach must be genuine and sincere. For years youth ministries have been guilty of pulling a bait-and-switch on our prospective students. With this current generation, who long to belong before they come to believe, we must place a higher value on authentic friendship than on conversion experiences. So often when kids are coerced or harassed into believing something they may not be ready to believe, but do so to stay connected to the community. All we end up with then are faux disciples engaged in shallow compliance to belong. Generation Z will not stick around for that and consider it a betrayal to their values to pretend for our sake.

Checking our personal bias at the door

Often our personal biases impact how well we connect with others, especially those different from us. Let’s just all be honest together and admit that we have them. There are certain students we are drawn to. These kids are similar to us in lifestyle and values. The flesh is typically drawn to that which is familiar and often the path of least resistance. I just want to acknowledge this and say that it is alright. It’s perfectly normal. Which is precisely why we must be vigilant about our unconscious biases, because they will hinder us from reaching kids that are different from us. I’ll never forget when I came to this awareness. One day a friend, who was black youth pastor from a neighboring church said to me, “Your youth group kids look and sound an awful lot like you.” At first I thought that might be a compliment but after contemplating this for a minute I realized I had only been homogeneous group of students that looked like, talked like, and valued the same things as me. I had not helped these kids become more like Christ, I had made them more like Chris. This was not a reflection of the Beloved Community that God longs for and I became aware that my unconscious biases played a part in the development of our youth community.

Finding common ground

Discovering shared experiences, dreams, fear, and failures. Humans are amazingly unique yet, very similar. We all have the same intrinsic longing inside, the same fears and dreams. If we think about it, we actually have more in common with each other than different. This shared experiences can knit us together in powerful ways. Imagine a group that longs for belonging committing to radical hospitality for all students in their community. I honestly believe you couldn’t keep kids from coming to a place like that.

What is being said without words

What story are they telling with their clothes, hairstyle, and nonverbal communication. This goes both ways, from their non-verbals to our non-verbals. For every person we meet, there is a story unfolding that we know nothing about. If we can lay down our agenda and simply learn to listen, they will tell us everything we need to know about them. Everything from their clothing choices, music, make up, to their behaviors, attitudes, and non-verbal communication will betray their want to secretive about the hurts and hopes they carry. The discerning youth worker will master the art of listening. Maybe this is less about what we have to say to the student and more about how we are fully present to them.

By doing these things, we increase our influence over the students we serve and they are more likely to choose to follow in the Way of Jesus, not because they were coerced or manipulated to do so. Instead, they will choose Jesus because that is what we have modeled to them.

May you speak louder through your actions. May your capacity for listening grow. May your discernment to see and hear the cries of our students increase. And may they know Jesus more because of you.

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