On Sunday afternoon, we had one bi-monthly Adult Youth Leader Lunch. It was a BYOM (Bring Your Own Meat) afair. Steak. Chicken. Shrimp. Hot Dogs. O yeah, and veggie burgers. So I guess it was also a BYOMM (Bring Your Own Meatless Meat) lunch. With garden salad, potato salad, pasta, and guacamole for sides, let’s just say we all ate well today. After lunch and casual conversations, we had coffee, pumpkin and pecan pie with whipped cream for dessert and gathered together for a time of leadership training. Craig Muller, the director of Long Island Youth For Christ was our guest, and he shared out of his wealth of experience some tips for being a relational youth worker.

  1. Show Up. This is job description #1 for youth workers. Craig shared about Tommy who always showed up to cheer for him at his basketball games while he was in high school. Tommy even traveled to away games – sometimes hours away, just to support Craig and his friends. It’s about being there consistently, not just when it’s convenient. Obviously we can’t be at everything, all the time, but try to get out to a game or a concert or a math meet (those mathletes are intense!) and support students on their turf. Whatever you do, be a person of your word. If you say you’re going to be there, be there. When you keep your word and show up when you say you will, it communicates that you are trustworthy. 
  2. Be Present. This goes beyond just showing up. This means getting involved, being engaged. In a youth group setting, this means you’re not sitting in the back with all of the adults while the kids are doing their thing. You are sitting with students. You are doing things with them. 
  3. Talk to Students. Be good listeners. Ask good questions. You don’t have to like what students like. Ask them to describe/explain stuff to you. Ask: How did you get into it? What’s it like? Or say: Do it and I’ll video record you. (Kids love that!) At school kids sit there and listen to people talk at them all day. When they get home, for most kids it’s “be quiet” or “get lost” (go play video games or spend time online). One look at social media will tell you kids are trying to have a voice. We can be the ones to give them the opportunity to be expressive.
  4. Be Patient. If you are a normal adult who wants to help young people, you know the temptation is to be a fixer. When kids say something wrong, we want to correct them. When they are acting wrong, we want to stop them. Certainly there is a place for this, but the important thing is to not  come across as a know-it-all … because we DON’T know it all. When a student says something inaccurate, rather than immediately correct them, engage them. Say something like, “Tell me more about that.” Or, “Can you share with me what has influenced you to see it that way?”  
  5. Play. The best way to break down walls is to play. I know it’s hard – especially as we get older, but you’ve got to. I (Kevin) recently spoke at a student retreat that Craig was leading. I was blown away when I saw virtually every kid participating in every activity and game. All too often the scene at other youth ministries (ours included) is a handful of kids who just don’t participate; no matter what we do. I asked Craig how they got kids to be so engaged. His response was, “I think a big part of it is, we play the games with the students. We just make it a thing for all of our leaders: You are playing the games!”
  6. Make Excuses. Our programs and events are simply excuses. Excuse for what? Excuses to hang out with students. Ultimately, they are excuses to talk to them about Jesus. Projects – things that I need to do around the house – can quickly become excuses to call up a student and say, “Hey, I’ve got something I need to do. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll do it together.” When there’s a game on TV, it’s an excuse to invite kids over to hang out. “Even when kids are messing up,” says Craig, “I see that as an excuse – an opportunity to talk.” Come with me. Spending time with students helps “build a bridge of trust that can hold the weight of truth” [that we want students to encounter in Jesus].
  7. Respect Kids First. Students should absolutely respect adults and leaders. But sometimes we demand respect without giving respect. I love to joke around with students, but we need to be careful that we aren’t teasing and pointing stuff out and making jokes in a way that tears down the bridge of trust we are seeking to establish with students. We need to respect their opinions. We need to let kids speak. As mentioned before, it is hard not to correct, but we need to show respect even if don’t agree. We can’t make them kids believe anything anyways. 
  8. Be a Good Example. Don’t compromise. You don’t have to be like students to be liked by them. Be yourself. One of my (Kevin) definitions of a good youth worker is simply: Live your life for Jesus, and take kids along for the ride.
  9. Build Time. Plan some times without a plan. No message. No worship. Just time to hang out. And not just time at church or wherever you meet. Have times that communicate not just “come to our programs” but “come to my home.” In other words, invite kids into your life. Also, have times that communicate not just “come to us” but, “I’ll come to you.” As mentioned above, go to their turf and spend time doing stuff that they like to do, not simply always inviting them to do stuff you like to do.   
  10. Trust God. This one goes hand-in-hand with being patient, and is a reminder to all of us that sometimes God is working on something in a student that we haven’t even thought about yet. “Sometimes, for example” Craig says, “I’m thinking that getting a kid to stop smoking is the most important thing they need to be working on. But maybe what I’m after isn’t what God is after in them at that time. I have to realize that God might be after something else first – something like how she is relating with her parents. I’ve had to learn to trust God rather than get frustrated. And when I learn to trust God I can relax when a student seemingly isn’t listening to me. I’d rather be with a kid who’s not listening to me than not be with a kid who’s not listening to me.”

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