In ministry, it’s so easy for adults to gravitate to the students who are already known as “those youth group kids.” These are the ones who show up every week, come on every trip you have, and who serve within the church. A relationship comes easy with these students because they're present and active. They’re easy to love because you know them. You've had ample opportunity to develop a personal relationship and commonality with them. Our youth group ends each week with something called "Adventure Time" when we let junior high students be kids. Adventure time is also designed to allow leaders the opportunity to connect with their students while playing 9-square, coloring together, shooting hoops, etc. with the goal of building relationships while having fun. While students are engaged this way, it could be the only time a kid opens up the whole night. We love this time, but some weeks I look around the room and see students not fully connecting while leaders flock to the well-known outgoing students. Heck, I find myself touching base with leaders during that time rather than seeking out new students.
The problem is, I know better. I was that kid who wasn’t the first to connect or open up unless someone dragged me over to where they were and where the fun was. I wasn’t the most natural person to love at first.
My job as an adult is to love each student that walks in the doors of our church no matter his or her behavior or story. Not only is it my job, but it is my heart to see students feel the love of Jesus as they walk in and out of our building. It’s not easy when kids are carving their names into tables and spilling slushies everywhere, but neither was dying on a cross to give the ultimate example of love.
So, how can we better love the "unlovable?"
- Challenge yourself. Find a kid in your group who makes you question why you are even in youth ministry to begin with, and get to know him or her. Have that kid help you set-up, so you have time to chat while doing something. You’ll be surprised what they'll begin to share. Lead by example, your leaders and students are watching. Hopefully, they’ll want to mimic the love that you show others.
- Challenge your students. Challenging a student was something my youth pastor did well when I was in high school. When I would walk in ready to reconnect with my tight circle of friends, Jason would approach our group with a new student, introduce us and tell him or her that I would hang with them for the night. Was I happy? No. Was I catching the vision of our church and the heart of Jesus? Yes. It’s not just your job to love the difficult kids in the room.
- Keep it simple. We live in a world where we can get things in an instant! Relationships don’t work that way; they take time! Make a point to connect every week. Start with asking how their day was or asking what they are doing over the weekend and remember what they said so that you can build each week on it! I have an awful memory so I make sure to keep a note on my phone for each Wednesday night where I can jot down conversations.
- Ask good questions. One of my students (the one you know because they start trouble all the time) recently went after another kid in the youth group trying to punch him…yes, it happened. Not a fun night. BUT, that gave me a chance to talk with this kid and his adult leader. As we called parents and waited for them to pick him up, his small group leader and I got a chance to dig. We could have sat in silence, or we could have continued to talk about why what he did was wrong, but instead, we chose relationship. This leader and I asked what the student’s sister was like, why he sounds like he has an accent, what his parents are like, what his hobbies were, and boy did we learn a LOT! I gained so much more compassion for this student. Sometimes, just a few questions let you see into the life of your students, and that’s all you need to love better.
Jesus went out of his way to reach the unlovable, and he challenged his people to get out of their comfort zones to do it. I know that we all have a lot of students in our ministry that are hard to love and honestly, sometimes those are the typical “youth group kids.”
Take some time this week to ask Jesus who in your ministry is it that you need to love better. I’m sure you can think of a name or two right now, but if not, Jesus will give you a nudge. Figure out what you need to do to show love to that student.
Do you need to spend some time asking questions? Do you need to remember a fact to keep the conversation going next week? Maybe you need to meet a need. Whatever it is, I pray that you get out of your comfort zone this week and love well.