“How do you make students like you?”
“I am a new youth pastor and I am not connecting with my kids…what am I doing wrong?”
“I have been in youth ministry for years, but I can’t seem to find common ground with my teens in my new position.”
These are just a few quotes I have heard over the past couple of weeks from youth pastors who are struggling to connect with their students.
The real question before us is this: how can I connect with, relate to, and push my students to the Gospel? Throughout various ministries, and lots of trial and error, I have seen many ways work and lots of ways fail. I want to share a few ways to help you connect with your students regardless of where you are and how long you have been there.
Don’t put your worth in students liking you.
If you find your success, identity, and validity in students liking you, then you went into the wrong field with the wrong intentions. You aren’t here to be liked–don’t get me wrong, that’s a huge plus–you are here to disciple students and point them to Jesus. Don’t go looking to be liked but go seeking to show them Jesus and love them the way He does.
Don’t expect them to come to you.
Go to where they are. I think sometimes we believe that if we keep office hours, have an “open door policy,” and invite them over then they will come. That isn’t the case. Students in fact have been told to not go hang out with strange people. If you are in a new position, you are a strange person. They don’t know you yet. They don’t know your passions and heart. So go to them. Go support them at their games and activities. Get involved in the community. Bring donuts to their school in the morning.
Know your students.
This seems like an easy one but depending on the size of your program (and if your memory, like mine, isn’t great) you may not be able to know every student. But try to get to know the ones you can and remember them. There is so much power in being called by your name instead of “hey you” or “buddy” or “dude.” Remember their names, but also seek to know more about them. What school do they go to? What activities are they engaged in? Who is in their friend group? Where’s their favorite place to go hang out? What’s the best coffee shop? What’s their favorite thing about youth group? When you know these things and bring them up in conversations you are showing intentionality and a desire to be a part of their lives.
I cannot stress this enough. All you have to do is look at all the memes out there about youth pastors being one way around students and another in front of church members or parents to know that the common perception of youth pastors is they aren’t authentic. Maybe it is just a meme and I am trying to be too insightful, but I think the underlying truth is there: be authentic.
Students can tell when you aren’t being genuine or you’re trying to “just relate” but don’t truly care. They have plenty of people who pretend to care or invest in their lives, they don’t need another one. Be yourself! Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. If you are dorky, own it. If you are an athlete, play basketball with them. If you are quiet, don’t try to be an extrovert. And don’t pretend to know someone when you don’t. Love them as Jesus does and show them who you are.
Don’t be a stick in the mud. Sometimes engaging with students means having fun with them and with what they are doing. Think about it: what adult other than a youth worker do you see playing Gagaball or challenging students to an eating competition? I’ll wait while you come up with names… But seriously, have fun with your students. If they like board games, play with them. If they are into video games, brush up on your gaming skills. You don’t have to crush it or them, and when they beat you, laugh about it.
I love playing 9 Square with my students. Some of them are super athletic and can dominate the game. I can go toe-to-toe with them, but I often choose not to and allow myself to get spiked on. Why? Not because I like losing, but I love to laugh at it and also I get to connect with the students who did get spiked on. Have fun and let your hair down.
Tell personal stories.
Elise wrote an awesome post about the power of a story and she couldn’t be more correct. Stories convey truth and emotion, and they connect with people in a very real way. I love telling stories when I teach and they are almost always personal. I do this for two reasons: people see I am real and just like them, and it allows for my students to know me on a deeper level. My students know about my childhood, college years, my day-to-day activities, and all the times I messed up. In fact, I have students come up and say “remember when you did…” But the funny thing is they weren’t there for that moment, but they were there for my story. They connect with you as you allow them into your space.
Don’t give up. The reality is all of this takes time and effort, and there will be moments you want to check out or walk away. Don’t! Stay invested. Keep showing up. Go to the plays and sports and coffee shops. When no one comes on a youth group night still show up. Students see you. They see your heart. Be someone who is there for and with them. Be the person they need and the person God called you to be. When you say you will be someone where, be there. When you say there is youth group, show up and be excited. Be consistent and watch what God does.