This evening, at the conclusion of our religious education classes at our church, one little boy was left waiting to be picked up. Five minutes passed, then ten. Ten became fifteen, fifteen became twenty, and twenty became twenty-five. Finally, his grandfather came to the door thirty minutes after classes had ended and all the other students had gone home. Sadly, there wasn’t an apology or thank you . . . only a nod of acknowledgement after I reminded him to be on time for pick-up.
Conversely, the student was very polite and appreciative of our patience. In between his phone calls home to see who was going to pick him up, we had a great conversation about school, shopping, and the importance of good hygiene. To his credit, the 10 year-old was not scared or worried, and he gave me a sincere “Thanks for waiting with me” when he was leaving . . . in stark contrast to his grandfather. While grateful for the time and chat, I felt sad that he had to wait (and not just because he had to talk to me . . . haha) – it felt like he was abandoned – even for a short time.
It got me thinking about times that we abandon teens in our youth ministry.
A couple of qualifications here: I’m aware that there are different ways to define “abandon”, but for these purposes I will focus on its meaning as leaving or forsaking something or someone. Furthermore, I’ll be looking at more figurative examples as opposed to literal ones: thankfully I’ve never left a teen somewhere . . . at least to my knowledge. :p
Here are three ways that we may abandon teens:
1. When we get intimidated or uncomfortable.
Reaching out to certain teens isn’t easy; in fact it can downright frightening. Quite often, we jump to conclusions about people (all people and not just teens) whether it’s how people dress, talk, act or choose to hang around with. As youth ministers, it’s vital to recognize when we are doing this and to fight through it and not let it affect our ministry. It certainly is tricky. For instance, I’ve ministered alongside some really great youth leaders who “favored” certain teens (to varying degrees); and because of the time and attention, some of them have grown up to be outstanding leaders in their own right.
I know that I’m guilty of this as well – I admit that it’s much easier to spend time with those who seem to make ministry easier for us. However, I often lament the teens that slipped through the cracks of my parish youth ministry because I or other leaders simply didn’t take the time to connect with them or to stretch out of our comfort zones. I just pray that someone else was able to do what I didn’t do.
2. When they “let us down.”
Often in youth ministry, we put a lot of hope and faith into the teens we minister to and with (as we should). We may try to live vicariously through them or we may see a younger version of ourselves in them. Thus, we may expect them to act a certain way, to speak using certain language, or to make certain decisions.
But what happens when they don’t do what we want them to do? Logically, the best answer is that we should stand by them and guide them through the said situation by providing a prudent level of guidance and support. However, I’ve seen it go the other way as well: youth leaders who get frustrated or disappointed with the teens to a point where it compounds the problem. They may use words such as “I’m disappointed in you” or “I hope you learned your lesson.”
Speaking from experience, it’s ridiculously easy to put too much pressure on young people. They already have enough pressure on them: from their parents, school, job, peers, media, society, and more – they certainly don’t need a youth minister breathing down their neck too. We are called to love young people despite their (and our own) imperfections. How we react in the face of adversity (theirs and ours) says a lot about our character. Teens need us to love them and not to judge them.
3. When THEY abandon US.
How good are we at seeking out the lost sheep? Or are we so wrapped up in our programs that we forget about people? When it comes to relational ministry, we need to accept that a lot of times it is going to feel like it’s only going one way. That is, we may initiative all of the contact and show up at all the sporting events and concerts only to have the young person not show up to our youth ministry gatherings.
I liken it to the age-old dilemma of birthday party or wedding invitations. It doesn’t make any sense to use the thinking of “I will invite them only if they invited me to theirs’ first”. Because if both sides subscribed to that theory, no one would make the first move! Same goes for our youth ministry: we can’t water down our relational ministry efforts if it seems like the commitment isn’t being reciprocated. In fact, it should be the exact opposite: that’s the time to ramp things up!
Remember, youth ministry should be about people and not programs. We should be interested in souls and not attendance. If we are firmly committed to this, we won’t need to worry about abandoning teens.