Have you ever stopped and thought about how difficult it is for a new teen to show up at your parish, perhaps knowing only one or two teens, or no one at all? I have often thought about how awkward it is for me to approach the new teen, and rarely did I realize how important that first encounter was for them.
This past summer I stepped down from full time youth ministry to enter seminary formation for the Archdiocese of Boston. My parish, and specifically the teens, gave me a farewell that I will never forget. During this night, amid the skits performed and letters written, I realized there were a few common themes that stood out to them from my time in youth ministry.
Most of us realize the first meeting of a new teen is very important. We’ve all heard that that there is only a small chunk of time that we have to make an impact in the hopes that they will come back. That night, while reading the teens’ letters, I learned that they were all so nervous going to their first Life Night, trip, prayer night or retreat.
They were nervous until I walked over to them and greeted them with a “hello” and a hug (of course, follow your diocesan policies accordingly). Many teens said that what brought them back was knowing that a person they just met welcomed them and made them feel important. One even said, “There had to be more to this guy who just came up to me.” Surely that is what some of the people in Jesus’ time said about Him. Now, in no way am I comparing myself to Jesus, but rather, it is an affirmation and encouragement to every youth leader who greets teens with love and excitement. We have to try and make every encounter we have leave that person thinking about Christ.
We can forget how important the encounter is with a person. Surely, throughout Christ’s ministry, He encountered people. He welcomed them, He walked with them, He challenged them and He loved them. It was in the moments of the first encounter that Christ was able to powerfully move. The woman at the well, the calling of the apostles, and even the meeting of Simon of Cyrene (to name a few) all had an initial encounter with the Lord that called them deeper.
Do we allow the Holy Spirit to move in us as youth leaders when we encounter a teen for the first time? Amid a busy day filled with emails, phone messages and parish staff meetings, we can forget the power of an encounter. And this should not stop after the first meeting of a new teen. Do you make every moment you spend with a teen, parent, college student or member of the parish staff deliberate and with your full attention?
Our teens are coming from homes, schools and sports teams that just make them feel like anyone else. We are to emulate Christ in every way, which means by starting with an encounter. As new teens and old faces, rejoin your parish ministries, be sure to pray for each one by name and welcome them with your whole heart; remembering that our job is to not let them encounter us, but rather, encounter the One who sent us.