Through my work in youth ministry, it’s become evident to me that the churches that have the strongest youth ministries are generally the ones that do the best relational ministry. As I’ve written about before, youth ministry is about people and not programs; we need to be interested in souls and not in attendance.
And most importantly: young people won’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.
I learned this the hard way back in 1999 when I was discerning a move to Lindenhurst, New York (on the southern shore of Long Island) to become the parish youth minister at a Catholic Church. On one of my recruitment trips to Lindenhurst I joined the parish youth group on their annual trip to a Young Life camp in New York.
At the camp, I was asked to facilitate a small group of 8 young men. I was both eager and nervous at the opportunity to get to know them – teens who I would inevitably see more regularly if I took the job. After a busy first day of camp, we settled into some evening prayer time and discussion time in our cabin.
13 years later, I can’t remember the exact topic we were discussing but I can certainly remember how things transpired. Whatever we were discussing, I must have had a strong opinion on it because I distinctly remember using language like:
“You need to do this…”
“You must consider trying…”
“I think you should…”
One of the teens must have gotten tired of my soliloquy as he finally interrupted me saying, “You have no right to tell us anything yet…you don’t even know us. Why should we listen to you?” The other 7 dudes nodded in agreement.
My first reaction was one of shock. Inside I screamed for them to respect me as their elder and “leader” for the week. Didn’t they know who they were talking back at? I was the big shot youth minister from Canada!
But thankfully I was able to quickly shove my ego aside. Plus, I didn’t think I could take all 8 of them in a fight. :p
“You’re absolutely right,” I said. “I don’t know any of you…and you certainly don’t know me. But I’m hopeful that this will change over the next week. Let’s try this again.”
We regrouped (literally and figuratively) and both the rest of the evening and the rest of the week went very well. By the end of the camp, I had built a strong connection to the guys and we were able to share more openly with each other.
Ultimately, I ended up declining the job offer to remain in the familiar surroundings of beautiful Vancouver, BC. But I’m eternally grateful for my experience at the camp: the small group discussion on the first night was likely the most humbling yet poignant moment of my 19-year youth ministry career.
In our work with young people, we must earn the right to be heard. When possible, we need to build genuine relationships with young people before we attempt to evangelize or catechize them.
Because they won’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.