Crowded cafeterias. Loud whispers. Familiar and unfamiliar faces. Awkward glares. All of these define the high school/middle school lunchroom experience.
As a youth minister, I believe the main part of my “job description” is building relationships with the students. It is imperative that we are investing in their lives in order to be effective in our jobs. Sure, this can be done on Wednesday and Sunday nights (or whenever youth ministries may meet); however, I am an ardent supporter that true ministry happens when you go into the trenches. Youth ministry is not some squeaky-clean ministry, where you can feel comfortable 100% of the time. It is not a place where you can just relax in your church office or local coffee shop every day and “prepare for the main event.” Youth ministry requires getting dirty. It requires going into even the places you thought you left a long time ago.
Letting Them Know You Care
As I have mentioned in my most recent blog, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This is especially true in youth ministry. Adolescents are much smarter than we often think they are. They pick up on social cues. They can sniff apathy and lack of care from a mile away. Teenagers are in a time of life where they need to know that people care for them. I have learned from experience that it is crucial to show them you are in it for them (let’s be honest; who actually does youth ministry because they want to be well-known, rich, and famous?). We, youth ministers and volunteer leaders alike, must be there for our students. So what does this mean for those of us involved in youth ministry? It means that we need to be making time to go to sporting events, orchestra concerts, visiting them at work, having coffee (decaffeinated beverages for them) with them, and going to the school cafeterias!
The High School/Middle School Cafeteria
Perhaps the most crucial place to go to interact with middle and high school students is the school cafeterias. Sure it sounds easy. All you have to do is go eat in the lunchroom with students and talk with them. However, this is the very concept I fear the most in youth ministry. No matter how many times I have walked into a school cafeteria, my heart almost always races walking through the doors. Now, I may be the only one in the entire world who feels this way, but I would venture to say that the majority of youth workers have the same feeling. Experience will never prepare you for the strange looks you get and the loud, intentional whispers. Nevertheless, we must press on, keeping our main priority in sight. We are there to love all that we meet and interact with and intentionally build relationships with the students. Even if you feel like the unfamiliar faces, the strange looks, and the whispers are too “scary,” you have to continue. The outcome will be much greater than you can ever imagine.
Going and spending time with your students outside of the church will show them that you are in it for them and not the “money.” The uncomfortable feelings will quickly subside when you sit down and engage in conversation with the teenagers. Perhaps if you go enough to the schools, the “unfamiliar faces” will eventually become familiar. Just because the students do not attend your church does not mean you should ignore them. In fact, by interacting with them shows your youth all the more that you care for them. It is a really great process to watch unfold. The outcome is beautiful. When you leave their territory, you are almost always given a “Thank you” and a smiling face. Even if they are having a bad day, just knowing that their youth minister and volunteer leaders came to see THEM means the world to them.
Why Do We Do It?
I often as myself this very question. Why on earth do I spend time going to high school and middle school cafeterias, even after I have long since been personally removed from this setting? Why would anyone in their right mind put themselves through this on a regular basis? The answer to this is simple: it is an undeniable call. We have to do this. Our students need to know that they are loved. By showing them that we love them, we are showing them that One greater than us loves them as well. That is the reason we do what we do. “We love [God] because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The love we have for God and others are likened to our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now, hear me out on this: this blog is just as much for me as it is anybody else involved in youth ministry. It is so easy for us to get “busy” and forget to go and meet the students on their turf. Schedules fill up. I get it. However, we must remember that a healthy youth ministry requires healthy relationships with our students. So go, stop making excuses, and love those students. They are the future, and I believe the future is bright.
χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη (Grace and peace to you) – Michael