Today, I picked up my son from preschool and we headed into the country. There is a wildlife refuge a half-hour north of our home and I like to take him up there from time to time to get out, run around, and count how many ducks, geese, and pheasants we can spot. He was a little guy just running around, enjoying life and happy to be spending time with his daddy, trying to scare up critters in the nearby thicket. It was a very enjoyable time as a father and son. I try to do things like this because I want him to know that I love him in all sorts of ways, even when it is hard. Yesterday, we went to a diner, just the two of us, for lunch. It was definitely an exercise in patience on my part as my son was spinning around in the booth and refusing to eat his grilled cheese sandwich but I know that those things and those times are meaningful.
Over the course of two blog posts, I’d like to suggest that this approach to fatherhood is not all that different to what our approach to youth ministry should be like. In the next post, I’m going to touch on why spending lots of time with your teenagers (relational ministry) is important for your soul but right now lets talk about why it is such a vital strategy.
I was sitting on the lawn of a local water park this summer with some of our high schoolers, eating our lunches, when I asked, “Why do you keep coming to youth group?” Lots of restaurants and hotels and resorts ask these sorts of customer service questions all the time but I don’t think we ask our teens this enough. I suppose I was hoping it was my engaging youth talks or pearls of wisdom that keep them coming but their answers were so much more meaningful than that.
“Because it’s like a big family.”
“I feel like I can be myself here.”
“Because someone listens to me.”
It is vital for your youth ministry to be a place that teenagers feel like they belong and that they have ownership. In the youth ministry I serve, this sense of family and connectedness is something we work at incredibly hard and that comes through spending time with our teens and lots of it. One of the ways that we do that is through lots of dinner parties at my house. (Now before you skip past the next few lines because you’re convinced your house is not big enough or cool enough for having teenagers over, my wife and I have been hosting crowds of teens since our apartment days. We once fit 25 people in our one bedroom apartment!) Some portion of our youth group is in our house eating food almost weekly, and I am the father of 3 kids under the age of 4. We so believe that investing our lives into teenagers by spending tons of time with them is so crucial, we’ve built our family schedule around it. It’s that important. And after a while, you won’t be able to do it by yourself. Find yourself more people in your church who are ready to make a casserole and have some teenagers over for dinner. For us, we’ve begun to outsource some of these dinner parties to other families in the church. As I write this, one non-youth group family is hosting 4 of our high school small groups tonight.
This stuff of spending time with people is straight out of the Gospels. Although there are many examples, one to briefly highlight is Jesus on the road to Emmaus at the end of Luke. As you read through it, you’ll notice that Jesus walks with the two travelers, He asks questions, He listens, He teaches them what the Scriptures say, and He sits down and eats with them. He could have very easily just stopped them on the road and explained what needed to be explained, but He took a longer and ultimately more relational approach.
Dear Youth Worker, there is no such thing as little moments of quality time with your teens – quality is directly related to quantity. If you want to make a difference in teenagers lives, invite them over to the house and keep inviting them. Cook dinner with them. Have them help you wash the dishes. Play music and have fun. Because it is in this quantity of time spent together that real life happens and trust is built. Your teenagers will know that you care for them when their grandparent passes away or their girlfriend dumps them or they have doubts in their faith because you are already a regular part of their lives.
Another area that we emphasize in our youth ministry is going on trips with your teens. We recently transitioned our Junior High ministry to a true Middle School ministry by adding 6th grade students. That meant that this fall we not only one new incoming class but 2. It was basically like a brand new youth group. As I was addressing all of these new youth group parents, I told them plainly, “If you really want to see your child engage with our youth group, send them on a retreat.” There is a significant amount of “stickiness” with the kids who come on trips with us and the ones who don’t. Youth trips are relational microwaves. Take our recent Colorado trip for example. We spent 30+ hours in the bus with our teenagers just getting down there and back. That is essentially the amount of program time we spend for an entire school year. In our youth ministry, we offer 3-4 middle school specific trips a year and 3-4 high school specific trips a year. I am not suggesting that you need to plan 8 trips for your next ministry year but I am saying that traveling with your students is the fastest way to build relationships with them. From eating at restaurants along the way (and teaching middle schoolers how to tip) to sharing lodging to all of the trip’s activities, it is a near-guaranteed way to build relationships with teenagers.
Spending lots of time with your teenagers is the stuff that effective youth ministries are made of. From eating to traveling to simple things such as taking them along grocery shopping or while you get an oil change (both things I have done), you are telling them that your time is worth spending on them. And that, not to be dramatic, is the stuff that memories are made of. Your students will probably forget every youth message you speak, but they will remember that you made them a priority. Youth Worker, be reminded that God is faithful and He is the one that works through you into the lives of your teenagers. All we are called to do is to be faithful. Trust that through all of the spaghetti meals and spring retreats and trips to camp that the Holy Spirit is using you as an instrument to point these teens to the finished work of Jesus. Amen.
TL;DR – Eat dinner with teenagers, it’s important.
Nick Olson is a 10+ year youth ministry veteran and the Director of Student Ministries at Our Redeemer’s Church in Minot, ND. He has been married to Brittany since 2012 and has three kiddos, Teddy, Tommy, and Ellie. In his spare time, you can find Nick cheering on Minnesota sports teams, making elaborate dinners for his family, and playing daily Jeopardy on the Amazon Echo in his kitchen.