As youth ministers, we are no strangers to the mental health crisis facing the teenagers we serve. LifeWay Research recently highlighted a new study revealing a correlation between young people’s resilience in mental health and their sense of belonging in community. The study suggests that ministry leaders can help to prevent mental health struggles by helping teenagers to feel welcomed and known. In this series, we explore the different ways youth ministers can lean into Rooted’s pillar of relational discipleship to create a culture of belonging, welcoming teenagers as God has welcomed us in Christ.
Hands sweating. Heart skipping a beat. Stomach in knots.
We all know the dreaded feeling of walking alone into a room full of chatting, laughing people who all seem to be standing in a circle that was made for them. There is probably nothing more isolating feeling than walking through a room of people preoccupied in conversation who don’t even bat an eyelash as you walk by.
Even as an adult and a massive extrovert, I have experienced the feeling of wanting to run away as soon as I enter a room. And in five years of youth ministry, I have heard the stories time and time again: A seventh grade girl has a friend lie to her about a get together, only to see a picture on social media of all of her best friends together without her. A tenth grade guy works hard all summer, but doesn’t make the cut on the soccer team. A twelfth grade girl walks into the lunch room of her new school excited to make new friends, but ends up sitting alone at a table. The stories are endless.
While the world operates on a performance and status-based way of relating to others, the gospel sings a different tune. Regardless of their race, sex, class, socioeconomic status, athletic ability, grades, or looks, our students’ worth is found in Jesus’ blood alone.
So how do we mobilize our students to live into this gospel-centered way of relating to each other? While this can only be a work of the Spirit we must proactively encourage our students to emulate Christ’s welcome.
Remind teenagers of their welcome in Christ.
There is no more theologically rich nor practical verse to turn to when looking at the subject of welcome than Romans 15:7. It says: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Emphasis mine).
While the world screams “do, then be accepted,” the pattern of the gospel is one in which Jesus says: “I have done this for you, and I accept you through my sacrifice; now go and do.” If you want to have a ministry in which your students are reaching those in the margins, you have to have one thing at the center: Jesus and his sacrificial life, death and resurrection.
Only when students have been welcomed by Christ through the gospel and know who they are in him will they even have the desire to welcome others. This means that our ministries must be saturated with the gospel, and with the aim of the gospel. We don’t want to welcome students for the sake of welcome alone, but for the sake of them seeing and savoring Christ.
Remember that welcome is more caught than taught.
In my small group this past Sunday, some of the fifth grade girls were taking ownership of getting the group started and used the same tool I use every week at youth group: “If you hear my voice, clap once! If you hear my voice, clap twice!” While it was funny to hear this being yelled by fifth grade girls, it made me realize: they really are listening to what I say (even when I’m yelling to get their attention!).
Just like so many other aspects of leading in ministry, the only way we can shape a culture of welcome and belonging is if we do it ourselves. Here are some tips that have been helpful for me in bringing in students on the margins:
By God’s grace, have no favorites.
One way we shape a culture of belonging in our youth ministry is to model the God who “shows no partiality” (James 2:1). While the Lord very well may give you a special favor and connection with certain students, we are called as leaders to get out of our comfort zones for the sake of the Kingdom.
This means that sometimes, we may have to put off a meeting with a student we connect with easily for a week or two while we pursue that student that hasn’t come to youth group yet this year. This also means that we need to look for students on the margins and bring them into conversations and experiences with our other students, even if we know the conversation may take a messy or awkward turn.
God’s heart throughout Scripture is for the side-lined and marginalized. Isaiah 56:3 says: “The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’ Our God is a gathering God. Let us go and do likewise.
Don’t “clump up” with your adult leaders.
Our youth leaders are truly one of my favorite greatest highlights of my job, and have become wonderful friends of mine! However, part of my job as a leader is to remember that I am not there for a good time myself, but to pour my heart and life into my students.
If you and your leaders are clumping together and catching up on your weeks, your students will notice, and ultimately the culture of your ministry will become clique-ish. If, however, you are taking time to ask your students questions and listen to what their weeks have been like, you will model for them what it looks like to go and do the same with their peers. Save your weekly catch up time for your leaders meeting or a casual hang-out. Don’t use the precious hour or two you have with students to fill up your own social tank.
Seek students out.
One of my favorite aspects of the high school student leadership team at my previous church was teaching our students how to disciple middle schoolers in practical ways. We encouraged them to seek out younger student through sending regular notes and having one-on-one meet-ups. Sending a note is a great way to say to a student: “I am here for you and I see you, not just on Sundays or Wednesdays.” Meeting together one on one is the bedrock of good youth ministry; this is where real, honest connection often flourishes the most, and where students who love and look like Jesus are shaped.
As you practice pursuing students through your written and spoken words, they will in turn learn how to do this with others. In fact, part of your discipleship should be encouraging them to make disciples.
Pray for students regularly.
At the end of the day, we can spin our wheels making a welcoming culture, but we cannot make welcoming hearts. This is only a work of the Spirit, as God draws students to sit at his table through the cross. Pray that your students will first receive Christ’s welcome, and then will have a deep passion to extend it to each other and to the world.