Discipling the Difficult Teenager

We hope you’ll join us for our next Rooted Webinar Monday, January 30 at 1:00 p.m. CST on a topic related to discipleship: “Keeping Small Group Time on Track,” as we consider how to lead effective, gospel-centered small groups. Panelists Cindy Lee and Mark Rector will join host Chelsea Erickson to discuss topics such as structuring group time, creating small group culture, choosing content, and redirecting distracted students. We encourage both paid and lay youth workers to sign up!

Every youth ministry has a “Mike.” 

Week in and week out Mike sits towards the back of the youth room with his cronies, pushing the boundaries of what he knows to be socially acceptable behavior. As the youth minister, you have spent hours pouring your heart and soul into a Bible message you know everyone in the room needs to hear. Just as you come to the climax of the message…the room erupts with a loud “POP!”, causing the elderly volunteer in the back to check his pacemaker. 

For the last five minutes our friend Mike has been slowly and quietly twisting the empty water bottle until all of the air has been pushed towards the lid. Finally, it explodes and hits the sweet, innocent bystander sitting in front of him. The room ripples with some quiet snickers from the culprit’s companions, along with rolled eyes from the opposite side of the room (where the innocent girls sit together to distance themselves from the expected mayhem). 

Through my years in youth ministry, I’ve often responded to kids like Mike in frustration or surprise. Yet, Jesus’ words in Mark 2:15-17 show us that disruptive or otherwise difficult kids aren’t a burden but a joy—they are exactly the type of people with whom we continually find Jesus spending the most time. It surprised the Pharisees, but it shouldn’t surprise us. 

Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). As we preach the gospel and God sends forth his power, our ministries are always going to be filled with disruptive students. When we change our perspective of the kids under our care, they cease to be problems and become instead worthwhile challenges, the very type of people Jesus calls us to pursue. 

With that being said, here are four things to consider as we seek to disciple the teenagers who act out or try our patience at youth group. 

Keep your cool.  

When students behave inappropriately, it’s easy to lose your cool, or even to lash out at the student causing the ruckus. You may feel surprised or embarrassed or frustrated, thus being tempted to demean a student in front of everyone in the room. Sadly I have done this before: in an attempt to embarrass a teenager out of disrupting again, I made a stinging remark and wounded her (Prov. 15:1).

It’s a good practice to acknowledge the interruption in the moment, since nobody else in the room will be able to ignore it. Tell a joke and move on. If you have leaders on your team who  are trustworthy, you can bet one of them has already made his way over and taken a seat in the middle of Mike’s youth group gang in order to diffuse any further issues. Coaching leaders to have their antennae up for the disruptive groups in advance helps. What helps even more is when our leaders adopt this Mark 2 mindset themselves. We want them to make a habit of spending time around these kids far before an outburst happens. 

Exercise your authority. 

Just because you don’t make a big hullabaloo out of it at the moment doesn’t mean poor behavior should go unnoticed in the end. Even though you’re not the student’s parent, in most cases his parents are expecting you to help mold and disciple him in godliness. Often this means coaching a student in social skills as well as deepening his theological well. 

Letting things go to avoid a hard conversation is both passive and unloving. Find a time out of the view of the group at large, take another leader with you, and have an authoritative yet kind conversation with the parties involved. Remember that as a shepherd to the students in your ministry you get the honor of offering needed correction, which is helpful for their flourishing (Prov. 15:32).

Be mindful of students’ stories. 

It’s imperative that we know our students well. We must do the work to understand how what happens the six days between Wednesdays affects how they might act when they are present. Take the time as new students enter your ministry to learn important facts about their families of origin. Ask good questions, and really get to know them. No two students are exactly alike. Make sure small group leaders and others discipling students get to know them this way as well. 

It’s exhausting to feel challenged week in and week out when you don’t know a student’s whole story. However, things starts to make more sense when you find out, for example, that Mike’s family neglects him at home, or that his father is regularly harsh with him. When we do our best Sherlock Holmes observation, we deduce the clear reasons why Mike acts the way he does. This increases our capacity for compassion in the place of frustration. 

Perhaps even more significantly, these observations reveal a key to unlock the deep places of his heart toward which we can aim the gospel at for a direct hit. Imagine what would happen when you zero in on Mike’s need for attention being an artifact of his feeling unseen or unloved by his parents. That insight will help you to speak the truth of the gospel and Mike’s place the family of God over him. 

Grow in the mind of Christ. 

Lastly, nothing seems to be more counterproductive than to only engage with students when you see a problem on the horizon, or even after things have already “popped” off. Teenagers are smart, and they easily discern our intentions concerning them. In the same way that it’s not fun to work for someone who only points out the worst in you, it’s not fun to get discipled by someone who does the same. 

I have a 4-year-old, and though she is wonderful, she has plenty of rough mornings. One fit has a tendency to spiral into five if all she ever receives from me is correction. But the moment I swing her up in my arms and remind her how much I love her, how wonderful she is, how funny she is, things begin to change. In a similar way, we must take the time to notice and affirm the good we see in our students, acknowledging their gifts and encouraging them for who God has made them to be. As you build meaningful relationships with students who try your patience, their perception of you will change, and so will their openness to receive the things of God that you long to impart to them. 

When we have the mind of Christ towards our students, we see them for who they really are—image bearers of God, loved, broken, and needy. This mindset shift adds needed fuel to the fire of our mission of discipleship. It helps us see all of our students as worthy recipients of our devotion. 

So cheers to the tough kids, and to the ample opportunity we have as ministers of the gospel to show them the ways of Jesus, giving them a place to belong.

Matt Polk author

Matt Polk is a husband to Emilie, a dad to Davy, and an Elder at Frontline Church in Edmond, OK. He loves the mountains, the New York Jets, and his Golden Retriever Maple. Matt has more than a decade of experience in student ministry and loves the local church.

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