Dear Fellow Youth Worker,
Let your delight show.
I mean it. Be unabashedly, unreservedly excited about your students at every moment. Don’t hide your love. Don’t hold it back. Don’t keep it within the bounds of what is socially acceptable and safe. Just love as boldly as you possibly can.
I love my students a lot. I think they’re smart and funny and ridiculous and hot messes – but they’re my hot messes, and a blast to be around. I could talk to teenagers for hours. They’re my sweet spot. They have my heart. I like them and I love them. You probably feel the same way, or you wouldn’t have gone into youth ministry.
A few months ago, I got to talk to a co-worker for the first time at a holiday party. As we sat around the Christmas tree laughing about Pogs and middle-schoolers, I found my heart getting really, really, really excited about her as a potential new friend.
What I thought: “This girl is so fun! I just like her so much! Oh I really want to have her as a friend and hang out with her all the time.”
What I said: “Hey, it was great talking to you. We should do this more often!”
Play it cool, right?
I ended up not talking to her for seven months until finally we got coffee together. At the end of our two-hour coffee talk, she shyly said, “I know you’re super busy, but I would really love if we could get together and hang out more regularly. I really needed this.” How ironic, that I could have been building this wonderful friendship for months, but wasted it instead.
I had initially avoided “putting myself out there” because, well, enthusiasm is the mark of a nerd.
Author John Green says, “’…nerds like us are allowed to be un-ironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness.’”
Over time we (nerds) begin to hide our delight – perceiving that the cool kids are “cool” because they exude this detached ambivalence. Hiding our delight, masking our true selves, is a way of preserving ourselves, giving ourselves an “out” if others just aren’t as enthusiastic (nerdy) as we are. We do this in adult friendships, and unfortunately that spills over into youth ministry.
It’s a truth we know all-too-well: teenagers are mean, cruel, apathetic, and most of all cynical. It is our temptation to hide all that love we feel for them into a safe, manageable, cool and detached package.
“Hey, glad you’re here, Tim.”
“Good to see you back at youth group, Katie.”
“If you’d like, we can get together sometime next week, Josh.”
Instead of effusive love and intentional joy, we offer a façade of mild interest…and then wonder why we struggle to connect. Showing our love and delight is a risky endeavor.
Here’s my challenge to you: begin to let your delight show – in your words, in your deeds, in your looks. Start youth group with telling your kids how grateful you are that they are there, that you get to walk through this season of life with them, that they’re the best. When you leave breakfast with a student, shoot them a text about how that made your day to meet with them. Show up to the baseball games and the track meets with posters and cheers and ask to take pictures with them like they’re celebrities.
Be an unabashed, unashamed fan of your students.
And most of all, allow the delight that is in your heart show in your face. It is incredibly vulnerable to look at a student in the eye, put your hand on their shoulder, and say “Hey, I care about you” (even when you know it’ll be met with “Whatever” or “You’re weird”). There will be embarrassment and rejection when you let your delight show. Your students will not always feel the same way.
Isn’t that just the heart of God, though?
If God had taken His cues for love and delight from us, the Bible would be an incredibly different book. Throughout the Old Testament we see the Father not just loving these people who don’t care about Him (Hosea 11.3) but He actually delights in this ungrateful lot (Psalm 149.14), rejoicing and singing over them (Zephaniah 3.17). Ultimately, we see Jesus not just risking rejection, but knowingly receiving it from those He loved. Like Romans 5.8 says, “but God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
He didn’t wait until He knew He would be guaranteed a positive and emotionally reciprocated response. He loved. He delighted. He gave. He left it all out on the table. No matter what.
When you choose to delight in students and let that delight show, you are a picture to students of the incredible God who loves first, beyond our worthiness and unworthiness, beyond our desires or response. Let’s make that God more and more visible to our kids. It’s worth the risk.
Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.
To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.