It’s been ten years since I was a full-time youth minister. Here is one of the most exciting things I can tell you a decade out from the gig – the kids who I continue to have relationships with this many years later are the ones I pursued either one-on-one, or in small group settings in the afternoons after school. By the grace of God, many of these former students are still walking with Jesus.
The reality is, authentic and intentional relationships – knowing your students – is your buy-in on Sunday mornings. When your students feel pursued by you, when they trust you, when they come to love and feel loved by you, this is when they are open to hearing you. If the goal is that our students would come to believe the gospel of Jesus – that they are known and loved by the King of the Universe – they first need to feel known and loved by us.
Here are some quick, perhaps slightly obvious tips for after-school contact work:
- Every Monday morning, pull out your full roster of students. Pray over your roster and who God would have you connect with this week. Ask yourself questions like: Who haven’t I caught up with in a while? Who would I like to get to know better? Who is going through something tough right now? Who asked an interesting question last night in youth group that I should probably follow up with? Shoot out your texts right away. Schedule out your week.
- You know this by now but it bears repeating: to the extent that it is possible, do your contact work in public settings. Coffee shops, walking trails, ice cream shops, tennis courts. This not only makes kids and parents feel more comfortable, it also protects you from unwarranted conjecture.
- In the same regard, be sure to communicate your plans to parents when it’s appropriate.
- Some students will initially feel more comfortable in a group than they will one-on-one with you. Don’t shy away from these kids or try to force them into a setting that makes them close up; pay attention. If your goal is to connect with Sally but she is more reserved, invite her along with one or two other girls to hang out after school. Maybe she needs some time to warm up to a one-on-one conversation. Added bonus: you get to push the ball forward with Sally’s two friends as well.
- Lean into your strengths. If you don’t like football, then don’t invite students to play a pick-up game in the afternoon. You can “meet kids where they’re at” while also inviting them into bits and pieces of your own life. If I knew I needed to exercise one afternoon, I might invite a student to join me on a walk. If I knew I would need a pick-me-up cup of coffee at 3pm, I’d invite a couple of kids to meet me at Starbucks. This made contact work sustainable, so that I was able to fill just about every afternoon with activities like this.
- While I believe the above is critical for your own sustenance and survival, of course take your students into consideration as well. I had a group of kids who went to a local private school and as a whole, I didn’t think they’d show up for a Bible Study just yet. What they were up for was a monster breakfast at a restaurant down the hill from their school. For three years straight I met with the same group of kids every single Tuesday morning, and all we did was eat and laugh and chit chat. Friends, eating and laughing and chatting will pay some serious spiritual dividends. And the bacon and grits didn’t hurt either.
- Shoot out reminder texts the night before about the plans you’ve made. They are teenagers. They forget, they double-book, they are flaky. It’s worth the effort to remind them of your plans, rather than finding yourself sad and alone on a coffee shop sidewalk having been stood up.
- Ask questions. My mom is what I like to call a “Professional Conversationalist,” and this is her greatest piece of advice: everybody likes to be asked about themselves. If you ask a kid how they’re doing and they say, “Fine,” don’t stop there. Probe deeper. Ask them about their friends, their schoolwork, what shows are they watching right now, and what about crushes?
- Not every conversation has to be about Jesus. Again, so much of contact work is like scaffolding – you are laying the critical groundwork for deeper, more serious, and even theological conversations. Similar to the weekly breakfast, I once met a group of four kids after school to play a card game. This turned into a weekly get together. Just cards! But during that time I got to hear about these kids’ lives. Meeting each week was an investment of my time and energy into each one of them. We didn’t necessarily have profound and meaningful conversations in that setting, but the groundwork had been laid. On Sunday mornings, I had their attention. In a crisis, they knew I would be there for them.
Things like coffee, ice cream, breakfast, and weekly card games can eventually lead to transformative conversations about faith, or even the formation of a small group Bible Study. Even if they don’t, there is still a critical spiritual value that you, a Christian leader, would convey to a student through your time and communication, “I want to hang out with you.” This is a precious reflection of Jesus who, of his own accord, entered into each of our own messy and chaotic lives so he could be with us forever. And even Jesus is not choosy about the social setting – he is with us, like Nathaniel, as we rest in the shade; he is with us, like the guests at the wedding at Cana, in our times of feast and celebration; and he is with us, like the disciples, as we weather our most complex and devastating storms. As youth ministers, what a Christ-like reflection to just be with our students.