One of the things I enjoy most about the fall semester is trekking out to the high school playing fields on crisp New England days to watch my students play soccer or field hockey or to see their cross-country races. My husband or other youth leaders and I often gather a small group of students to attend fall plays in support of our theater kids. With the advent of hybrid schooling where we live north of Boston, all of these opportunities are on hold. At most of the schools in our area, typically just one parent is allowed to attend a middle or high school sporting event this year—and who knows when theater, chorus, or band will be allowed to host events again.
Perhaps things are different in your area, and you’re welcome at the football game or the school play. If this is the case, I want to encourage you to seize the day and go! If your situation is more like mine, it’s a great time to think about how you can make room in your schedule for these important moments of contact work once the world reopens a bit more.
Admittedly, youth ministers have many competing priorities that vie for our attention on a weekly basis, from preparing curriculum and teaching content, to urgent pastoral care needs, to supporting leaders and meeting with church leadership. Showing up to kids’ after-school events can easily get pushed down the list. We might wonder if trying to make it to these activities is worth our time. I’ve often wondered this myself, but over the years I have seen the fruit of consistently showing up.
Here are three benefits that make attending students’ games, plays, and concerts worth your time and effort.
Deepening Discipleship With Students
We know from our own friendships that quality time and vested interest helps a relationship to grow. If we’re only relying on programmed time with students to establish trust, we’re likely to miss out on depth in these relationships. Showing up for a student’s lacrosse game or taking the time to go see her spring musical demonstrates a significant level of interest in and care for her as a person. Although you might not get to say more than a few words to a student after his hockey game, knowing you were there cheering him on helps him to trust that you care about him beyond the confines of youth group or Sunday school. And seeing him do something he loves outside of youth group will only increase your appreciation for who he is as a many-faceted person.
Sometimes after a game or a show that didn’t go so well, a student may feel embarrassed knowing you were there to watch. I’ve occasionally received texts apologizing for poor performance or explaining how tough a rival team happened to be. These are golden opportunities to apply the gospel you teach in your programmed times at church to the sometimes painful realities of everyday life.
We can take advantage by these more tender moments by…
Affirming the relationship:
“That seemed like a really tough matchup, but I loved watching you play!”
Expressing the spiritual fruit we see in students’ lives:
“It was encouraging to see how kindly you treated your teammates and your opponents on the field. Christ is really on display in your life.”
Pointing to the gospel:
“I’m praying God will remind you today that your identity is in what Jesus has done for you, not in how you perform.”
Partnering With Parents
Some of the best conversations I have with parents happen in the stands at a game or walking the cross-country course together. These impromptu meet-ups are powerful for a couple of reasons. First, showing up affirms the relationship not only to the student, but to her parents as well. There’s something about the experience of literally cheering a student on together that reminds parents I’m in their corner, on the team with them. Second, because we’re side-by-side instead of face-to-face, things feel a little less intense. I find this is especially helpful with dads as well as with parents who are only loosely connected to our church through their teenagers’ involvement. Sitting together in the stands gives me an opportunity to get to know parents on a more casual level without the pressure they may feel at being invited to lunch or coffee. Just make sure to be sensitive about the right moments to engage in conversation (maybe in between baseball innings, or when a student happens to be on the bench) versus moments when it’s important to tune into the game!
As an additional bonus, parents you already know well are likely to introduce you to coaches, administrators, or other parents who are also watching the game. These can be really meaningful opportunities to connect in your broader community and to align your church with others who care about students. I’ve met parents at games who later started bringing their students to our youth group, thanks to intentional parents in our church who made the necessary introductions and then invited them.
Integrating Faith in Jesus
In the course of adolescent development, it’s normative for students to have trouble integrating the disparate parts of their lives and thinking, particularly their world at school and their world at church. A student might find that she speaks and acts one way at school and another at home and church. In conversations with students, I find they’re often troubled by this reality—but they don’t necessarily know what to do about it. Part of our jobs as ministers of the gospel is to help them see how Jesus’ saving work on the cross intersects with every part of their lives (Col. 1:9-14, 3:23-24; Rom. 12:1-2).
If we are only a part of students’ lives on Sundays, we may be reinforcing the disconnect they feel between their worlds. (This is one of the reasons we’ve opted for mid-week youth group gatherings in my church. While not possible in every context, I’ve found that meeting together on a day other than Sunday helps students more easily envision walking with Jesus in community with others as part of their daily lives, rather than just one day per week.)
By turning up at student’s band concert or cheering on his basketball game, we remind him that we want to be a part of his life beyond church attendance—and so does God! We also help him practically begin to bridge the gap between church and school by introducing us to his coach or teammates. Some students might find this a bit awkward, depending on how different their two “selves” happen to be—but it’s valuable way we can help them stretch as people being formed in Christ.
As we make space in our schedules to get out in the community and enjoy watching our students do what they love, there are personal benefits as well: We will likely find that we have a little more headspace for our teaching prep, a little more empathy for the demands our students and their parents face day to day, and a little more awareness of the culture in which we live. Spending time at students’ events helps us remember that we are not simply pastors in offices, but shepherds called to nurture the flock entrusted to our care. And it helps us to contextualize the gospel our students so desperately need to hear: That they are not their performance—but instead, they are free to serve God with all their gifts because of Jesus’ finished work in their place (Eph. 2:8-10).
For further practical tips on building relationships with students, please see Quick Tips For Contact Work With Teenagers.