Whether you have been running groups in person this autumn, are still online, or just too frightened to do anything at all, Joel Harris has some wisdom for how to re-connect that can shape whatever you are doing or intend to do.
After slowly coming out of Covid 19 restrictions towards the end of summer, we are now in late October and restrictions are back in some areas… 6 months after the beginning of a national lockdown, and just when we felt things were getting better! (which tier are you in?) We are back in a COVID19 world!
The new recent guidelines allowing youth groups to meet up with a maximum of 15 young people don’t seem to tie up with hundreds of teenagers heading back to school, and there is a mixture of emotions from youth leaders across the country. Some are anxious and scared on the one hand and others are excited to be able to finally see each other face to face on another hand, even though having to follow all the COVID-19 safety procedures can be overwhelming for all at times!
News reports and other sources have said that we will not know what effect lockdown has had on young people until after they get back to school. It is likely that this will take even longer in many cases, as a lot of issues young people go through are traditionally picked up by youth group leaders. We would like to assume that teenagers will come back to youth groups, but we have no guarantee that this will be the case, many are bound to miss out and fall through the cracks.
The teenager on the fringe, the timid one for whom lockdown has just exacerbated their timidity, the one who never joined the live stream or zoom calls… Will they come back? And then there is the worry that everything that would traditionally make a youth group has near enough been taken away. Active games, weekends away, socials, eating out, hanging out not having to worry about social distancing… How do we draw young people in again with those new restrictions and fear and worry? How do we reconnect with our teenagers? How do we keep them connected in this new way of youth work?
After speaking to youth leaders and from my own experience, here are some ideas and things you can do to help re-engage your youth, and hopefully help this time be just a little less stressful.
Acknowledge what has happened
After speaking to youth leaders, I find that acknowledging with our young people what we have all just gone through was useful… and talking about it. Saying that this is weird, wearing a mask is weird, not being able to touch is weird. This whole situation is weird!
One youth leader I spoke to found that paying an individual visit to young people in her youth group before meeting collectively was super helpful. She went around to her youth individually with cake and just chatting about how hard this had been. Even if nobody you know had died, it was still hard! Being in lockdown wasn’t easy.
Personally, I would normally want to be strong for my youth group. I would want to be there for them and to try and help them see the positive in this, but I found that sometimes in life, it is so refreshing when someone you look up to is honest and goes “That was hard!’
What this enables the teenager to do, is to be open about their struggles without being made to feel embarrassed, or to feel that they haven’t coped as well as they think their youth leader has.
If we don’t acknowledge it or speak about it, we end up putting across a message to our young people that what just happened wasn’t a big deal and that they need to get over themselves.
We also need to acknowledge what is changing, the fact that it feels inhuman to wear a mask, to not touch and to have to keep your distance. We need to appreciate the fact that for some teenagers, youth group was their safe space and now since lockdown, this place looks different, and feels different.
They can’t have that quick catch up with their youth leader whilst the leader makes them a hot chocolate. Their safe space feels different, perhaps not even so safe anymore. One way I have heard of youth leaders counteracting this, is allowing mask breaks, where if this gets too much, you can step outside and take a minute breather. These mask breaks aren’t scheduled in and are decided when and if the young person needs it. It gives the young person a bit of security knowing that they can control that when everything else looks a bit different.
Stop the Consumeristic Culture
I think we also need to look at ‘stopping the consumeristic culture’. For the past six months, churches up and down the country have offered their services online. While all nice and well, this ‘sit down, watch our church service and then carry on’ way of doing things contributes to this western idea of a consumeristic church where people come and gete fed but don’t actually do anything else. This is a bit like a glorified ‘feel good movie’. I can’t help but feel this will have filtered down to our teenagers who already don’t need any help in consuming in the age of the iPhone. We need to break up the consumerist culture, but how?
Give them ownership - When I was in youth myself in my early teens, I used to be a nightmare… always messing about and having a laugh with my friends and quite frankly not paying much attention to what was going on. Then one day, the youth leader asked me to run a session instead of her doing it. She told me to run a session on anything I’d like.
The ownership was on me, I get to run a session! I was in charge… this was my thing! I remember planning it and running it hoping people would listen and engage with what I was saying, and… they did! I had a new-found investment in my youth group because I was part of it. To consume is to sit back and be fed but to be family is to get into the kitchen and serve. Don’t be precious about who’s in charge and making it pristine, instead allow it to be messy and real.
This helps get rid of the consumeristic culture and it starts with everyone getting involved. Pitch in to make this happen - Practically this could look like:
• Giving your youth opportunities to lead a session
• Allowing them to put topics in a hat anonymously about what they are struggling with/what they need advice on
• Using all learning styles - we all learn in different ways and sometimes we only teach in 1 or 2 styles. The learning styles are: hear it, watch it, do it, create it, think it, discuss it! Use them all. It will help grab everyone’s attention.
Build the Relationship not the Teaching
So often we can feel pressurised to help our young people encounter Jesus because we know for ourselves that at the end of the day, that will be the best thing for them. But this eagerness and desire to see them flourish in their relationship with Jesus can sometimes create a wall between us and them and hinder our ability to build a relationship with them ourselves.
A particular fear of mine is that young people in lockdown will have drifted away from God. As youth leaders, we will all so desperately want them to encounter Jesus again and some of us might instinctively start to try and teach them about Jesus again, hoping they will get it.
I think we need to be careful as this attitude can start to make a youth group look more like school and less like a youth group. We won’t have seen some of these teenagers for six months. They need US rather than our teaching! Let’s focus more on building a relationship with them and re-gain their trust instead of teaching. (Please don’t get me wrong… I think teaching is super important and something we shouldn’t lose but there is a place for it.)
Jesus is an incredible teacher and mentor. When we look at the Bible, we see Jesus teaching mainly through relationships… why not spend the first few weeks back together talking, rebuilding relationships, checking in on them? What I’ve found is that teenagers will be much more receptive to hearing about Jesus if they respect you, and value the relationship they have with you.
This next season will be tricky… it will be hard, but I pray that it will be worth it. I pray that your youth will feel connected to the group and to Jesus. I know a lot of the time it feels like your young people don’t see all the hard work you put in behind the scenes, but we know it and God sees it! Thank you for everything you are doing to help my generation.