This, I'm sure, won’t come as any surprise, but young people are not all the same. There is no ‘quintessential young person.’ Try as we might by pouring over manuals and websites, we will not discover the perfect cookie cutter youth program. The scope of the variety of young people is as broad as humanity itself!
That being said of course, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that as a movement, youth workers cater better to some than to others. I think - speaking very generally - that we are better with extroverts, sports fans, gamers and music lovers. That’s why we too often get away with, ‘get up and dance or I’ll squirt you with this water pistol!’ Beyond this we start talking about ‘specialised’ or ‘marginalised’ ministry.
It’s possible that we’re just better suited to reaching young people whom we would naturally get on with. Those young people we find agreeable and who share obvious common ground. If this is true, it would mean that we have to be much more intentional about reaching young people outside our natural comfort zones.
What about the high-achieving?
Thinking about those naturally outside our field of comfort, what we do with the super intelligent, highly introspective and incredibly high-achieving young person?
He could be the guy who - often unintentionally - finds himself bored and disdainful of the teaching and activities happening in the youth club around him. He might never say a word, but his smirk communicates clearly enough!
She might be the girl who meets with God through the deep exploration, fierce debate, and analytical thinking in a way that could drive the rest of your group to insanity. She might own every conversation and drag it down dangerous rabbit holes.
Over the years I've watched very intelligent young people routinely walk away from regular programming. When they don’t, there is often a fault line exactly where they stand, separating the group with conflicts and cliques. The Intelligent - whatever their demeanour - are always influential.
We should start by recognising that these young people are uniquely gifted and set apart by God for special purposes because of their intelligence. If we miss this, then it becomes far too easy for us to falsely categorise them as simply cynical, overly gladiatorial, nosy or rude.
I sometimes wonder if the youth work world is a little bit anti-intellectual. Intelligence, however, is an incredible gift of God which needs to be celebrated and released. It also needs very careful boundaries, because if left unchecked it can spell disaster.
How do we engage directly with them?
I was fortunate to work with some of the highest achieving schools in London for several years, and I have a reasonably academic background. Naturally then, this question has always been at the forefront of my mind.
Before offering up any ideas however, I want to add two caveats:
The first - as you have probably already guessed - is there is not just one type of super-intelligent young person. Although I’m mostly leaning here to the more analytical problem-solving type of intelligence, it regularly comes in forms besides that of the traditional academic. These include creative, social, managerial and reflective intelligences, among others.
The second caveat is that I've always had young people in my youth groups who are way smarter than me! So all of my ideas could be baloney and bunk. #justsaying
1. Connect them with even smarter people
Intelligent people often have a difficult time locating mentors they respect, so help them out! Look for older mentors who are smart enough to both understand and challenge them. Suggesting meeting, chatting and praying together. Also look out for lectures and events in your area that, despite being aimed at adults, could stimulate their thinking.
2. Acknowledge their needs
It’s possible to acknowledge, validate and encourage their abilities without inflating their heads. Let them know that you understand how they could be bored or frustrated. Thank them for sticking with it and tell them how you're considering helping them.
3. Understand their unique struggles
Like any other young person, the hyper-intelligent have social anxiety and identity issues. Specifically, they are often distracted, dislike routine, have difficulty prioritising, get bored easily and find it strangely difficult to multitask. They might not understand the ‘mundane’ social needs of others such as small talk. Because of this, they can often feel out of the loop or isolated, finding it difficult to maintain a circle of friends.
4. Give them problems to solve
Not only does this show respect, but it grants them a level of responsibility. It's asking them to be who they are rather than to be somebody else in order to fit in. When you're working out strategies, conflicts, calendars, teaching points and project ideas - ask for their opinions.
5. Create a culture of Q&A
I think that this should be a given for any youth group today: always give intentional, regular room for ask questions. Sometimes we've replaced entire evenings of teaching because the Q&A was going so well. Make sure everyone knows at every level that it's okay to question.
6. Use their gift
They might not be the most natural evangelist. They might not even be able to play the guitar (unthinkable, I know!). They are, however, a member of the body of Christ and they do have an incredible mental agility. Prayerfully consider with them how it can be responsibly used in your projects.
7. Specific events
We have something called ‘Brainiac Bars,’ which give young people opportunities for university level teaching and discussion about heady topics. Consider events and projects that actively engage the brainy. No crazy games or silly icebreakers - just meat with lots of room to discuss. You might be surprised at just how many unexpected people show up and enjoy themselves!
Tim Gough is centre director at Youth For Christ Llandudno