I have said a lot over the years to the young people I have worked with. But when has it actually made a difference? When have my words actually helped?
Often I have found myself spending hours crafting talks for young people, trying to be funny, smart, witty, knowing... but we know that isn’t the stuff they remember. It’s also not necessarily the stuff said to the ‘group’ that impacts the most; it’s what we say to young people as individuals. So, after giving it a bit of thought, I’ve got it down to four key things that we need to say to young people. They also don’t just need saying once; they bear repeating.
I believe in you
This needs saying! Even the most outwardly confident young person I have worked with has been racked with self-doubt and a certain level of self-loathing: not believing in themselves or what they can do or become. You can’t say these words to a young person you do not know. They are not general words of encouragement, they need to be directed at a young person you really know. Young people are at times incredibly frustrating, ridiculous, lovely, a pain, a nightmare and hilarious… but then you say these words. These words say, ‘You can do it,’ they say, ‘I am for you’ and they can matter an incredible amount to young people. So often our focus in youth ministry can be, ‘How on earth can I get this young person to believe in God?’ There are a lot of things wrong with that statement, but, essentially, it is hard to believe in anything if you are not sure that what you believe makes any difference or matters.
Having personal confidence, personal dignity and valuing themselves will make such a difference as they consider eternal truth and the claims of Christ. ‘I believe in you’ is powerful and helpful, but it also needs to be said when you actually do believe in them: you see a spark, a light, a bit of steel, a determination deep within that young person that maybe they do not see themselves; a bit like Jesus seeing something in Peter as he called him.
I don’t know
Of the four things we must say, this one is often the most difficult. A youth worker is often seen by the church, youth group or parents as the answer and the one who knows the answers. We’re often seen as the ones that will solve the ‘youth problem’ the Church is facing; the one that will bridge the gap; the one that will be what they need; the one that will do in a couple of hours a week what their parents haven’t been able to do… you get the drift.
From a young person’s perspective, when there is trust and relationship, we are also the ones they bring their unanswerable questions to: ‘Why didn’t my nan get healed?’ On top of that we get, ‘What does the Bible say about…?’ We have two problems if we don’t simply say ‘I don’t know’ when we don’t know. The first is obvious: we are not being honest and our young people will suss that out fairly swiftly, damaging trust.
Secondly, when we refuse to say, ‘I don’t know’, we are not owning our lack of knowledge. We have bought the lie that we are the answer. The longer I have been involved in youth ministry the more I have realised what I don’t know. In fact, there seems to be a scary amount of stuff I do not know. We need to be honest and say it when we don’t know. This can also be liberating. It frees us and our young people. There is a great work written, scholars think, in the 14th century. We don’t know who wrote it, but it is aptly titled The Cloud of Unknowing. There is an understanding in the book that to know the deep things of God takes a lifetime. Not only do we ‘not know’, but in this finite life, there are things we ‘cannot know’. This unknown author wrote a final work called The Book of Privy Counselling. In this, they wrote: ‘Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.’ I love that we don’t know who wrote something about knowledge not being all that matters.
It is not love to pretend we know when we do not; it is not love to make our faith one of easy answers. If we want to effectively disciple young people then there are times when we will need to say, ‘I don’t know’.
You are loved and forgiven
This might be the hardest one for a young person to believe. It links with the first one (that we believe in them), as we tell young people they matter, that what they do counts. It goes beyond this, however, as we tell them that they are loved with an everlasting love. One of the toughest things to communicate to young people is that they are loved and forgiven. If you don’t love yourself it is hard to believe that anyone else can love you.
There are massive issues in our culture for young people right now: mental health problems, self-harm, image problems, relationships and the pressure to achieve and attain at school and college and university. Life is tough and many feel a failure trying to navigate these challenges as a Christian. We have somehow communicated an untruth in our explanation of the gospel. On the one hand, Jesus has died for our sin and rescued us and redeemed us, making us right with God. Once he has done that, though, the pressure appears to be back on ‘us’ – or our young people – to ‘live this out’. They can’t and don’t; it is not possible.
‘Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.’ Henri Nouwen
Romans absolutely nails this topic, taking us through what Jesus has done on the cross and being ‘dead to sin, but alive to Christ’ we have to live our lives ‘in the Spirit’ (Romans 8) to be fully alive and trusting in the Holy Spirit, who is at work in us. It is not by force of will that we will resist temptation; it is in the power of the Spirit. We can miss all this stuff out in our teaching and somehow imply to young people that ‘now they are Christians’ they should be able to obey the commandments and live like Jesus. Messing up becomes cataclysmic in this scenario.
We mess up because we are human beings, because we are trying to live our lives with Christ in our own strength. When our young people mess up they can descend into a spiral of criticising themselves for their failure, continuing to tell themselves negative things; they may even ask for forgiveness, but not receive it, or rather, not believing they have been forgiven because they can’t forgive themselves.
But, if we cannot allow God to forgive us because we don’t believe we deserve it, we have totally missed the gospel. Let’s help our young people grasp this and truly live in freedom. Mess-ups will happen – just look at the life of Peter. Our young people need to know their worth; they need to know there is nothing they can ever do to separate them from the love of God; they are loved now and for ever.
What do you think?
Teaching young people how to think for themselves is critical if we want to make lifelong disciples. Do they believe what we say the Bible says simply because we are saying it? Think of the answer to a child who asks, ‘Why?’ and the reply they constantly get, ‘Because I said so!’ We cannot disciple like this, because this isn’t discipleship!
Jesus had some great dialogue with his disciples and asked them what they thought. The classic example is when they are discussing who people think Jesus is and Jesus basically says, ‘That’s great, people think this, people think that, but, who do you say I am?’ After a bit of bumbling, Peter steps up and smashes it! Jesus recognises it is the Holy Spirit who enabled Peter to get there, but in saying it Peter discovers who he is and who he is to become. Thinking stuff through and reaching our own conclusions prayerfully is what many of us do as adults; we need to teach discernment to our young people, which is very different from deciding for them.
This is the difference between teaching and telling, a difference brilliantly illustrated by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as he highlights the attributes of ‘teaching’ without dialogue and questions:
‘The teacher teaches and the students are taught;
the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
the teacher thinks and the students are thought about; the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly; the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
the teacher chooses the programme content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students; the teacher is the subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.’
It might be that you have never taught like this, but if I am honest, I have skated very close to simply ‘telling’ the young people ‘uncomfortable truths’ as that is my ‘job’.
When I hear a phrase like, ‘The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher,’ I think of charismatic leaders who simply expect young people to emulate them, to believe and trust in them, which is not the same as putting their trust in Jesus. There is an illusion of personal faith but it is built upon another person’s faith.
A questioning, explorative faith, as Jesus encouraged in the disciples, leads to the young person working out their faith and developing their relationship with God. It is interesting that we, theologically and doctrinally, believe that ‘There is one mediator between God and people’ (1 Timothy 2:5) yet so often, in practice, we can introduce an additional mediator: the pastor, the priest, the youth worker. We must create conversation and dialogue as we explore faith together with young people.
‘What do you think?’ tells a young person their view matters. ‘What do you think?’ gives a young person a chance to accept or reject what they are hearing. ‘What do you think?’ gives a young person permission to share their view. ‘What do you think?’ is following Jesus’ example. I have been challenged and inspired in my faith as young people have responded with wisdom and insight.
These four have led to more fruit than anything else I have said or done in my youth work practice. One final thought for us as youth workers: we also need to hear these words spoken to us. Our church leaders, a work colleague, a fellow volunteer at the youth club saying, ‘I believe in you’; someone we respect in authority and leadership having the humility to say, ‘I don’t know’; hearing when our own faith is shaky and we can’t let go of something, ‘You are loved and forgiven’; in a staff meeting with other leaders the pastor turns to us and says, ‘What do you think?’ If hearing these things would encourage and inspire us, how much more would it mean to our young people?