I gave my wife, Bev, an eyebrow-raising birthday gift a couple of months ago—I secretly paid the registration fee for something our health club calls “Booty Camp,” then surprised her with it. Booty Camp is a female-only, military-style morning workout led by a former Army drill instructor. Three days a week, for five weeks, I “gifted” Bev with a hellish workout, with a blustering master sergeant in full camo screaming at her to keep up, or else… And she was delighted by the gift. She’s a fitness/nutrition geek and Booty Camp represented a tipping-point challenge to her.

But after the first couple of 90-minute workouts, her delight had disintegrated into tears. She told me she thought we should get our money back, because she was pretty sure she was going to die if she stuck with it. Bev has had a chronic lung disease called Sarcoid for a decade, and while you’d never know it from looking at her or talking to her, she has a diminished lung capacity. I’d encouraged her to not tell the drill instructor about this, because it would be hard for him to treat her like everyone else if he knew. But as physically hard as this morning regimen was—these women “warmed up” by running three miles, mostly uphill—the psychological challenge was harder. The voices of “you can’t” were a lot louder than the still, small voice of “you can.”

In the spirit of her drill instructor, I responded to her angst with a communication style that was, to put it mildly, lacking in sympathy. My “support” was always some variation of “Suck it up.” I thought about how other women have to rise to the challenge of their own personal boot camp, and how I could love Bev by holding to the sort of expectations you might have for “all women.” You’re way ahead of me here… That approach backfired. It was a disastrous way to motivate her, not simply because my strategy to strengthen her resolve was misplaced. There was a deeper “miss” in my approach that has a direct connection to the way we approach youth ministry.

I’m not called to love women—I’m called to study, understand, and love Bev.

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Likewise, we’re not called to love teenagers, we’re called to study, understand, and love individuals.

I’ve been researching teenagers and writing about cultural trends among teenagers and probing the psychology of teenagers and crafting ways to spiritually engage teenagers for 25 years. I know a lot about teenagers. But we don’t impact others by responding to what we know about their “category.” We impact others when we engage them the way Jesus interacted with every person he ever met—with focused, hyper-observant, and courageous pursuit. His interaction with the Samaritan “woman at the well” in Matthew XX is a quintessential example—the artful, bold, and risk-taking way he engages this outcast woman unlocks her, offering her a path out of the dark alley of her circumstances.

When we move toward teenagers with a mindset that each one is a rare, never-before-seen “eighth wonder of the world,” we get a little taste of the catalytic way Jesus changed lives. In my 2012 book Shrewd I explore three everyday disciplines that feed our intentional pursuit of individuals—they reflect the “pursuit alchemy” that is characteristic of Jesus:

#1—Ask one more question. We are not in the habit of asking individuals good questions about their story. We settle too quickly for pat answers, and leave obvious clues to what thwarts and motivates them un-pursued. Here’s a life-changing habit: Always ask kids one more question than you’d typically feel comfortable asking.

#2—Think like Sherlock Holmes. The iconic detective had no supernatural ability to solve crimes—the miracle of his renown was his incredible attention to detail. He noticed more than anybody else, so he could infer better than anybody else. We unlock people when we pay better attention to them than anyone else in their life.

#3—Pursue with persistence. Engaging people well is blue-collar work—I mean, hard-nosed persistence is 80 percent of our success. Simply, don’t give up. No matter what. Those who persist the most, influence the most.

By the way, Bev stuck it out for all five weeks of Booty Camp. She never missed a day, and she held out until the fourth week before she had to tell her drill instructor about her lung disease. At the end of the camp, the leaders voted her “most motivated” and gave her a prize. And, just so you know, I changed the way I interacted with her about this challenge—I studied her better and responded to the nuances of her journey with more sensitivity and courage. I de-categorized her. And that made all the difference… ◊

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