I recently stopped in a specialty shop to buy a birthday present. The owner was British, and we started chatting about the differences between America and his homeland. “Americans are really busy,” he said. “Everyone has so much to accomplish all the time. It feels like no one even has time to stop.”
It’s true. And if this shopkeeper thinks adults are busy, he should spend an afternoon with teenagers—especially now that school is starting again. High schoolers take dual-enrollment classes so they can get ahead in college before they even arrive there. Teenagers in sports and some after-school activities must show up to five days of practices or meetings not just to excel, or because their parents want the next superstar, but to participate at all! Plus, kids have jobs, family obligations, and homework.
Youth workers add all this together, yet still feel hurt and angry when kids don’t show up to our programming, much less church. Our gut reaction is to brainstorm the best event to draw in kids…and that usually works. Most young people can fit one fun night into their crowded schedules. We don’t want to see them just once, however; we want them to become involved. As the shopkeeper pointed out, we want time for engagement.
Some fascinating facts and trends are emerging about today’s generation of young people. In this high-tech society, teenagers still prefer face-to-face communication to screens, even though they use screens more often. They want to engage, wrestle with tough questions, and get to know people deeply. They value relationships, authenticity, and righting the world’s injustices. They’re searching for answers and want to know that someone cares enough to take time to work through issues with them.
Busy teenagers want to stop and connect—they really do! It just might take a fresh approach to relational ministry to grab their attention and engage them. Here are some tips to get started:
Make connections where young people are at—A YouTube rant called “Stop Inviting People to Your Church” has been going viral. As it points out, instead of taking time to get to know people and share the gospel where they are, we tend to invite them to a building to sit in a lonely room with strangers to hear a talk. This video made me wonder: What if we start going to teenagers where they are and then see about them coming to us? Let’s turn the world upside-down by going to places young people care about. Let’s create ways to have small groups on soccer sidelines or provide breakfast after a Saturday cross-country meet. Show up where kids work, and pass them a note saying you’re proud of how they’re growing into responsible adults. If talking at someone isn’t the answer, let’s make connections in their space before asking them to come to us.
Change your programming altogether—The average person’s attention span is now just eight seconds. Fascinating research reveals that people aren’t bored in eight seconds, though; they simply want to be engaged in eight seconds. So we need to turn our programming—and our entire approach to it—on its head. Maybe we move away from long, large-group talks to just small groups. If this generation longs to feel connected, then let’s focus less on delivering programming and more on creating an atmosphere where we’re with them, listening intently. (By the way, if you’d love to grow in your ability to engage and impact teenagers in your teaching, I’m on the Presenter Team for this fall’s Youth Ministry Local Training tour, coming to 55 cities. One primary target for the training is all about teaching in a much more engaging way—it’s one of the “3 Crucial Practices that Fuel Unstoppable Growth” we’ll be training. Check it out.)
Create a warm atmosphere—In a world full of emotionless text messaging (except for the occasional emoji), teenagers hunger for places that are inviting. They can find stuff to do anywhere, but a place where people care to hear their heart and walk with them in life is rare. In a world where teenagers can perpetually find excitement online, they really don’t need bells and whistles in ministry. So instead of considering what event will cause teenagers to give up their small amount of free time, step back and evaluate what you’re doing to make them feel genuinely part of the church at large.
The world keeps changing. Today’s generation is different from its Millennial predecessors, so our approach can’t stay the same. Although we probably won’t ever get the world to stop, we might be able to travel to the spot where it’s spinning and see who we find there.