Everyone is welcome around the campfire. It has no rules to regulate who can or can’t be warmed by its flames. It gives heat to whoever will close the gap between cold and warmth. The campfire doesn’t care who you are or where you’re from. If you draw near, it protects you from the cold, covers you with its light, and makes you forget winter. If you’ve ever gathered teenagers around a campfire on a retreat, you know it’s a powerful bonding experience. Around the fire, everyone belongs.
Unfortunately, people are often less inviting than a campfire. With people come rules, expectations, and preferences. Teenagers may move closer and closer to people only to be greeted by coldness. It’s easy for kids to forget how valuable and love-worthy they truly are. Teenagers who feel rejected by one group may sacrifice their own values and identity just to connect with another group, no matter the cost.
As spiritual leaders, we need to remind teenagers that, through Jesus, they already belong. They are always loved and worthy, even when they feel the hurt and sting of rejection from their peers.
How can we help kids find their identity in Jesus? How can we steer them around the trap of adopting someone else’s beliefs out of a desire to belong?
Reveal and repeat these three messages as often as possible:
1. You are worthy! Although our value is found through the love of Jesus, not the acceptance of people, teenagers need to feel and hear that they’re loved and valued. So tell them—often. Don’t just say hi and know kids’ names. Actually say, “I love you.” Go old-school—send handwritten notes to teenagers and their families. When you have opportunities for one-on-one time, express your kids’ worth. Always use your platform to remind kids they’re loved.
2. You’re never alone! Even if teenagers participate in youth group every week, they still might feel lonely during life’s day-to-day grind. Give them mentoring and discipleship opportunities (a great time-investment for leaders as well as volunteers). Set up peer groups or small groups so kids have a set-apart time where they go deeper. Smaller groups allow young people to be more vulnerable and “heard” than they can be during large-group gatherings.
3. Your journey with Jesus is amazing! Continue providing ways for teenagers to draw closer to Jesus. Don’t let church or faith become boring or routine. Be genuine, be excited about Jesus’ love, be contagious, be an encourager. Lead teenagers in a journey they won’t easily walk away from. For me, this means going beyond surface relationships to invest in each teenager’s life. It means knowing their hearts, their dreams, their hopes, their struggles—and how our youth ministry can love and support them as they pursue a Jesus-centered life.
Jesus’ love is like a campfire. If we’re willing to draw closer to him, his light shines on us and his warmth comforts and guides us. All we have to do is come near. Jesus has no preferences and shows no partiality. All are welcome.