The funny thing about growing up with a disabled sibling is that you forget to see the disability. Of course you see the wheelchair that helps them get around, or the cane that aids them when they can’t see. However, they are just your sibling, simple and true. Yet, the reality is that while you don’t see their challenges first, the rest of the world does. An age comes when church gets complicated and they are well aware they don’t fit in. People try. They call you “differently abled.” However, the teen years are already wrought with insecurity and awkwardness. Add in a physical, emotional, or psychological struggle, and it has been magnified times 100.
Think about the teens in your group. There are probably a few on the fringes. Those with an obvious challenge stand out, yet there are also students who might struggle from anxiety, learning challenges, or any number of hurdles that quietly dust your corners. These are the students others just think are withdrawn, quiet, or odd. We know and have heard a million times about the importance of creating a place of inclusion. Yet, on a practical side of things we regroup efforts that only help a few know they belong. The tendency can be to simply acknowledge some students will “just be outsiders” and get over it.
There are a few ways we need to look at inclusion:
Stop Waiting for Them
Students need you to actively go to them, all students, all the time. Some are going to be a little better at reaching out, and those are the ones we naturally gravitate to. Then there will be others who unintentionally are ignored. There needs to be a greeting plan in place in every ministry. This plan enables that every students has been invited into conversation every time you have a group activity. Student leaders are wonderful at creative ideas for greeting students. Please know this is not a smile and wave as a student walks through the door. This is a mechanism that ensures every student has had a true conversation with someone before they leave.
Be Intentional About Programming
As the youth leader, you may not personally know every single student in your group. However, your volunteers and small group leaders will. Make sure that you are aware of any challenges students may have. As you think through your programming, be intentional about the way you set up activities. This is not to say you need to avoid certain activities or ideas you want to try. What it means is you need to think through the details of how someone in a wheelchair might be able to both play and enjoy the muddy slip-and-slide or how the student who struggles to focus can listen to a long teaching. This might be as simple as learning how to be patient when some of your students are just a little different than the others.
Go Out of Your Way to Involve EVERYONE
If we are honest most of us have had a few students who tried youth group once or twice and then never came back. We hold outreach type nights or intentional “invite a friend” and then wonder why some of them don’t return. “Fun nights” only get students through the door. They want to feel involved, pursued and wanted. What can you do to make sure everyone is involved, every time? Then follow up, follow up, follow up. Utilizing your team of leaders, how are you ensuring every student is followed up with at least a few times a month? Sure we all text those one or two kids who ask us to. That’s different. This is making sure that all of your students know they are missed when they don’t come back.
Jesus did whatever it took to pursue our hearts in order to restore relationship with HIm. There was nothing, literally nothing, He wouldn’t do to show us His love. Often times with students we are an earthly representative of a small glimpse of what that looks like. At the same time, remember not every student will respond to being pursued. Whether or not they get involved is ultimately up to the Lord, and their desire to do so. Let’s start by asking: “What will we do to go out of our way to make sure not one student feels left out?