My three daughters love animals. So it was no surprise recently when my oldest daughter asked if we could put up a bird feeder.
I agreed to put up the feeder, but in the back of my mind I had my doubts. We live in one of those planned communities where they indiscriminately bulldoze the woods to build houses. Unfortunately, there’s not much habitat for birds near our house. Nonetheless, I hung a bird feeder outside our kitchen window, filled it with food, and waited.
After about a week, no birds had visited. My daughters still checked every morning to see if there were any patrons at our birdseed buffet. And every morning, there were none. I prepared my “time to take the bird feeder down” speech and braced myself for the disappointment that would certainly come. And then, a funny thing happened.
The first bird to show up was a little brown fellow, a thrasher I believe. He was met with squeals of laughter from my daughters, and no small sense of amazement from me. He dined alone for a couple of mornings, until apparently the word got out. Within a few days he had company. Lots of company. So much company that we had to hang another feeder. Now we are a veritable block party for hungry birds, a non-stop, open all day, sunflower seed feast for finches and flycatchers alike.
Early one morning I was having my devotional time. I was sitting at our kitchen table, near the window by the feeders. As usual, there were already several birds enjoying an early breakfast. As I was taking in the action, I found myself struck by a simple thought: Birds come where there’s food. (Told you it was simple.)
Why do I relate this story to you? After all, you’re busy and you probably don’t care one bit about birds or whether or not they eat breakfast outside my window. But I think there is a useful spiritual metaphor here, one that could easily serve as a blueprint for how you facilitate ministry with your students.
Want to know what this profound truth is?
If you feed them, they will come.
I discovered that birds come where there is food. The funny thing is that teenagers will do the same thing. But before you start making a grocery list, you might want to keep reading. I’m not talking about doughnuts or pizza. While these nutritional staples are vital to any youth ministry, I’m really talking about spiritual food—the meat of a substantive youth ministry. Teenagers crave this, if unknowingly. And too often we forget this.
Too often instead of feeding students the solid food of the faith, our aim becomes merely entertaining our students, providing an atmosphere that is fun and comfortable, and, well . . . entertaining. Whether we realize it or not, we go to extraordinary lengths to make sure we create an environment that feels just like the everyday world in which our students live. While there is something to be said for this, too often we end up creating an atmosphere in which we’re really just trying to compete with secular culture for our students’ attention using the very same means that the world uses. It’s easy to spot how flawed this approach is.
The teenagers to whom you minister need something else. They need to be fed. And they need to be fed by you. What do I mean? Glad you asked . . .
Your teenagers need you to feed them with the food of the Word. This is primary. Any youth ministry founded on anything other than God’s Word is misguided at best and deeply flawed at worst. Sound too harsh? Consider this: In a culture where our youth are busier than they have ever been, with more commitments and pressure than any generation before them, the two hours, or so, a week they spend with you might be the only meaningful time in Scripture many of them get. If you evaluated your ministry, how would you grade the job you are doing of feeding teenagers God’s Word?
When I talk with youth ministers about how to feed their students the Word, I keep these three thoughts in mind. First, make sure you are teaching your students the “big picture” of Scripture. Students don’t know the Bible because we don’t teach it to them. We teach them a passage here, a verse there. Teenagers will never get the macro view this way. They will never understand God’s redemptive story unless we teach the Bible that way. Second, don’t forget context. Try hard to place every lesson you teach in the context of its surroundings. Who wrote the book? When was it written? Why was it written? Where does it come in the overall timeline of Scripture? Teaching contextually helps your teenagers better understand both the specific passage they are studying, and its importance in God’s grand scheme. Third, hammer home the application. If your students aren’t applying what you teach, they might as well be reading a history book. Help them understand how the specific spiritual truth you are addressing can change their lives. If you feed your students the Word, I promise you they will keep coming back.
Your teenagers need you to feed them with the food of relationship. Yeah, yeah . . . I know. Pretty elemental, right? Not exactly a new insight. Well, hear me out. You see, I’m blessed to get to network and hang out with a lot of youth workers and a lot of teenagers. I get to see people feeding their teenagers relationship in a healthy way. And I see people feeding their teenagers in an unhealthy way. The difference is pretty powerful.
If you want to feed your students a steady diet of healthy relationship, you must be willing to stop trying to be their peer and start trying to be their mentor. Too often in our zeal to open up avenues of communication and intimacy, we think we must relate to students like their friends relate to them. What your students need from you is for you to be an adult. A loving, safe, listening, invested adult, but an adult nonetheless.
Numerous studies have shown that teenagers who have a meaningful relationship with an adult are more likely to stay plugged into church long after they leave your youth group. If you create an atmosphere where you and the other youth workers are engaged in the lives of teenagers, and are playing the role of the significant adult figure, you will provide the real relational nourishment your students crave.
Teenagers need you to feed them with the food of experience. I’m not talking about the kind of experiences that form the staples of our youth programs. Camps, retreats, and weekend conferences are great, don’t get me wrong. And they have their role in your students’ spiritual development. But the types of experiences I’m referring to are the ones that will keep students plugged-in to your church (or any church for that matter) long after the camp pastors and worship bands have had their time in the spotlight.
Are you consistently feeding your students the types of experiences that will help them personalize and own their faith? If not . . . why not? Your students need to have their horizons broadened, their worldviews expanded. And honestly, this doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when you take them to serve your community’s poor, sick, and homeless. It happens when you create opportunities for your students to talk to others about their faith. It happens when you take them to other cities and countries. This is the food of experience that will radically shape your students’ spiritual journeys.
If you feed them, they will come.
If you feed them fluff, they might eventually stop coming.
But if you feed them the meat of the Word, meaningful relationships, and deep spiritual experiences, you will find yourself growing a vibrant ministry devoted to God and His mission.