“Helloooooo!!!” I greet teenagers as they walk up the stairs to our middle and high school student ministry area. There’s a platform at the top of the landing where kids gather before they make their way into the youth room.
I love this space. I thrive in this space. I’m 1000% extrovert—in the Strengths Finders assessment my #1 strength is “WOO,” or “winning others over.” I LOVE close connections with young people, so this perch at the top of the stairs is my favorite place.
And, even though it’s not listed in my official job description, welcoming teenagers as they walk in the door is one of my most important ministry practices. Here’s why…
1. The power of naming. To be known by our name infuses us with value and worth. In Isaiah 43:1 God says: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” We are imitating God when we name young people—we are doing something that is inherently redemptive, welcoming “outsiders” as “insiders.” If belonging happens before believing, then welcoming your kids by name, with enthusiasm, is the foundation of belonging.
As each teenager arrives, one by one, I repeat their name to cement it into memory: “Hi Katie!” Or: “Hi! I’m so glad you’re here today. Remind me of your name. Katie! That’s right, I’m sorry. Glad you’re here!”
And, even though it’s not listed in my official job description, welcoming teenagers as they walk in the door is one of my most important ministry practices.Click to tweet
Then I ask each person a personal question: What hard thing did you have to do today? How was your game yesterday? How did the tryout go? Tell me about your driver’s test. What did you do this weekend? My goal is to make a personal connection, no matter how small, as they enter.
In our ministry we use an electronic check-in system. This serves as a database, attendance tracker, security strategy, and name-tag generator. All teenagers must wear a name-tag on their shirt to show they’ve been counted in the attendance, that their information is up to date, and most important, so that we can CALL THEM BY THEIR NAME! We have no “Hey Buddy’s” in our ministry—we train our leaders to name every teenager. We want kids to they are known and loved and valued.
2. The power of relationship. I station myself at the top of stairs 40 minutes before our gathering actually begins, making sure I don’t miss a single person. I want to know every single teenager in our very large ministry—I can name all 300 of them. I want them to know that I know them, and that I miss them when they’re gone. I truly want to know what is going on in their lives. I want to know which kids are in the same family. In that crazy, loud, fast-paced 40-minute on-ramp, I get a pulse on the group. And when you have the “relaxed courage” to ask personal questions, you learn tricky family dynamics, successes and failures, and friendship and dating issues. I get to watch the faces of their friends when they’re greeted and known and made to feel special. It’s a relational privilege to be invited into their lives.
When you have the “relaxed courage” to ask personal questions, you learn tricky family dynamics, successes and failures, and friendship and dating issues.Click to tweet
3. The power of touch. In contemporary culture this is a tricky subject. But the truth is, teenagers crave the connecting power of touch. So I give high-fives, hand shakes, and hugs. Some head to school after their parents have already left for the day and come home to the silence of an empty house. They are lonely and stressed. A simple high-five or secret handshake says, “I see you, I hear you.”
4. The power of eye contact. As each young person arrives I look them in the eye. Eye contact helps them to know that I am present and available. It’s an invitation to a listening ear. It’s a warm connection after a rough day. Want to celebrate with someone? I’m your person. Feeling lost? I’ll help you find your small group leader. All of that starts with eye contact.
5. The power of example. As kids walk up those stairs each week, my leadership team is among the throng. I greet them as well, asking them similar personal questions, and thanking them for serving. They watch as I interact with teenagers, learning what our “norms” are for relationship-building. I take note of which leaders have arrived so I can usher kids in their direction, proactively helping them build relationships. Over the years some leaders have joined me at the top of the stairs, recognizing the powerful impact we can have when we embrace what Jesus taught us in the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14).
I LOVE my place at the top of the stairs. And these teenagers often return the love. I still remember the day a senior stopped me and asked how I was doing, and wondered how could she pray for me. Shocked, and with tears in my eyes, I thanked her for asking and shared a prayer request. She left our ministry after graduating, but later came back as a leader and friend.
This year my husband took a ministry position in Colorado. I had to leave the ministry I’d led for over a decade. Recently, a friend told me a few leaders back at my old church had taken my spot at the top of the stairs. Praise God.