For many of us, the hardest part of youth work is getting a young person engaged in a conversation. I think this is why so many people shy away from young people. They just don’t believe they would ever be able to chat together.
Our primary purpose as youth leaders is to get alongside each young person so they can encounter Jesus for themselves, and we do this by being role models and by guiding. However, we often put ourselves instead in a place of authority and responsibility and take the attitude of overseeing the activities rather than joining in with them. This is one of the fundamentals of effective youth work: join in rather than oversee. Young people relate better to people who are willing to get alongside. More on that is for another blog post!
When I was just starting out in youth ministry, I worked at a youth centre set on a difficult estate, where some of the young people who came were threatening and imposing. There was a group of about half a dozen who would sit on one of the sofas. I thought the only way I was going to get to know them was by just sitting quietly next to them until I saw opportunities to join in their conversation. This went on for a few weeks, with me sitting at the end of their sofa, not really saying anything but also not judging their topics of conversation.
I didn’t really feel like I was getting anywhere until one week another local youth worker came to help and was one of those extreme extrovert kind of leaders. He walked into the room half way through the evening with a big hands in the air and vociferous hello to the group. They immediately told him to leave the room (or words to that effect) as they didn’t want adults cramping their style. The leader then pointed to me sitting quietly at the end of the sofa and asked how I was there, to which they replied that I was ok and was different. I could stay. From that moment, our conversations started to develop because I had been accepted.
The point of this story is that it can take time to build relationship. It doesn’t all have to happen on night one. Give it time.
There are several things we can do to help conversation happen. Here are 10 suggestions:
1. Use names
Learn their names as quickly as you can. Taking the register is a simple way to do this. If you know don’t their names, take the register every week until you do. Then use their names as much as you can. It shows you are interested in them and want to know them better.
2. Chat whilst doing
Doing things together comes before we can start conversations. Don’t hide yourself away or behind barriers such as desks or tables. Don’t be always looking for the jobs to do but look for things to do together. If you need to do some washing up, ask a couple of young people to help, then chat whilst you do it. If a game needs setting up, again ask for help. Join in with all the games and activities that the young people are expected to join in with, and chat as you play.
3. Earn the right to speak
As my story earlier shows, it takes time to earn the right to speak. You need patience as you listen to them, develop trust and remember all that they say to you week upon week. As we give them regular time and attention, conversations will start to go on for longer and to go deeper.
4. Be interested
Be genuinely interested in them. Follow up each week on what you talked about. Show that you care and be praying for them. Ask God to remind you of all you know and to lead you in your next conversation.
5. Set yourself challenges
This is useful to do as a team if you are all struggling to get to know the young people. Have a question of the week where all the leaders ask the same question and then debrief afterwards. What was the last film they saw? What was their highlight over the holiday period? What is their favourite subject? These kinds of questions can open up all sorts of conversations. When we debrief we need to measure our conversations as much as we measure our activities. A good night is not just that our plans went as intended, but we also had significant conversations.
6. Conversation trumps answers
Talking is more important that being right. Don’t feel like you should be able to answer every question. When we share frustrations or difficulties, we are not always looking for solutions but for understanding. I experienced this once when I was walking and talking with a young person (chat whilst doing). We talked for about an hour and at the end I felt like I had not really added much to the conversation, but had just been listening a lot. As we finished I wondered if it had been a waste of an hour as I didn’t feel like I had helped much. But as we finished she turned to me with a massive smile and said, ‘Thanks so much, Andy. You are such a fantastic listener and you’ve helped me see things in a much better way. You are great!’ Wow! I felt so affirmed, and so did she, and yet I hadn’t really answered anything.
7. Remember the little things
To them everything is big. Showing interest in the small things, enables them to trust you with the big things when they arise.
8. Ask direct questions
Don’t shy away from being blunt. If they are a Christian, ask how they are doing with their relationship with God? When was the last time they read their Bible? What do they love about knowing him? If they are not Christians, you can ask them what stops them, what they think of who Jesus is or what they think is the most important value in life. Asking direct questions helps take a shallow conversation deeper. I am often surprised by how helpful this is in opening up conversations.
9. Be led by the Holy Spirit
Be asking God for things to talk about as you engage. Pray and go with how you feel the Holy Spirit prompts you.
10. Be open to opportunities
If they tell you something, think about what you can do to engage them with that topic further. Don’t let it pass by!
Our overall purpose has to be to engage young people in conversations so we can get to know them better, to introduce them to Jesus and a God who loves them unconditionally. Go for it!