I remember one of the first youth retreats I attended as the featured speaker. The retreat center was located in Pennsylvania, and I lived in East Texas. Instead of flying, my wife and I drove the entire way. In the snow. Inclement weather had closed several of the roads, and we invested a lot of time finding alternate routes (this was way before Google Maps). When we arrived at the retreat center, our accommodations were a cold trailer with a few snacks. I stood in front of the group on the first evening and things, well, let’s just say they didn’t go great. My talks were flat. I’m not certain anyone really followed what I was saying.
But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the announcement the camp director made on the second night of the event, after I spoke. The announcement went something like this: “We have heard that some of you are making fun of some of the camp staff… especially the visiting staff. We want you to know that your actions aren’t cool, they’re not Christ-like, and you need to stop.” Does it help to know that I was the only “visiting camp staff” for the event? Yeah, not a great moment.
Thinking back on that retreat, I remember doing a few things that ultimately made me a target. I remember trying so hard to make the teenagers like me. I remember preaching against things that were key elements of their culture. If you’re a youth leader you can probably relate. It was new territory for me, and with new territory comes mixed experiences.
As youth leaders, we each bring our own unique styles and abilities. We are each called to the important task of reaching kids with God’s love and grace, to form the next generation. But sometimes we get in our own way. Here are some tips from the trenches; I hope learning from my mistakes can help you avoid these common pitfalls and enliven your ministry.
1. Don’t try to be the funniest, coolest, hippest person in the room
The problem: Maybe you’re like me. Often, when I stand in front of teenagers to teach, I feel like I’m getting a “You have no business talking to us about anything” look. I’ve taught teens a lot, and that look never gets easy. What happens when we get that look? We get nervous (I know I do). When I get nervous, I tell jokes. If a joke doesn’t work, I’ll try a cultural reference. I’ll try and relate by referencing a song they’re listening to or throw in a new slang term I’ve heard them use—basically, I dig the hole deeper.
Look. Teens can smell a fake. They know when the adult in the room is trying too hard to be their buddy. And when they find an adult around them posing as a cool teenager, they shut down.
A solution: Don’t stress about being the funniest person in the room. Don’t stress about dressing so teens know you’re cool. Be yourself. Don’t tell them that you’re nervous, instead, tell them that it’s an honor to have the opportunity to talk to them about God’s Word, and that you’re feeling cautious about handling that Word carefully. Rather than a joke, tell the students something that has happened to you recently that relates to what you’ll be talking about that day—and also gives them a peek into who you are. Tell them you’re from another era, from another generation. Doing that can disarm them. It clears a path for you to be heard.