Youth Ministry that’s Genuinely Relevant without Faking It

Last week I had the privilege of writing this for the IVP blog. Check out the original online here.

There’s a classic episode of The Simpsons where Ned Flanders, the show’s exorbitantly cheesy Christian stereotype, runs a Bible study in his home. The group has one teenager – an air-headed bully called Jimbo. In order to keep the study relevant to Jimbo, Ned keeps throwing in techy terms, ‘Now let us download the holy tweet of the Lord!’ When Jimbo begins to get bored and heads for the door, Ned yells desperately, ‘Mousepad! Double-click! Skype! Skype!’ Anything to give off the pseudo air of relevancy.

Relevancy is one of those magic words that we youth workers love to throw into our strategy statements and mission plans! Relevancy is as relevancy does though. On the one hand, relevancy genuinely can help us connect with young people at a deeper and more meaningful level. It can create a bridge into their world and smooth the path of the Gospel into their lives. On the other hand – as Ned established – relevancy can also become simply a disjointed and awkward attempt to look trendy and fashionable without any real depth. What makes the difference

Authentic Relevancy

A couple of years ago I knew an elderly gentleman who, before he passed away, rode the bus every morning when the teenagers got on for school. He struck up conversations with them, told them about Jesus, and somehow had them hanging on his every word. It was incredible! He was doing my job – in his eighties – better than I do it! This was more than a little humbling. The thing is that he wasn’t trendy, he wasn’t tuned in to their music, books, or box sets, and he wouldn’t know what a ‘skype’ was if you whacked him around the head with a webcam. What he was though was incredibly authentic.

Authenticity is what makes relevancy real. Authenticity is the magic ingredient that creates a connection with people who are different to us. Authenticity is what actually makes us relevant. This elderly chap would listen actively and intently, he would show genuine compassion, he would remember names, make eye contact, and be honestly interested. It didn’t matter one bit that he didn’t know who Chris Pratt or Kanye West was. He was authentic. He liked them, and they liked him. He was authentic – so he was relevant.

Getting on Trend without Being on Trend

It’s not that understanding teenage culture or following what’s ‘on trend’ is a bad thing. Of course it’s good to know, understand, and engage with what’s happening in their world. It’s healthy to be able to speak into the activities they’re committed to and the media they’re consuming.

It is their world though – and when we come off as being as much in it as they are we kill authenticity dead. Teenagers are super smart, and they can smell a rat a mile away! If we try to understand their world by being in it as much as they are – buying the same things, dressing the same way, watching all the same shows – then it’ll just end up weird. A little knowledge and some common ground is great, but it’s not what makes us genuinely relevant.

Cultivating Authenticity

Authentic people engage with teenagers in meaningful and lasting ways. Let’s prioritise authenticity. So, what makes us this kind of authentic?

• Active listeners are authentic
• Honest and transparent storytellers are authentic
• Humble people are authentic
• Compassionate and interested adults are authentic
• Those who generously give time are authentic
• Those who set consistent and healthy boundaries are authentic
• Those who cultivate thankful spirits are authentic
• Content people who trust God for what they need are authentic
• People who create situations for multiple voices to be heard are authentic
• Those who ask good questions, yet don’t have all the answers are authentic
• Those who talk clearly, and unapologetically from the Bible are authentic
• Those who mention Jesus; His life, death and resurrection are authentic

And these authentic people are genuinely relevant! Trying to understand culture without understanding the things above will leave you as a desperate square peg, forever jamming yourself into a round hole. Irrelevant!

I recently got my hands on a copy of Jessie Faerber’s new book More Than Just Pretty, and it’s a great example of what I’m talking about. More Than Just Pretty is a book that connects with the genuine struggles and ambitions of young girls in a solidly relevant way. It’s relevant because it’s authentic. You get the feeling as you read it that Faerber has really been there, and can empathise with girls while simultaneously giving permission for them to be so much more than what culture expects. She’s authentic – so her message is relevant! With my own book on the Bible and youth ministry, ‘Rebooted’, coming out in September, I hope that I come across with even half the authenticity that Jesse does!

With the Jimbo-generation in our projects, let’s not cheapen their experience of Christians by Ned Flandering all over them; ‘skype! Skype!’ Instead let’s be compassionate, interested, actively-listening adults who share with them authentically. Then we and our youth ministries will be truly relevant!

Interview on The Youth Workshop Podcast

It was great to speak to Luke Whyte on his podcast ‘The Youth Worshop’ about the future of youth work, developing teams, the place of the church, and knowing our Bibles.

**Check it out here**

**Or listen and subscribe on itunes here**

Working With Introverted Young People

A few months ago I appeared on the fantastic youth ministry podcast ‘The Longer Haul‘ to talk about ministering to introverted students. This is an issue that keeps coming up, and I think represents one of the fundamental missteps youth ministry can take.

For those of us who prefer reading to listening, I’ve taken some of my key thoughts from the podcast and written them up here as notes. Enjoy!

The Extrovert Epidemic

Much of our youth ministry is focused towards the extrovert. This follows a cultural pattern of being extrovert-driven too. Our school rooms and classes, for instance, are geared towards controlling and regulating the extrovert by putting them in rows, or engaging and energising the extrovert by pushing group discussions and activities. Also, modern offices are moving towards more open plan layouts, instantaneous planning sessions, and group enterprises.

In youth work we’re very adept at running youth work projects and particularity events; “everybody jump or I’ll squirt you with this water pistol!” But it even exists in our naturally quieter, small group ministry, “everybody go round and tell us something interesting about yourself.”

This creates a subliminal constant message that the introvert is not as able as the extrovert.

Jody pointed out in the interview that often youth ministries take on the character of their leader. Very true! There are of course many extroverted youth workers, especially new or younger youth workers, as extroversion is not necessarily the best ingredient for longevity. Introverts more naturally allow their teams to outgrow them, run with ideas and create a space and flavour that reflects more than one person. Introverts often create safer boundaries, develop more realistic goals and allow more open dialogue for change.

Extroverts may need to learn this behaviour, as they are often the charismatic force that drives content, holding ideas close, while not always delegating effectively. This of course is not always true, but the intro-extroversion line seems to me to be a key player.

I believe that youth ministry models and strategies, on a whole, tend to lean towards the extrovert. It certainly seems, at least, that developing extroverts in youth work is more well-established. So we will attempt here to bring in some balance, by developing specific ideas for developing introverts.

What Is An Introvert?

We often hear introversion linked with shyness, and extroversion with boldness. Although there can be links, it doesn’t take more than an amateur pop psychologist to tell you that this is a false assumption to make all the time. You can easily by a shy extrovert or an outgoing introvert.

I think about introverts using two sides of a coin. On one side is ‘how are they energised’ and on the other, ‘how do they process information.’

Energy?

An extrovert is energised by social stimulus in various forms (what kind depends on the extrovert), whereas the introvert tends to be drained by that. Both might enjoy going to a party, but while the extrovert may come back energised – like they have received from it, the introvert might want some down time – feeling like they have given out.

Information?

An extrovert tends to process verbally. When responding to a question they start speaking, showing their working until they get to an answer – you see the process and various types of responses and working out along with perhaps several answers. This is why extroverts are sometimes seen as rude through impatience. An introvert processes internally. They stop, think for a minute about what the question means, what else it could mean, what they know, how an answer could sound, how else it could be phrased etc. This happens internally an is why introverts are sometimes seen as rude through withdrawal.

This also might be why we as youth leaders subliminally prefer talking to extroverts. They provide more real time feedback on the conversation without looking like they are glazing over. It’s too easy to assume that the introvert is angry at us, or just bored or afraid when they are 1. giving us energy just by being there and 2. internally processing.

Bring It Together

When you put the energy (down time, reflective, away from most social stimuli) and the process (internal, cognitive) together you get your introvert.

It is of course very possible to be an internally processing extrovert, or an introvert who is energised by carefully cultivated social times. Just one of the reasons we shouldn’t be too prescriptive with any of this!

5 Principles For Introverted Youth Ministry

Jody pointed out that you will need both introverts and extroverts on your team to reach a diverse group. He’s bang on the money again, and we will now talk about putting some principles in place to get the most out of exactly this kind of team. Both introverts and extroverts will need to learn new habits and develop a wider awareness and tolerance, which, if trained and led well, will lead to quality, long-lasting youth ministry!

This requires more than just giving introverts space, as the extrovert will be tempted to fill any space that you give. This needs a rethink of our models to develop introverts intentionally and consistently alongside extroverts. Hopefully these 5 principles will be a good start to this process.

1. Stop using the word ‘everybody’

“Everybody get up and jump!”

“Everybody stand up and stay something about yourself!”

That little word ‘everybody’ can send fear right down the spine of the introverted young person, especially if you give them no time to think and process first. Look instead for inclusive but not expected phases that create safe opt-out spaces in your programs and sessions which allow young people to not engage with aspects of the activities without just dropping off the face of the planet.

2. Look For Ways To Show Value

Introverts (like all of us) need to know they are valued for who they actually are, not what an extroverted-youth-programs make them think they should be. One of the best ways to do this is to develop active listening skills. That’s listening which holds eye contact, makes affirming relevant gestures, repeats back what was said, and develops their side of the conversation over yours.

This is essential when they make a contribution to the group. You need to point to it clearly showing that you have understood their intentions and believe that it is valuable. This is something they will go away and process and become part of their historic experience with you – that you are someone who values them within their identity.

3. Stop, Look, Listen

It’s sometimes easier to spot the behaviours of the extrovert, which tend to carry less subtly in a group. We need to be watching the introverts, noticing what they do, and pointing to it. It’s all too easy to look through the introvert to the active extrovert behind them. Take the time to be with them certainly, but notice them when you’re not. We need to be present to and with our introverted young people consistently.

Be a youth leader who sees, hears and notices. Then names it.

4. Create Opt-Out Spaces

Similar to stop using the word ‘everybody’ this is about creating re-energising, processing times and spaces for the introvert. Make space for young people not to be part of everything. This will need some rethinking of our models.

Assuming that all your young people will equally want to do all activities is one thing, but forcing an introvert into a highly uncomfortable extrovert game is going to create a fight or flight response that’s going to be hard to forget – or forgive. So ‘up front’ games and questions should be voluntary – not pointing and naming. Group games and activities should be designed so they are easy to jump in and out of too. Ice-breakers should be easy enough to pass on too. It should be enough to say “I’m Tim, hi!” without having to then go on to explain my 14 favourite types of spatula… unless of course I want to!

This works for spaces too. Youth rooms tend to be noisy and busy, the layout is activity-driven. So having spaces that work for the introvert is a must. We have a ‘quiet room’ in our group setup with head-phoned music, books, colouring, beanbags and simple games. Conversation in their is kept to a minimum.

This is essential because a big fear for the introvert is letting people down;

“If I don’t participate, I’ll let my team down.”

“If I don’t say something, then I’ll let the leader down.”

These times and spaces should be intentional expectations for the fabric of the group – so rather than ‘letting us down’ they are participating in how the group is supposed to work.

5. Cultivate A Culture Of Conversation

Introverts can be incredibly creative and intelligent, and can be amazing conversational partners. In our youth ministry programs, however, sometimes the only time we give to conversation is before or afterwards, or during the break. This is not intentional conversation.

Developing real intentional conversation within our programs needs us to dramatically rethink the content. During one of our groups ‘Redefine’ we make sure every element (talks, prayer, worship, games) each has a give and take philosophy. Talks and teaching always encourage interruptions, we regularly run Q&A, and we put music up on the screen so they can bring their own instruments with them. Everything invites them to participate and add to the conversation. We also run TED nights where they bring their own talks and teaching.

Developing this as a culture – so a regular part of what you do – actually creates a lot more safety and sure-footing for the introvert as well as some healthy engagement for the extrovert. It’s win-win.

Find Out More

This is just the cliff notes of a great 50 minute conversation with Jody. Check out the whole thing at The Longer Haul here. Or on the iTunes podcast here.

This is an ongoing conversation – if you’ve got anything to add, please get in touch, or comment below. 🙂

Also – check out Chloe’s awesome comics on ‘Things Introverts In Your Youth Group HATE!”

Tim’s Interview on ‘The Longer Haul’ – Ministering To Introverted Students

It was great to be invited to interview by Jody Livingston of ‘The Longer Haul.’ This is an epic American podcast, blog and website offering fantastic and solid advice to youth workers wanting to go all the way. Take time to check it out!

My interview was all about reaching out to introverted young people, and adapting our youth ministry models to help introverts engage.

Check out the post here.

Or check it out on itunes here.

When Job shows up at your youth group – on @youthworkmag

Great to have a post on Premier Youthwork Blog this week. This time on working with tragedy in our youth groups – when ‘Job’ appears.

Check it out here: http://www.premieryouthwork.com/Read/The-Youthwork-Blog/Young-people-as-Bible-characters-Job?l

For other posts I’ve written for Premier Youthwork Blog, have a look here.

Engaging high-achieving young people on @youthworkmag

Great to have a post on Premier Youthwork Blog this week.

Check it out here: http://www.premieryouthwork.com/Read/The-Youthwork-Blog/Engaging-high-achieving-young-people

How To Get Young People To Read The Bible For Themselves

Great to have another post on Premier Youthwork blog this week. This time on how to get young people to read the Bib;e for themselves.

Check it out here. http://www.premieryouthwork.com/Read/The-Youthwork-Blog/How-to-get-young-people-to-read-the-Bible-for-themselves

7 Ways To Lead People Older Than You – on Leadanyone.com

A wee while back, I was approached to write a couple of articles of Leadanyone.com by it’s founder Joel Preston. The whole site is full of quality articles and I would heartily recommend it to you.

The first of my articles went up online, and you can read it here. It’s a simple set of tools used to evaluate objectively your ministry projects. I hope that it’s helpful!

Evaluating Ministry – Post On Lead Anyone.com

A wee while back, I was approached to write a couple of articles of Leadanyone.com by it’s founder Joel Preston. The whole site is full of quality articles and I would heartily recommend it to you.

The first of my articles went up online, and you can read it here. It’s a simple set of tools used to evaluate objectively your ministry projects. I hope that it’s helpful!

So … You want to set up a youth cafe?

Great to have another post on Premier Youth Work blog this week. This time I was talking about the immensely popular ‘Youth Cafe’ project, how to make it work, and why you might not want one.

Check it out here: http://www.premieryouthwork.com/Read/Youthwork-Blog/So-you-want-to-set-up-a-youth-cafe