First Contact – they're not aliens
I think that working with young people can be a daunting task, especially when you read all the bad press they get in this country but this should not stop us reaching out to these people because they form the first generation in this country who grow up knowing nothing about God – their parents did not take them along to Sunday school and the church is silent in the places where they hang out. Sometimes they may hear something in an RE lesson but little else.
In researching this, I came across a helpful web site article written by Jonathan McKee on Doug Fields' web site(#1) Although it is aimed at American culture, the 5 tips are a useful guideline as to how we can begin to engage with young people around us, in our towns and villages.
His 5 tips are:
- Become familiar with the culture – This does not mean immerse yourself into it, simply be aware of what young people are into and this could be a good springboard for a conversation. Requires a little research.
- Be yourself – Do not try to be someone you are not as this is easily picked up by youth, simply be real and honest with who you are and this will go a long way in your favour.
- Expect 2 questions - “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?” These should be honestly and simply answered without going into long explanation, unless further enquiry is made.
- Change the subject – This helps to avoid awkward silences as no-one likes them
- Think at least 5 minutes ahead – have some questions 'up your sleeve' be prepared and equipped with these questions to help avoid awkwardness. Maybe your research in Tip 1 will help develop these questions.
As a qualified youth worker myself I think these are a good starting point but I would start before step 1 and ask the question, where are the youth in my town / village? How do they spend their time – are they at the skate park, in their friends' houses, at their own home, are they part of an existing youth club....etc? If the church wants to engage with young people then it needs to discover where they are before thinking about talking to them. In my home town (Dereham, Norfolk) I know that in summer, on a Friday and Saturday evening I can go to the local recreation ground and find between 50 – 100 young people there, depending on the weather. But an even earlier question is: Does the church want to do something with the youth in their area? If not then forget the rest of this article.
I think that Jonathan Mckee's first tip is not an absolutely essential one as when I started to work with young people I knew nothing about their culture but it did give me opportunities to ask them. For example: “What's that you're listening to?” In their reply they may tell you the name of the band to which you can say “I don't know them....are they any good?” or something similar. Lack of knowledge often opens up many doors for them to have the opportunity to share what is meaningful to them in their lives. If you are prepared to actively listen to the responses then a pretty good conversation should ensue.
His second tip, I believe, is the most important one. If you are feeling like you are too old then I would like to encourage you that one of the best youth workers I knew was in his 70s. The young people would really open up to him as they saw him as non-threatening and very much like a grandfather figure which is what a lot of unstable or uncertain young people need. He knew absolutely nothing about youth culture but knew how to listen, respond and love the young people for who they are and in it all he was only himself, not feeling that he needed to be “super cool”, young or anything other than who he is. He started out by helping at the youth club, serving tea and coffee to the youth and then within a short time they just started to chat to him. It was not difficult.
As part of this, not pre-judging is very important. It may be fairly easy for you to be yourself when spending time with young people but don't judge them for who they are. This can be one of those huge barriers that get in the way of them having a positive experience of a Christian if we start to judge them. They may smoke, may be gay, may use harsh language, may wear 'inappropriate' clothes, may be kind, generous and well mannered etc etc etc. We should just accept them for who they are and where they are in the same way that God accepted us in the first place as, despite what we are like, he still loves us. Paul poses this question in 1 Corinthians 5:12 “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” And in the same way, what business is it for us to judge them?
One thing that often prevents us from doing anything with the youth of our towns or villages is fear. Something useful that can help to overcome fear is to find out if there is an existing youth club or something similar in the local area and ask to volunteer for it. You will see how people work with young people and learn from them as well as be in a safe environment to get to know the youth. Also there may be something like Street Pastors (they exist in Dereham) or Town Pastors (Ipswich) which you can join to see how they make contact with young people face-to-face on the streets.
Tip 3 is interesting. I was taught in college about the importance of conversation and how it is a really useful tool for education, to create learning opportunities. Thinking a little and being loosely prepared for such questions like “Who are you?” is worthwhile. Thinking about where you want to go with the conversation can also be helpful but I suggest only holding onto that lightly and allow the conversation to flow and naturally develop in its own way. There was this American educationalist called John Dewey who liked to create learning opportunities through conversation by using what he called a “forked-road experience”. He says that, “Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked- road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives.” (#2) By this he means that asking a question or presenting a situation causes the person to have to choose to either change their way of thinking or continue as they are – it creates a potential point of a change of mind. Jesus' example of dialogue is very interesting, and he used a similar technique as to what Dewey is getting at - often answering with a question or a story - even today we are still trying to unpack the wealth of what he said. So, the kind of questions that arise could be: “Why are you here?”, “What do you want?”, “Why do you want to talk to us?” and so on.... Having a good, relevant and honest reason why you want to be spending time with the youth of your area is worth thinking about before you start.
Awkward silence is never a good thing on initial contact and avoiding it by having a few questions up your sleeve is a good idea. However, I do think it is also a good idea to be prepared to walk away if it becomes clear that you are not welcome at that moment. So, instead of thinking about the tactic of changing the subject I would simply say “Be aware”. Keep your eyes and ears open to the situation, to how they are feeling about you being there and listen out for the prompting of the Holy Spirit too. I think I covered the last point in other aspects of what I have written but even on initial contact don't be pushy but be aware that maybe God wants to do something there and then – are we ready for it? I hope so.
One way of working that is modelled on Biblical principles is the idea of working in pairs. Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs so it should be good enough for us. I have worked in a pair for many years now and have seen the spiritual and practical advantages of it. For example, if one of you is having a great conversation with someone and the other one is not very involved then they could be praying, asking God to guide the conversation and give wisdom and insight to your team mate as they talk. One thing that I found in Brazil was that once a conversation got going, usually an interruption would occur in one form or another. Because of this we had to develop a way of working where one of us would talk while the other would 'protect' the conversation by, for example, distracting the drunk person by talking with them or becoming a physical barrier. Often, when a good thing is happening, Satan does what he can to stop it, ruin it or make it meaningless for the people involved. Working in a pair can help prevent this from happening. Also, once you get to know one another by working together you will learn each others strengths and be able to work towards that, becoming an effective witness for God.
Young people may be a little intimidating but they are not aliens. They need to know the love of God as much as anyone else and maybe we can learn from them too. Don't treat them as a project but as people dearly loved by God and He wants to use people like you and me, despite what we are like, to reveal Himself to them. The thought may be terrifying, the resources seemingly limited but what we can achieve along with our amazing God is nothing short of incredible – do we believe it though?
If you are interested in doing something for or with the young people in your area and want a hand, some training or further information then feel free to contact me, David Ward or comment on this post.
#1 McKeen, Jonathan, http://www.dougfields.com/posts/5-tips-for-a-first-contact-with-a-teenager/
#2 Dewey, J. How we think. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, (1910)