"I like you!"
What if these were the 3 most powerful words in Youth Ministry?
Student ministers use the word "love" a lot-maybe too much.
"I would love to have lunch with you guys."
"I would love if you joined us at our church."
"I really loved the sermon today."
"I really love hanging out with students."
"I really loved that conference."
"I love this scripture, praise song, camp, mission site, preacher, blog...etc."
Oh, and there are given love statements students expect to hear from student ministers.
"God loves you."
"Christ loves you so much he died."
"The Spirit loves and lives inside of you."
Don't misunderstand. These are all fine and appropriate things to say. But what if students need to hear something else from you? What if they need to hear words that would help them clearly understand and believe the love statements you are desperately trying to communicate?
Perhaps a disconnect comes from students wondering if you like them?
I would say, for the most part, student's know you love them (that's why you drive vans with stinky teenagers in the heat of summer and plan lock-ins). But do your students know you like them?
Do you hang around with the same students, families, activities?
Do you talk about the same type of activities in your lesson illustrations?
Do you pass certain students to talk with others on a constant basis?
Do you have inside jokes with a limited number of students?
If you answered yes to a few of these questions, you may be communicating an "I don't like you" message.
Teenagers experience moments in which they doubt anyone likes them or that they possess a talent or ability that is likeable. They go through stage(s) in their life in which they feel invisible or at best common among peers. These are difficult times in which student's battle with tough developmental questions:
"Who am I?"
"Do my choices matter?"
"Where do I belong?"
These moments certainly call for a flood of love statements from caring adults and youth workers. But, in my opinion, these moments call for an even greater flood of like statements to validate the worthiness the feel to receive words of loving guidance into their core.
Let me give you an example (this example has been changed for confidentiality).
Years ago I had a young lady in my youth group that was difficult to like. She had a disability that made her irritable, argumentative and pretty much unable to work with others (imagine how complicated work projects could be if you were on this person's work crew). On top of all this, she came from a rough home situation and was often unkempt in appearance. She heard many love statements from our youth ministry team which seemed to fall on deaf ears. Why? She did not believe anyone liked or could like her. However, a group of students decided to "include" this young lady into their group (I know...a clear breach of teen world protocol) and caring adults began to point out unique things to like about this young lady. This changed everything. In short order, the like statements made it possible for the love statements to sink deep into her core.
I am certain we all have students that need a flood of like statements. There are many things youth ministers and adults can do to begin a like flood, but here are a few suggestions:
- Spend time talking with the "unlikeable" in the presence of more "likeable" students. There is great significance and like shown when passing the students that get all the attention from adults for students that stand apart from the group or look for a place to hide in the crowd.
- Go to all types of events to support your students. As a youth ministry professional or volunteer, you will naturally feel more comfortable around certain groups of students (athletic, artistic, creative, alternative, etc). Fight the urge to support one group over another. Yes, this is difficult, but a loud "I am likeable" message is communicated to students when you show up at games, concerts, performances, competitions or house. Please don't be that, "I only relate to athletic (insert other comfortable) students" type of youth minister.
- Communicate like messages to students. Old school works best here. Send an email, text or write a note and put it in the snail mail highlighting something you have seen that is unique, praiseworthy and likeable about a given student (I recommend you stay away from tweets-those can backfire and become a self-esteem competition) . Students cherish such communication.
- Share the praise from the stage. It is easy to call to the stage as an example and/or volunteer the likeable students. Why not share the stage with those who never or hardly ever share the spotlight? You will be communicating a strong like message. CAUTION: Some students do not like the stage. Do not embarrass a student-that message would change into an unlike message quickly.