Every young person who comes to the youth programme is individually cared for and prayed for by at least one leader.
O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. (Psalm 139:1,2)
One evening I was passing a couple of young people in the street. One was from one of our church families and had regularly attended our youth ministry over the previous few years. I greeted her by name and then turned to her friend who looked at me with a shocked expression on her face.
“How did you know my name?”, she asked.
I replied, “You came to a camp we ran a couple of years ago and sometimes came with your friend here to our youth group.”
She remained shocked. “Yes, but how did you know my name?”
I shrugged and replied, “I just remembered…”
“I am so impressed!” she said.
Why was she impressed? My guess is that she felt valued because somehow I had remembered her name (I don’t know how!). This mere fact said to her, “You are important to me!”.
Years later I was invited to lead a retreat for a team of youth leaders and to my surprise, there she was. I still remembered her name and she was still impressed!
It’s surprising and more than a little concerning to discover the number of youth leaders who don’t even know the names of all the young people who attend their programmes let alone anything about their family or their interests. Knowing these basics the least we can do to let each individual know they are valued. But it is so much more.
One night a girl in our group sat alone when the time came to move into small groups. She looked unhappy and when I asked her what was wrong she replied, “I arrived half an hour ago and no one has even said hello to me yet.”. How many young people who come to your youth programme are greeted by name by at least one leader?
Many young people would not be too concerned. They are looking forward to talking with their friends and may not even notice it if a leader does not greet them.
But what about the individual who has had a difficult week (as that girl had) and feels unimportant or unloved. A genuine, “Hi, how are you?” might be all that is needed to help them feel valued or to help them to start opening up.
Knowing and noticing our young people is a start, but again, there is more we must do. Psalm 139 reminds us of how intimately God knows each one of us and cares for us. He knew us before we were even born and He knows everything about us, including our actions and even our thoughts (Psalm 139:1-3). It is a very comforting psalm for many of us but it also reminds us as leaders that we are to know our young people more than superficially and extend to them the same love and acceptance that God does.
Life is not always easy and young people must be individually supported as they face the challenge of the teen years. Like us, teens will not want to tell anyone or everyone what they are going through, but they long to get to know even one person with whom they feel comfortable enough to talk about their problems. Therefore, the goal here is that every young person has at least one leader whom they can talk to and who will counsel and pray individually for them.
In a smaller youth group where there is a good ratio of leaders to young people all of this is relatively easy to do. As a group grows it becomes increasingly difficult to know, notice, connect and support every young person individually.
That is why I am a great believer in small groups, not just because they provide a safe environment for conversation but also because they provide a place where young people can really feel as though they belong. Even in a large group, breaking off into smaller groups that are the same each week with the same leaders, allow relationships to be built.
Small groups allow young people to go deeper when they are led by leaders who genuinely care. These leaders understand that their role is not simply to lead a Bible study or facilitate a discussion. There are there to provide pastoral care and mentoring.
Over time these leaders will get to know what is happening in the lives of those they lead and will be there for them through the good times and the difficult times.
Having a structure to care for young people individually is only half the task. You need to have a strategy for “sharing space” where leaders and young people can get to know each other.
Including time together in these small groups as a regular part of your weekly youth programme is an effective start. This doesn’t need to occur every week but it should take place at least every second week. Relationships and safe group dynamics take time to develop and so the more time young people spend in their small groups, the quicker they will feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. Some groups quickly achieve a degree of trust and honesty but most can take up to a year before they really begin to function well.
A good way to open a small group is simply to ask “What is the best and/or the worst thing that has happened to you this week?” You may get some funny answers but you’ll also get some serious ones that lead to further conversation and even the sharing of needs or hurts.
Small group sessions should also include time for reading the Bible and discussing how it applies to our lives. It will some groups a while before they share at depth but if we don’t ask the deeper questions it will seem we don’t really care and they are less likely to open up.
Small group Bible studies and discussion times should always end in prayer with young people sharing needs and praying for each other. Not only does this foster a sense of belonging in which everyone is valued but it also allows them to see God at work answering prayers and caring for the individual.
Beyond this time at youth group, leaders can create their own strategy for sharing space with young people, meeting with them outside of youth group and attending events they are involved in or messaging them via social media.
I recall my own daughter teenage excitedly telling me that her small group leader had invited her, out to a café to talk. I’m sure that leader had no idea what her invitation meant. To her, it was a chance to catch up but to my daughter, it was letting her know she was valued as an individual.
CHECKLIST: INDICATORS OF A YOUTH MINISTRY THAT VALUES THE INDIVIDUAL
- Every leader knows the name of every young person in the youth ministry.
- Every leader knows a little about every young person in the youth ministry.
- Every young person who comes to youth group is each week greeted personally by at least one of the leaders.
- Every young person who comes to youth group is each week engaged in conversation by at least one leader.
- When a young person is going through a tough time, they have at least one leader whom they feel comfortable talking with.
- Where numbers make it necessary, a structure is in place where leaders are assigned to individually care for a small group of young people.
- Small group times allow and encourage young people to talk about their lives.
- Small group times include opportunities to share needs and pray for one another.
- A strategy exists that allows leaders to regularly “share space” in the youth programme with their small group, discussing life, Scripture and praying together.
- Leaders take the initiative in creating other spaces where they can individually connect with young people.
For more insights on how to lead effective small groups, check out our small group online course for leaders,
CCCNZ Youth offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.