By Joel Williamson
I was sitting across the table from “John” at Dairy Queen when he began to share with me the depth of his pain. He told me about his terrible relationship with his parents and when his stepdad got out of jail, things went from bad to worse. He spoke of the yelling and the screaming in his home. John talked about how he started cutting himself and huffing gas out of air conditioners in a failing attempt to deal with his emotions.
He was raw, and he wasn’t hiding it.
Those are the moments we are after in youth ministry, right? We long to see our teens bare open the dark parts of their soul and invite us in.
These moments are holy and profound.
Unfortunately, I cannot fully predict when and how these moments happen. There is no guarantee when or if a kid will be ready to go deep.
You cannot force depth.
This is so important that I’m going to repeat it.
You cannot force depth.
If you do, that is akin to emotional abuse. We are not, as ministers, called to be manipulative or overly pushy. We do not threaten or coerce or take advantage of a teen in any emotional way, even if we think it is for their own good.
This is wrong.
What we can do, however, is invite depth. This is not emotional manipulation, but rather an authentic invitation to a deeper relationship. It is not pushy or forceful, it is a warm smile and a patient heart.
While there is no formula on creating these moments, there are some key practices we can do in order to form the kind of relationships that invite depth.
Be warm. You must start with being an approachable, inviting person. This must come from an authentic desire to know teens. This is about smiling and remembering their name. This is about putting down your phone and looking a kid in the eyes. I’m not saying “warm” means “ooey-gooey” and “Mr. Rogers-like.” Warmth is about something deeper than that – if you have, for example, the “gruff coach-type” of personality – you can still authentically be you and be warm.
Shut up. Kids need someone who will actually listen. You must genuinely care about who the teens are and want to know more about them. Sure, you might not really care about Fortnite or Drake, but you should care about the fact that these are important to your teen. We must not only listen to what they are saying but ask good questions and listen for the answers. If we can shut up more and listen better, our connections become more solid.
Be Vulnerable…just a little bit. I placed this AFTER “shut up and be a good listener” for a reason. While our first job is to be warm and have a listening heart, sharing a bit about your own life will help a teen feel comfortable in going deeper. This is not a time for dumping your emotional baggage on them or sharing the depths or “gory details” of your story, but rather moments of connection that help the students know that you are safe and relatable. True relationships are formed when you learn something about the teen, and they learn something about you.
Be Patient. My story with John did not happen the first time we went out for ice cream. Sometimes a teen is ready to emotionally engage right away; sometimes it takes significant amounts of time. That’s why we never force it. We keep showing up, keep investing, and trust the Lord. Relationship building and life-change is often a journey. We must be patient and allow God time to work.
I have already cautioned about being emotionally pushy, so I want to warn you of the opposite pitfall. As much as I believe in being vulnerable, there is a danger to going too far.
If you are receiving any sort of emotional support from a teen, you have crossed the line.
If you share a story, either from your past or in what’s happening now, and you have a sense of emotional relief, you should not have shared that story. While an equal, reciprocal relationship is a wonderful thing – that is not what we are after as youth workers.
We are reaching teens as theirspiritual leaders and mentors.
Not the other way around.
My long-term connection with John was important and, truthfully, soul-shaping for me. The Lord used our connection to show me many things about Christ and life. I loved that kid. I learned much from him. Yet, our connection was framed in the fact that I was his mentor. I was not there to receive from him.
That said, inviting depth really revolves around one idea: authentic presence. As a youth worker, I am authentic in my care for my teens and genuine about my desire to be in relationship with them.
They see that, and they respond.
Don’t force depth. Invite it. Ask the Lord for it and watch Him create these holy moments.
Joel Williamson has been working with young people for two decades leading a non-profit reaching at-risk youth. He loves youth workers and is passionate about equipping them for effective, transformational ministry. Joel currently works as the Chief Strategist and CFO for Youth Core Ministries, serves on his church's youth team, and lives with his wife and daughter in Noblesville, IN.