A few nights ago, I stayed late at work and then wearily pulled into my apartment complex. I parked my car and collected my belongings, including my purse and my ever-so-important caffeine IV drip--I mean, coffee cup. As I fumbled with locking my car and getting a grip on all of my items, I glanced up at our third-floor apartment.
To my horror, I saw flames shooting out and smoke pouring up from our wooden deck.
I sprinted upstairs as fast as I could, lamenting with each step that I had decided to wear heels to the office that day. When I finally flew up the third flight of rickety steps and collapsed inside the door, dropping all of my stuff in a heap, I prepared to grab a bucket of water. Then I saw it:
With much calmer, controlled flames flaring up from inside the depths and chicken breasts sizzling on top of the grate.
Thanks, honey--I totally forgot you were grilling chicken for dinner tonight. Whoops.
As I wrenched my heels off my throbbing feet, I reflected on the fact that sometimes that's just how life is--we think we see the full extent of everything going on, but sometimes our perspective can be totally skewed because of where we are at that particular moment. Whether it's a lack of knowledge or understanding, inexperience, or the lack of a relationship, sometimes we just don't see it all.
I'm fascinated by the image of an iceberg, with just the very tip of the icy mass peeking out above the water; from what I've read, usually only 10% of the iceberg can ever be seen from above the surface of the water. And, really, I think it's probably the same percentage with people--without peeking into the murky depths of those around us, we only see a small percentage of who they are, what they're thinking, and what their life is truly like.
As youth leaders, our job--in part, of course--is to look beyond the shallowness of what kids present to us. Whether it's recognizing that the perky cheerleader who scornfully pretends like she doesn't have a care in the world actually is crying herself to sleep every night, or that the most popular kid on the soccer team desperately wants his parents to tell him that they're proud of him, it's our duty to gently pry away the walls and thick layers of protection and help apply the healing salve of the Gospel of Christ to our students' hearts.
The longer I work with youth, the more I realize that I need to be plugged into them to really know what's going on beneath the surface and be effective in sharing Christ's incredible love with them. I could be the best orator in the world or have the most memorable object lessons known to man, but that would do me no good if I didn't actually listen to my kids and hear what they were saying to me about their lives.
And if I claim to be their youth leader, then I sure as heck better know what they need from me. Which means I need to ask them that very question, and listen and learn from their answers so I can apply it to my ministry.
I'm constantly peppering my many students with questions, and they always graciously reply with incredibly insightful answers. Well, sometimes I get those indecipherable text messages as a response, but that's the rare oddity.
And fine, if we're being honest--I finally had one student get fed up this time and jokingly say, "Come on, Cassie--stop hitting me up for help with your homework. Jeesh."
At least they're truthful with me, right?
According to the twenty youth I surveyed for this particular question, "What do youth want most from their youth leaders?", the answers all fell into just seven categories:
I often tell my kids that you never hear people talking about how much they'd love to repeat middle school. There's a reason for that--it's probably the single most confusing and challenging time of our lives. In middle school, you're hit square in the face with overwhelming physical, intellectual, developmental, social, emotional, and spiritual changes.
And, no matter how mature or well-adjusted a kid may seem, he's still bound to have a hard time handling all of this at once. As one of my middle schoolers told me, "I need guidance from my youth leaders, on friendship and sticking to who you really are--because it's easy to forget that with everything else that's going on." Another young lady told me, "I need the knowledge you pass down to us!"
At a time of uncertainty in their lives, we can be the familiar voice of reason that remains a constant in their uprooted lives--and, at the same time, we can point them to the unshakeable Anchor in their lives. Kids long for an understanding refuge that isn't afraid to tell them that they've been through the same stuff and survived. . .and they, too, will make it through this challenging time.
Middle schoolers are like sponges--they soak up everything. And believe me, they're hungry for learning. As one of my students put it bluntly, "I don't want bull crap. I want to move beyond the basics and actually learn."
One of the most tragic things we can do is underestimate the intelligence and capacity of our youth. The most irritating phrase I constantly hear adults use is the "Oh, someday" phrase--as in, "Oh, someday she'll be a leader" or "Oh, someday he'll be able to understand what this is all about". To me, there is no bigger insult to our young people. Just think of what that conveys to them: "Well, Johnny, you're incapable of comprehending this now, dummy, but maybe you'll smell the coffee someday when you finally attain intelligence equal to mine."
Don't misunderstand me--I'm not saying we should strip the innocence away from our kids. What I'm simply saying is that our kids are capable of far more than we give them credit for--so why set our standards so low? As the saying goes, "Aim for the moon--if you miss, you'll still land among the stars."
Overwhelmingly, almost every single kid I talked to mentioned this at some point. One of the girls in my small group said it best when she said, "The most important thing I need in a leader is trust. I have to be able to tell them anything and everything." And believe me, I've heard some of the deepest, darkest secrets about kids--things you wouldn't believe they would tell to an adult.
This is one of the most challenging things about youth ministry, I think. We routinely hear so much confidential information about students, families, and situations that it makes it difficult to handle it all without exploding. That's where having the peace of the Holy Spirit comes in. Without that quiet strength from our Creator God, we simply can't handle all the secrets without spilling over. . .and that's why consistent quiet time to think and pray is vital for anyone who works with youth.
At the end of the day, our kids need to know that they can trust us, no matter what--because once that trust is broken, that ship has set sail for good.
Check back next week for the four remaining things youth want from their leaders.