I sprinted down the hall with my book bag and literally skidded through the classroom door, my heart thumping wildly and my breath coming in spurts. It was my first day of eighth grade at a brand-new school, as my parents had just moved us from Illinois to Minnesota, and I was late to class.
I stood in front of a class of twenty-five peers, who sat in their seats and inspected me from head-to-toe with critical eyes. The teacher waved me to my seat, and proceeded with roll call. Despite the fact that I was the only new student that the class had had in years, no one spoke to me. In fact, not a single student talked to me all day--unless you could count the whispering and laughing when my name was called during roll call.
Eventually, I settled in just fine and got along well with my classmates. But going through the painful process of having to carve my way into their closed-off social circle was a difficult and arduous task. I never really felt like I quite fit in, and I vowed to myself that I would never grow up to act like them. I promised myself that I would be welcoming, approachable and warm, and someone who made everyone around her feel comfortable no matter what the circumstances.
In the years since I've been doing middle school ministry, I've learned it's essential to pass this habit of being welcoming, warm, and hospitable to my students. It's an attitude that's important to teach middle schoolers, and it's a mindset that will transform the rest of their lives, really.
Ultimately, I think that this attitude comes from the top down. As teachers and leaders and parents, it's up to us to model this for our young students. When it's a priority for us, it will be easy for our students to emulate because they've seen us living it out.
Every week, I remind our leaders that what Romans 12:13 says, "Share with the Lord's people who are in need. Practice hospitality," is one of our primary focuses. In fact, I put helpful "conversational questions" in our weekly leader guides, things that relate to the seasons or what's going on in school. I actively encourage our leaders to keep an eye out for kids who are unfamiliar faces, or who seem uncomfortable and shy.
When I have middle school events, I'm very aware of exactly where I am in the room when students are coming in. I usually stand outside of our main room and greet students as they come in, asking them about their week and joking with them. When new students or visitors come in, I make sure that I immediately make them feel comfortable and connect them to some of my more outgoing students who will take them under their wings. I often personally walk with them and introduce them to other leaders and students, until I'm confident that they're in good hands with one of my more chatty kids.
It's important to validate the more outgoing and friendly students, too. By telling them how good they are at making others feel at ease and asking them to use that skill to help make strangers feel welcome, it gives them a sense of purpose.
Often, I've pulled my friendly students to the side before an event and asked them to seek out kids who are standing in a corner by themselves or who come in and seem very shy, and to be a "connector", showing them around the building, introducing them to people they might hit it off with, and offering to play ping-pong with them.
In order to have a welcoming and hospitable youth group, I think this has to be something that you're thinking about all the time. It's a constant process of reminding your leaders, parents, and students about reaching out to those who are new. It's a continual invitation for students to invite new friends. It's a commitment to never let a student walk in your doors and feel like they don't belong. It's a passion that permeates you and infects the people around you.
But, in time, I think this becomes part of the fabric of your community. I truly believe that middle school is one of the most formative times to be teaching students this life-long trait of hospitality and concern for others, and that every single time we encourage them to practice it, we're changing their future for the better.
Recently, I became friends with a student who lives far away from our church. She started coming to our small group Bible study, and I was admittedly nervous about how our students--who have been in the same tight-knit group for a number of years--would receive her. To my relief, they welcomed her with open arms and made her feel comfortable immediately.
A few weeks later, she unexpectedly brought one of her friends to our group. I was privy to witness one of the most heartwarming scenes I've seen in a while, when I watched our small group students pray together at the end of the night, and hug these two new girls with zeal as they departed for home, shouting for them to come back again as they went to the car.
As I packed up my belongings and headed back to my apartment, my phone buzzed. When I checked the text, it was from my young friend. She excitedly wrote about how the friend she brought with her that night was pretty disconnected from church, but that she absolutely loved hanging with our teens because they were so welcoming.
In her words, "They were awesome! Let me know the next time you go back to that youth group--I want to go with."