Sharpening Iron – Building Relationships with Youth

In a recent research project with middle school-aged confirmands, one important takeaway was how a congregation’s adults and confirmands described their interactions differently. Youth leaders and the confirmands’ parents described the interaction between youth and adults as genuine and focused on relationship building. The confirmands, however, labeled their conversations with adults in the church as “generic.” When asked what “generic” meant, they responded they only got asked questions like “How’s your day been?”

The interactions between the confirmands who made these statements and adults in the church seemed genuine. In one observation, a pastor talked with a confirmand about a recent snow day and asked, “Did you sleep in or still get up on time?” He also asked about the confirmand’s parents and siblings, individually and by name. The confirmand seemed to be the one with the generic one-word answers.

The confirmands who reported the “generic” conversations also reported feeling deeply cared about by the adults in the church. They felt they could get help when needed, and the church’s adults genuinely cared about them. So, in a way, these “generic” conversations had a profound and positive outcome.

While the confirmands may have felt the conversations were meaningless, on some levels, the interactions still had the relationship-building effect that the church’s adults desired. However, the confirmands also reported that while they viewed the adults in the church as a source of help, they would not be likely to seek help from them. Instead, they had other adults at their schools they would turn to for help.

Why are these kids willing to turn to adults at school but not in church? Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Christian children need to turn to supportive Christian adults for advice and mentoring. While not a part of the same research project, after talking to many middle and high-school-aged youth, a combination of invested time and effort seemed to be what kids look for in adults they view as a real source of help.

Obviously, kids spend a lot more time at school than they spend at church. It is good to know that it is not just the amount of time but the quality of time that makes the difference. For instance, an English teacher who simply gives out assignments and returns feedback does not gain the trust of youth. The math teacher who is available after school and is willing to listen to a child’s struggles with personal issues, in addition to offering extra math help, is the adult middle and high schoolers feel a connection to and look to as a source of help when they need it.

The time and effort the teacher is willing to put in over and beyond the “call of duty” makes the difference. This same effort from adults in the church has the same effect. However, because youth have less time at church, that kind of connection is harder to create. Connecting kids to adults in the church with concentrated efforts can make a difference. But, as with any other program, it is the effort of the adults above the minimum that makes the difference.

For example, some churches have “secret pals” for their confirmands that pray for them, give small gifts on holidays, and are revealed on confirmation day. This is a minimal, one-way relationship. Instead, set up meaningful two-way relationships. Try to establish “confirmation buddies” or “prayer partners,” instead. During a child’s baptism, the whole church promises to support that child in the faith. This is a way for adults to carry out that promise. Rather than a “secret pal,” the adult becomes someone the child can go to if they need help.

A quick class with suggestions for appropriate interaction for supportive adults interested is helpful so they can break old habits and go beyond the minimum relationship. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Adults can seek out their “confirmation buddy” on Sunday morning and ask them how they can pray for Immediately engage in prayer with the child, bringing their concerns to God. Continue to bring their concerns to God and be sure to follow up with them the following week.
  2. Make yourself The child could have a way to contact their adult to ask for prayers during the week, and with time, they may be willing to ask for advice or share more serious concerns.
  3. Make questions purposeful. Some questions can be asked just to get to know the child. For example, “What is your favorite color?” But remember, no one wants to answer too many meaningless questions. If you ask about their favorite color, give them a small gift, like a bookmark or eraser with that It is not the value of the gift but the fact that the question meant something and was not “generic.” If they reveal they play baseball, try to attend a game and cheer for them.
  4. When a child comes to you with a problem, after listening, ask if they just wanted you to listen or if they want you to find For example, frustration with math may have been just that, but if that is your strong suit, maybe you can offer a couple of hours of tutoring. If it is not your strength, maybe you know or could find someone willing to invest a couple of hours helping. Be willing to listen unobtrusively, but also be a source of help.

Remember, if all you have time for are “generic” questions, they still communicate to a child that you care. Conversations will remain “generic” until you invest time and effort into the child. Concentrated efforts should be made to build stronger relationships between supportive adults and children in the church so kids seek mentoring from Christians who can encourage them in their faith and reliance on God rather than worldly advice from others.

About the author

Tina is a Christian Life Coach, researcher, and educator who works with Christians and Christian families to integrate their faith into their lives so that it becomes their primary identity. She especially enjoys working with Christian families with children who are confused about their identity and how their Christian faith can be lived out in all areas of their lives. Tina has degrees from Liberty University and Concordia University, Wisconsin. She is a wife and mother of six who currently lives in Nebraska with her husband, Pastor Brent, and her two youngest children.
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