They can smell care under layers of nerd
By Luke Johnson | October 22, 2017
Years ago when I was just anticipating entering youth ministry, I sought out loads of conversations with people from my various circles, wishing to soak up all the wisdom I could before plunging in. One of them was my seminary Hebrew professor, Eric Ortlund.
I told him, "I don’t know if I have what it takes to be a youth minister," and added jokingly, “Hopefully I’m cool enough!”
Eric shot back, “Don’t even try to be cool! They’ll see right through you in a second. Just care. They can smell care under layers of nerd!”
They can smell care under layers of nerd.
An off-the-cuff statement from a years-ago conversation, but Eric's words have proved to be an invaluable (and freeing) principle.
There is some merit to immersing oneself in the subculture of the generation you are serving. But in the end, you are still an outsider or observer. One night at youth group in the year I turned 30, I made a passing reference to my age, and an 11 year old girl exclaimed, "You’re only 30 now?! I thought you were at least 50!" From my perspective, I’m not that much older than the young people I serve. I still remember my teenage years very clearly. But to them? . . . Not even close!
Attempting to build relationships with young people based on things you share in common is doomed from the start. Maintaining that kind of relevance is like trying to keep up with the latest mobile devices. New models hit the market at a relentless pace. Upgrade to iPhone 7, and the world is already talking about iPhone X. Catch up only to be left behind.
It’s not important to listen to the same types of music, or to read the same books, or to watch the same shows. It is important to be present, to listen carefully, and to offer them an open door. They don’t need you to be their "peer" — they need you to be their way-marker, their trusted travel companion who refuses to go away, no matter what.
Ask questions, and then ask some more. There is a dynamic, complex, eternal person standing there in front of you, with hopes and fears abounding. Look him in the eye and seek understanding. "What excites you about being on the football team?" "How are you feeling about your older brother moving out soon?" "How's it going with that crazy teacher at school?"
Speak earnestly. Infuse every conversation with encouragement. Take a moment to tell that grade 7 girl why you think so highly of her. Remind that grade 11 guy that you believe in him, and that you respect who he has become.
As youth ministers, one of our most important jobs (and greatest privileges) is to be long-term life-noticers. It’s amazingly profound to get to "be somebody" to a grade 6 boy, and to watch him grow for years into a young man, and to get to sit with him and reminisce about old jokes and important moments you’ve shared. It’s also amazingly profound to get to be one of the people tasked with teaching them to pray, and helping them to hear Jesus' call.
At a Lenten youth retreat a few years ago, we finished our afternoon with the Stations of the Cross. Leading our group in the liturgy, I read out the service's concluding reflection on the darkness and sadness of the day Jesus died. Mid-paragraph, it turns to speak of the resurrection, noting, "But this isn’t the end of the story, because in just three days . . ." But I couldn’t continue. In that moment, looking into the faces of my youth group, contemplating the importance of the things we were celebrating, and desiring with every fibre of my being to see each of these people devote their lives to this Risen Lord, I began to weep. It took me several minutes to get through the last paragraph of the liturgy. I then told the group they were welcome to sit and think and pray while I played some guitar music before we headed off to our next retreat activity. After a few minutes, one of the Sr Boys got up, walked over to me and said, "Hey LJ, I want to give you a hug." And then another came up. And another. And another. And then a cue had formed, and nearly every last person came up to share a moment.
They can smell care under layers of nerd.
I’m deeply introverted. I’m not an adventure seeker. I have a better memory for Hebrew verb stems than for people's names. Friends, the young people in our churches don’t need another polished, impressive program, or some Gilderoy Lockhart to dazzle them with stories of amazing feats. They need faithful, steady, I’m-here-for-keeps adults who will simply love them for who they are now as they become the people God is calling them to be.
So cast aside your imposter syndrome and strike up a conversation.