The Christian church is seeing a dramatic drop in voluntary attendance from young people ages eighteen and under. While that’s not entirely surprising considering that most Sunday and Saturday services are geared toward an adult audience, the drop is also considerable in youth classes. While the contributors to the situation can be blamed on a variety of factors, one that appears to plague a majority of congregations is the lack of meaningful communication taking place between leaders and teens.
This generation is living through changes that their parents couldn’t have imagined, and such changes bring with them new questions and issues to be resolved. While it is exciting that our youth have a chance to explore more options than ever before, guiding them has become even more daunting of a task. Consider the following tips on how to communicate effectively with teens as a church youth leader for a few ideas on how to better understand the needs of such a unique generation.
Tip #1: Avoid religious clichés. Your leaders may have been able to resolve your questions with moral and religious sayings, but today’s teens demand to know where those clichés originated and what makes them valid. Try to respect those understandable demands by answering questions with real arguments and facts.
Tip #2: Think twice about constant Scriptural reference. Many scriptures in the Bible contradict one another, due to the fact that many authors from different eras contributed to it. A common faith is what unites the Christian church more than anything, so try to fall back on the basic principles and teachings of Christ (which are generally supported throughout the entire text as a whole).
Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to simply use your common sense and life experience for guidance. There’s nothing wrong with using your own experiences to guide a teenager, provided that allowances are made for differences in opinion. Building on Step #2, it’s perfectly acceptable to simply advise based on your knowledge as an adult rather than scripture alone. The two can usually be combined, as well.
Tip #4: Be careful of how you are interpreted. Wary of the dangerous mindset that strict religious principles have placed upon a minority of Christian extremists, many teens are very careful to avoid adults who have a rigid set of guidelines to live by. Leave room for contrasting thoughts and opinions from others, both from outside the church and from within. Teens will notice your tolerance, and in turn be more receptive to what you have to say.
Tip #5: Only tell other adults what you must. It is absolutely essential that youth leaders provide teens with a safe communication outlet. That means never sharing what is shared with you. Unless a confession involves serious illegal activity, abuse, suicidal thoughts, or other topics that you are legally required to pass on to the authorities and to parents, do your best to remain silent. Once the trust is broken, it won’t likely be regained.
Tip #6: Get real. Expecting teens to live sheltered lives devoid of any communication with the outside world (TV, radio, Internet, etc) for the sake of “avoiding temptation” is not only unreasonable, it’s dangerous. Instead, focus on how teens can live in the real world and still have faith in something higher.
Tip #7: Keep your expectations reasonable. If teens feel they cannot speak in their youth groups about what really goes on their lives, about their failures and setbacks, and about what bothers them, they will never fully open up. Knowing that a rebuke, reprimand, or interjection awaits them at every turn will censor their communication.
Tip #8: Lighten up. As much as it may irk you when a thirteen year old boy starts to laugh at an inappropriate moment or when a young girl starts whispering about her newest crush in the middle of a lesson, remember that teens like to keep the atmosphere light. A little misconduct here and there doesn’t mean that teens aren’t listening at all or that they are being deliberately disrespectful. You can earn respect without taking yourself too seriously. The less often you lose your cool, the less often they’ll be tempted to provoke you.
Tip #9: Stop talking. The more you allow a teenager to speak, especially in a setting where they might feel less inclined to do so, the more comfortable they will become. During anything from a formal lesson to a one-on-one conversation, offer an open ear more so than an open mouth. You might be surprised as to what you’ll learn.
Tip #10: Become the anti-robot. Church youth leaders are often pressured to be their teens’ shining examples at all times, but such pressure is unrealistic. Being open about your flaws will help teens connect with you on a much more personal level.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, erase all signs of a condescending attitude. As hard as it may be to keep from rolling your eyes, just keep in mind that you were a teen yourself not so long ago. Those years are difficult, and getting through them sometimes “requires” acting out, talking back, and crying uncontrollably. Communicating with someone experiencing the mood swings and dramatics of being a teen means being the calm one…and staying afloat.