Like most things, the majority of what I have learned in youth ministry was by doing it the wrong way first.
“Tyler” was a kid that I spent time with regularly. He was home-schooled, which was fun because I could hang out with him while other kids were busy. I picked him up early afternoon every week on our ministry day, and he would spend hours with me buying the groceries, setting up our room, and prepping the games.
Not only was his help great, but I loved spending time with Tyler.
The perfect scenario. Free help, a kid to hang with, active ministry.
Cue the crowd going wild! “Joel for President!”
Until the day when Tyler got in my front seat and my phone rang. I started to reach for it, as usual, and he said with considerable emotion, “Why are you always so busy when we hang out?”
And the cheering crowd is hushed.
My heart sank. Knots formed in my stomach.
“But, Tyler,” I wanted to say, “Don’t I spend so much time with you? And we laugh and make jokes all the time? And we have deep talks about your family and about Jesus? Surely you know I care! Surely you feel special because of all the extra time we have!”
Of course, I didn’t say any of that, because his answer would have silenced all my excuses.
“But why are you always so busy when we hang out?”
Have you ever experienced trying to tell a loved one something and in the middle of sharing watched them grab their phone? It makes you feel unimportant and undervalued.
We live in a world where this is considered normal. “I was just reading a text,” your loved one responds defensively.
I don’t need to quote you stats on cell phone usage and how our culture has become utterly dependent on them. We see it every day.
In many ways, I think cell phone and media usage has changed our cultural beliefs around distractions and interruptions. We all want to multi-task and get lots of things done at once. It is “simple” to multi task, right?
I’m not just talking about phones. It is too easy to get distracted when you are talking with someone. Thoughts, movement around you, etc., can just as easily get in the way of a focused conversation. Distractions come in many forms. Even when someone is fully paying attention to me, if they suddenly shift the topic or unload a thought from their mind, it can be painful and make me feel undervalued.
Studies show that when we multi-task, we don’t do as well – we drop the ball somewhere or somehow. Some even say that multi-tasking is actually so impossible that the term shouldn’t ever be used. I get trying to juggle productivity, and I try to be as efficient as I can with my tasks.
The problem becomes when one of the “tasks” you are juggling is a kid in your ministry.
I’m not saying that in youth ministry you shouldn’t take a kid with you to buy supplies for your evening. You should – that is fantastic! In my ministries’ mentoring program, we teach that kids love to join you in your “normal” life – and at times they are delighted to even go with you to run errands.
Yet those times never come close to making “deposits” in our “relationship bank” as times when we are fully paying attention.
Have you ever experienced someone fully paying attention to you? It is like magic.
Someone stops what they are doing and looks at you. They aren’t looking around, their body is facing yours, and you can see that no other “thing” is happening. You can see it in their posture, in their face, and in the way the rest of the world seems to fade away for them. They are hanging on your every word, and you know that what you are saying matters.
You feel important.
For Tyler, I believe it was my consistent shifting of focus that brought about his hurt. Yeah I listened to him, but I answered my phone and did “business.” Yes, we laughed together, but part of my mind was very focused on prepping for ministry.
Show Them They Are Important
Mark Yaconelli, a youth minister and author whom I deeply respect, says to “fully take a kid in with your eyes.”
When someone gives you that kind of attention, it is powerful.
Some of our kids have never felt important. They have never felt empowered or really heard. They are used to people grabbing their phones or thinking about other things while they are talking.
At our ministry night, we post a leader outside that we call the “Super Greeter.” When a kid comes to our door, the leader loudly and boldly says “Hello!” They often throw their arms in the air and have a goofy grin like they just won something amazing. “Yes! Little Johnny! I’m so glad you are here today!” Sometimes they jump or skip or do some other goofy, loud greeting.
Yes, it is over-the-top, but I wish you could stand at the door with me and watch it happen. Kids who are walking up grumpy suddenly smile. Often, they will become over-the-top themselves and yell, “YEAH! WOOHOO!”
The key here isn’t having a goofy extravert outside – the key is that the “Super Greeter” authentically means it. We pick a leader that will genuinely be excited about a kids’ arrival and give them a focused job to make sure the kid knows it. They aren’t allowed to be on their phone or be doing other ministry business; they are there to solely make our kids feel important.
I admit it – despite being the one that has trained the super greeter – when I walk into our ministry room and if that leader greets me in this way, I feel really good.
What if We Were Different?
May we, as youth ministers and people of God, be super greeters. May we be super listeners and super conversationalists. May our actions show that we truly believe our kids are most important. May we not live as the world does – multi-tasked and distracted. Let us put down the phone, the lesson plan, the to-do list, etc., – and pay attention.
It is in this place where the real magic of ministry can happen.