I recently had a life changing conversation with a parent whose teenager is in my church’s youth group. Her son, Silas, had been gone for almost a month over the summer to attend a scholarship program. On his first Sunday back to church in a while, I was so happy to see him and hear stories about his summer adventures.
Later that day, I was relating my excitement about his return to his mom when suddenly she began tearing up. Confused and afraid I had said something wrong, I asked her what was going on. She looked up, smiling through tears, and said, “I’m just so thankful that my church notices when my son is gone, and notices when he comes home. Thank you for noticing.”
This moment with this sweet parent, unknowingly to her, changed my entire paradigm. In the weeks leading up to that conversation, I had been struggling in my role as Youth and Young Adult minister. And I mean, struggling. I felt defeated and overwhelmed, questioning my ability to make any significant impact. I had been making youth ministry so complicated.
The church where I work is a very diverse one, with people all over the map not only racially, but also theologically, politically, and economically. This diversity is beautiful and should certainly be celebrated, but if I’m being honest, it also creates an extremely difficult setting for youth ministry. When you are responsible for teaching teens and pre-teens whose parents all feel very differently about what should be taught, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged. Add that to the fact that teenagers love to ask questions, especially about what they’re seeing on the news, and you have, as I call it, the perfect storm. It began to feel impossible to answer the questions they were asking with responses that wouldn’t offend someone. I was afraid to teach anything with depth for fear of starting a firestorm. And I certainly didn’t know how to empower my adult volunteers. I was bogged down.
Enter Silas’s mom. During that conversation, something clicked into place. All that parent really wanted was for me to notice where her kid was, physically and spiritually and emotionally. And suddenly it all became quite simple. My role is to be an example and role model, to love each of the youth to the best of my ability, and to walk with them through whatever life brings them. I began talking with our volunteers about how we might not be able to answer every question about theology to the satisfaction of each parent, but we can love and support and notice each of their kids. We can show up for them, listen to them, and guide them in their own journey towards God. Instead of focusing on what we couldn’t do, I began to focus on what we could do, and it has made all the difference.
My encouragement to my adult volunteers and sponsors is this: show up for your youth and let the rest take care of itself. I encourage them to be the example that the youth need to see of someone walking daily with God. They don’t necessarily need another voice telling them how they should believe, act, and feel. They need someone who will listen, someone who will know them, and someone who will show them unconditional love. Moments for teaching will spring out of those relationships, and they will be so much more meaningful than what you teach in a class setting anyway. I know this isn’t easy, but thankfully, it really is simple.
Lindsay Diener is the Minister of Youth and Young Adults at Jubilee Mennonite Church and part time reading tutor in Meridian, Mississippi. She enjoys hiding away in coffee shops, people watching, reading, and spending time with her husband Joel.