I think there are four levels to youth ministry. Each level requires a different way of working and different skills. Here are two skills that help with the “youth” level and one that doesn’t.
- Listening. This is the most critical skill for working with young people. Adolescence is a time when teenagers are told things by grown ups: what’s going to be on the test, when the application is due, what time to be home, and how many laps to run. Youth ministers have things to tell young people as well, like when youth group starts and where to find the book of Titus, but the more valuable work we do with students is listening to them. We don’t listen to collect data. We don’t listen to diagnose or treat. We listen to listen. Youth ministers listen to teenagers out of interest, because we are curious about who they are as people created in the image of God more than as players on a team we’re coaching. Learning to listen well, both in one-on-one interactions as well as in group processes, goes a long way toward excellent youth ministry.
- Facilitating groups. Learning how to structure group gatherings and how to steer them toward productive outcomes is one of the most important things we can learn to do well in youth ministry. It’s important as a tool for welcome and hospitality above all else, in my view. Young people who are uncertain of themselves or who are uncomfortable in group settings or who are new to the group will benefit tremendously from a well-designed gathering that accounts for their contribution. Planning is only half the battle, though. Unexpected things occur, and the best youth workers know how to incorporate those things into their plan and how to ditch the plan and improvise in the moment.
- “Relating” to youth. I’ve spent hours in my youth ministry career trying to demonstrate to teenagers that I get them, that I experienced the same kinds of things they’re presently experiencing, that my tastes in music are not that different from theirs, that I know how to use Snapchat (actually, I’ve never done that). I don’t do any of that anymore. I think young people are much better served by adults who own the distinction between themselves and teenagers than by ones who are trying to collapse it. Now, when I feel like I don’t relate to teenagers, I revert back to skill number one above.