The key to speaking into students’ lives is to build relationships with them. I tell our staff all the time, “Be a leader worth following.” Leaders worth following build relationships based on one goal: seeing a student grow closer to the Lord. Relationships can start out fun and crazy, but they need to have a goal, a point when the youth worker asks the student to make changes in his or her life based on God’s word. The students will be willing to only if youth workers have taken the time to invest in them.
At LeaderTreks, the main focus of our program is to challenge students. When we challenge students engaged in relationship with our staff, they are motivated and successful. But when we challenge students outside our circle of relationships, students see the challenge as an obstacle that can’t be overcome. Relationship is a powerful tool in the hands of a youth leader.
Relationship building comes easy for many youth workers—it’s why we got into the ministry. We have a passion for students. But your volunteers may not come by it as easily as you do. Training volunteers is tough. Many of them have a heart for service but are afraid of students. Here are some of the techniques I teach my own staff.
Students have to get your time if you’re going to get their hearts. Find out what they like to do and do it with them. It’s best if you can find an activity that you both enjoy. Sit where students sit. Be around them, hang out in their world, and they will want to know why you are there.
Discover a Student
Students are just waiting to be discovered. They want someone to unmask them and bring them out. When you discover them, they’ll give you their heart. At LeaderTreks, our staff play a game called 100 questions. Whenever they spend time with students working, doing dishes or just hanging out, they ask students questions designed to uncover who they are. The game is simple. You start by asking a question about the clothes they are wearing and continue to ask questions based on their answers. The idea is to catch them off guard. They are always willing to talk about clothes or school, but before they know it, they are answering questions about their parents and their relationship with Jesus Christ. The 100 questions game just plain works for me. It’s not a flashy idea, but it will do the job of discovering a student.
Writing notes is the most powerful way of making a shallow relationship deeper. When I was a youth pastor, I would try to write six notes a day. Sounds like a lot, but I could do it in 15 minutes. I kept the body of the note the same and changed words to fit the student. Every letter started with, “I was praying for you today.” Then I would tell the student what I prayed. If I had seen them in a game or a play, I would mention that. But each letter was short. The power of the note is in how it’s delivered. Many times I would put notes in their cars or on their windshields. If I could, I would find a way to get the notes in their lockers. The best way to deliver a letter is in a place where it is least expected. I have a youth pastor buddy who would take sick bags from planes and write notes on them and put them in the mail. He would often write, “I was sick about you missing youth group.” The postman would always deliver them.
Have a Purpose for the Relationship
Once you have developed a relationship with a student, never lose sight of the mission. Always use your conversations to challenge students to grow. Move the discussion to points of decisions. Ask students to make changes in their lives. Ask them if you can hold them accountable. Never lose your focus on growing the student.
The biggest mistake I see youth workers making is they think they know a student because they know the student’s other siblings or the student’s family. Don’t fall into this trap. Make sure you have spent the time to know each student with whom you have influence. You will demonstrate to them that the program is not about you but about them. Once you have their hearts, you will be able to challenge them with whatever God puts in your heart.