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5 Tips for First Contact with a Teenager

Six teenagers gather around a picnic table talking, laughing, and occasionally looking down at their phones to read a text.

Enter youth worker, stage left.

Now what?

Seriously. Think about this situation for a second. What is appropriate ‘protocol’ for this situation? Plop down and say, “Whaaassssuuup!”

Not likely.

If you minister to young people, you recognize the situation: a cluster of teenagers gathered on the bleachers, a mob of middle schoolers clumped together on the gym floor, a circle of hipsters holding coffee cups while nestled on overstuffed couches in the dark corner of a coffee shop. These are the front lines in the youth ministry world. These are the arenas where “first contact” is made.

If these situations terrify you, don’t worry… you’re not alone. They terrify me too!

But sadly, this fear keeps many of us from making necessary first contact. The majority of students roaming the halls of the campus down the street aren’t making it to church this Sunday. Who is going to reach out to them?

I don’t want to be a whiner and start throwing stones at youth ministries for not thinking beyond the church walls to contact young people. I’ll assume we all know that Jesus walked into the synagogues as well as out on the streets. He reached out to people both religious and notorious sinner… and so should we. I think the more pressing problem is HOW can we do this? In other words, if we do actually want to initiate first contact and have the guts say “hi” to a group of kids on campus, at the football game, or in the coffee shop… how do we actually approach this?

Rather than writing a whole book about what this looks like (I actually already did), let me just give you 5 Quick Tips For Making First Contact:

1. Become Familiar to the Culture

My friend who left to be a missionary in Korea studied the culture for an entire year. Most youth ministers don’t spend five minutes studying youth culture. Do you know any of the top 10 artists on iTunes today? Do you know what kids are watching on TV? Do you know where kids are spending time on the internet?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you that you need to buy all of Lady Gaga’s CDs and start watching Jersey Shore each week. I just think we should be aware that most young people think of Gaga as a positive role model who cares about our world, and last week again, Jersey Shore was one of the top watched shows by young people. Do you have any idea why young people would watch this show? What do young people appreciate about Gaga? Are these possible springboards toward conversation?

At this point someone always proclaims, “You don’t need to know culture, you only need to know the Bible!” I’ll simply tell this person to take their own advice and open their Bible to Acts chapter 17. Because when Paul was in Athens the first thing he did was walk around and familiarize himself with the culture; that’s why his famous message at Mars Hill was filled with cultural references (even “pagan poet lyrics”) that helped him segue to the Gospel.

Don’t saturate yourself in youth culture, but become familiar with it. Read weekly articles on youth culture, glance at iTunes once in a while and Google some lyrics. When teenagers say “Snookie,” don’t be the only one around the table who thinks it’s a new type of cookie.

2. Be Yourself

Hanging with teenagers doesn’t mean we need to dress like them, talk like them… and try to be one of them. This will have quite the opposite desired effect. Just be yourself.

Seeking to understand teenagers reveals a true desire to listen and care. Seeking to look like them shows a lack of authenticity, and frankly, it demonstrates a narrow grasp of reality.

3. Expect Two Questions

Teenagers always notice an adult presence, and they aren’t afraid to confront it. If you’ve ever visited a school campus during lunch or wandered into any place where teenagers have ‘marked their territory,’ then you have probably heard two questions. The first is simply, “Who are you?!”

My tip might sound rather elementary, but here goes: be ready to answer that question. Yes, it’s that simple. If you visit a junior high campus tomorrow, I promise you that you will be asked, “Who are you?!”

How are you going to respond?

This might sound over-simplistic, but I’ve met myriads of youth workers who get stumped with this question. They overthink the answer. They worry about their “church” title or they try to think of something really creative.

Forget creativity… just say the truth: “I’m Jonathan, who are you?”

That’s when you’ll usually get the second question I always hear: “Why are you here?”

Again, tell them the truth. “Principal Lee asked me to be here.” And then do my next tip…

4. Change the Subject

“I’m starving. What’s actually worth buying at the snack bar?”

Teenagers don’t like awkward moments any more than you do. So become really good at changing the subject. One way to do that is to begin practicing my next tip…

5. Think 5 Minutes Ahead

Don’t walk into teenage territory without at least 10 questions in your pocket. No, not literally in your pocket, but within your mental grasp.

Maybe when you are doing my first tip and researching youth culture you’ll find some discussion springboards. Think of Paul in Acts 17:23 when he said,

“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD…”

Would it be out of line for us to refer to the number one show watched by young people last week and ask:

“As I was flipping through the channels the other day, I stumbled across the show The Voice. I don’t know much about those 4 celebs in those spinny chairs: Christina, Ceelo… and the other two. Who is your favorite?”

Chances are, you won’t have to say another word for the next 20 minutes. Just be ready to listen.

And that’s really where we want to be anyway… isn’t it? Getting them talking, so we can listen and learn more about them?

Isn’t it nice… once you break the ice?

Question: What about you? What are some of the tools you use to make first contact? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?