Last year, I jumped into a youth director position in the middle of the school year. Trying to get to know this group quickly, I asked each of the kids to anonymously send in their answers to these three questions:
What should I be asking you about?
What should we be talking about?
What do you care about?
(I actually adapted these questions from a finance and stewardship class, of all places!)
These questions might sound like a feedback survey, as if trying to meet and service needs. I was attempting to see if I could get an introductory look into who they were, a small first step in getting to know this group. I don’t really know what I expected, it was just a shot in the dark.
One of the responsibilities of ministry to our kids may very well be sitting with them and asking them questions, so that, sitting beside one another, we can together ask questions about God.
When it came to what they cared about, there were a variety of answers, such as “community,” “friendship,” or “praying.” When asked what we should be talking about, they responded with “current events,” “the issues,” and “being a good Christian.” These were all standard answers, and not completely unexpected.
But without exception, all of the students at this youth group—whether they attended the church this group was a part of, or they were locals who came just for activities and programs, or they went somewhere else Sunday morning—every single one responded to the question “What should I be asking you about?” with “my relationship with God.”
I was actually quite surprised by that. I expected answers like “sports,” “relationships,” “families,” or a generic “how I’m doing.” Nope. These students wanted to talk about their relationship with God.
But… My Students Are Different!
By no means does one small sample of high school students determine the experience of all students, but it was indicative of an incredible opportunity. Perhaps this was a manifestation of Moral Therapeutic Deism with a heavy emphasis on the word “my.” Regardless, it’s emblematic of the fact that the students God has entrusted us with very much think God could actually be a real actor in the world. Your meeting with them may be a place to share the Gospel in a way they hunger for it.
Students are hungry to know not only about God, but they want to know God. Maybe they want to get to know the God who will get them nice things and make them happy, but this is a place where we can instead tell them about the God revealed in Jesus Christ. They may be searching after the God who will get them what they want and make them successful, but we can instead tell them about another way, through discipleship to the One who is remaking the world through the cross and resurrection.
Seeking God Together
Not all students are able to articulate their desires this well, but maybe they just need a place where they are asked about their relationship with God, even if many might not completely understand what the question truly means. One of the responsibilities of ministry to our kids may very well be sitting with them and asking them questions, so that, sitting beside one another, we can together ask questions about God.
Andy Root discourages people from “doing youth ministry” by attempting to “bring kids into the presence of God.”1 Instead, he advises youth ministers to become a “fellow yearner” who is “inviting kids to seek God from the places of their deep questions and open wounds; for the God who moves, and is active, is found bringing life out of barren places.”2
This question of a young person’s relationship with God isn’t the only question a youth minister should ask, nor should it be asked every day—or even every week for that matter—but there are several reasons to specifically ask about their relationship with God.
You might provide the only safe opportunity for them to talk about their own personal encounter with something so important and divisive. Whether because of pressure from friends, or dynamics at home, or any other number of reasons, young people may not feel comfortable talking about their relationship with God. You might give them the only place where they feel safe to discuss this relationship. Whether in one-on-one over coffee, or in devotional group activities, they might not have any other place to talk about something so important and vulnerable as who they are before God.
Whether kids have heard the Gospel message, or they understand God as a pathway to happiness and success, listening to and responding to students’ relationship with God takes their experience seriously. We believe in a God who became one of us in Christ who also took our experience seriously, so that we might know who God is, and to what God is inviting us towards.
This is a practice to subvert a culture that despises vulnerability. Brené Brown identifies our “Culture of Scarcity” as one driven by shame, comparison, and disengagement.3 Ours is a culture in which constant paranoia of any semblance of being seen as weak or imperfect compared to others stifles risk-taking, courage, and connection. Being vulnerable about our understanding and experience of God, for both students and leaders, is a way to combat the constant cultural messages of shame and fear. Rather than attempting to be better than the person next to them, to be the most spiritual, or the most put together and “religious,” through vulnerability, kids can have an opportunity to talk about both their struggles with God as well as their joy and passion for God. Even expressing love and joy is a vulnerable act. When we hear what our students are going through and experiencing, we can respond accordingly with a message of God’s love.
It can be huge for connection. Vulnerability is constructive if handled delicately. When you ask about their relationship with God, you ask a deep question that can invite a deep answer. If a student struggles with pain or evil in the world, or is having a difficult season of life—whatever their questions are, you can empathize and admit to having asked those questions, too. Or if they ask a difficult question you don’t have an answer for, or they are worried about something that might not be as large an issue as they’re making it, this is a chance to accept their vulnerability of their experience of God with respect and compassion and offer wisdom or a show of compassion.
It’s a crucial part of living life in response to the Gospel of Christ. In Luke 14:27, Jesus teaches his disciples to carry their cross and follow him to the cross, too. This is an invitation to a way of living, not just thinking or feeling. When theology or ministry becomes concepts and doctrines, we risk faith becoming a mind-thing, or a church-thing, with the rest of life becoming “the real world.” And if the focus is simply on feelings and experience, our understanding of God is not the ministry of God, but instead a gauge of our own happiness. When we ask kids about their experience of God, we can provide a bridge to connect the story of God with our own story, and see where we find ourselves within God’s work in the world. It can be a time and place where we bridge the theology and Scripture with the experience and reflect on where God is at work in the lives of our kids, and how we can respond.
Asking about a young person’s relationship with God is a hugely personal question to ask, which is what makes it important. When we ask how kids are experiencing God, we bear witness to some of the ways God is at work in the world. Whether kids have heard the Gospel message, or they understand God as a pathway to happiness and success, listening to and responding to students’ relationship with God takes their experience seriously. We believe in a God who became one of us in Christ who also took our experience seriously, so that we might know who God is, and to what God is inviting us towards. In Christ God is calling us to take part in the remaking of all things for God’s good purposes, and our youth and their experiences are part of it.
1. Andrew Root, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 52.
2. Ibid., 53.
3. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 35.
Adam Ogg has his M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He loves investigating how theology interacts with the world and informs our faith. Adam is particularly passionate about finding a good coffee shop to read in.