We all say things in youth ministry that we later regret. One time I promised a teenager that we would have dinner at our youth ministry worship service. When she arrived, I told her to go to Subway (a few blocks away from the church) to get her food. When I realized my mistake, I apologized to the teenager and her family. Since then, I’ve learned to be more sensitive to what I say to students.
There are some phrases that are over used in youth ministry. If we evaluate what we are communicating, we would be better off not using them. Let me give you five of those over used phrases.
“Bring your lost friends.”
As youth ministers, we plan a great event and want people to show up. At the end of a youth service we announce, “It’s going to be a great event; bring your lost friends.” There are a couple of problems with this phase, however. First, we say this phrase for every event. Over usage means our students have now tuned it out. The phrase does not create the urgency. Second, most of our students do not believe their friends are lost, so it doesn’t apply to them. According to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, termed by Christian Smith, students believe that good people go to heaven when they die. In addition, this is a church word. Do they even know what it means to “be lost” if they are new to youth ministry and church?
So, here are a couple of suggestions. First, our students need to know what it means to be lost and without Jesus. They need to be able to recognize that their friends who do not profess faith in Jesus Christ are going to spend an eternity in Hell. The realization that their friends will not be in heaven should create urgency.
Second, save the inviting lost friends talk for when you are intentionally going to share the gospel in hopes that students will make a decision. If you are planning an afternoon of ultimate Frisbee in order to build relationships within the group, make sure you communicate this to your group and stress that you want them there. (If students ask to bring a friend, do not discourage it.) We want what we say to have an impact on our students, so save those targeted audience challenges for special occasions.
“Guys, this archery tag event wasn’t built to be a (insert youth group name here) only event. We created it as an opportunity to share the gospel with our friends who need salvation through Jesus. We have been praying for our friends for a couple of weeks. Now is the time to start inviting them and have them commit to coming. If it is just us, then this event will be a failure.”
“Where have you been?”
Imagine being a fourteen year old socially, awkward female student who has not been to youth group for two months. She was sick, had homework, got grounded, and then had a fight with some of the girls in the group and decided to take a break. She misses the youth ministry and the one or two friends she has made. At school, she’s heard about all the fun going on in the youth group. The girl is lonely and without Jesus. Finally, she gets the nerve to show up, despite her fear of rejection. As she walks into the door, it feels like all eyes are on her. Then an adult spots her and yells from across the room in a slightly condescending tone,“ Look what the cat drug in. Where have you been? It’s about time you showed back up.”
In that moment, this student does not need judgment, and yet, the sarcasm will come across as such. It took courage for this student to show up. We need to be empathetic and consider what it took for them to come back to youth ministry. “I’m so glad you are here. You have been missed. Welcome back.”
“You’ll get over it.”
An eighth grade boy is devastated that his girlfriend broke up with him. To him, having this girlfriend was the best two weeks of his life. After we have been in youth ministry for twenty years and heard this story a few thousand times, we usually want to laugh on the inside, knowing it is very likely we may hear the same thing again from this student as time goes by.
For us, as adults who have gone through the rigors of middle, high school, and perhaps college relationships and acquired wisdom dealing with relationships, it is very easy for us to downplay the significance of this teen’s tragedy. After all, we lived through the breaking up of relationships a few times, survived them with little harm to our psyche, and, fifteen years later, we are now happily married to someone we didn’t even know in high school. Our experiences have taught us that the relationships we experienced as teens are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and should be treated as such.
However, the problem is that we forget what it was like to be that teenager in that moment. Even if temporary, it hurts emotionally. Teens often feel devastated by a broken relationship and think it will take eternity to get over. For us to downplay teens’ emotions would be to reject them and invalidate their feelings. We are telling them they are wrong, and we are right. That’s poor discipleship. Discipleship is walking through life together. This is one stop along the journey. If handled with patience and good listening skills, it will earn us the right to continue that journey with them. If mishandled by treating their emotions flippantly, we will lose their trust, and they will stop coming to us with their problems and concerns.
“You don’t have to turn there.”
Imagine you are preaching a great sermon to the students on how God can use anyone. You reference a verse in another book of the Bible. “Don’t turn there, but Judges 4:21 says, ‘But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died.’ We use this phrase many times because we think it would take forever for students to turn to the correct place in the Bible. And, after all, it’s often a minor reinforcement of our major point.
“You don’t have to turn there” communicates “It’s not that important.” If it really isn’t that important, then don’t mention it. However, it is God’s Word, so I would suggest that verse is important. Slow the pace of your talk down by turning to passages of Scripture. If you are all using the same Bibles from the youth room or Bible apps, then it won’t take very long to turn there because someone can yell out a page number. It shows students that the entire book is connected together. From sermons to Bible Studies, students live in a world of fractional, small unit usage of the text. Students need to see how the message of the Bible is connected throughout.
“Guys, turn with me over to Judges 4. I want to show you how this verse connects to what we are talking about.” Turning to various passages also lets the room be silent for a few minutes. Silence allows for reflection on what was said. If we spend all our time talking, students do not have time to ponder what we said and how they will respond to it.
If turning to other passages of Scripture does not give you enough time to finish, then I would suggest you have too much information and need to simplify.
“Let’s pray real quick.”
At a meeting of the spiritual minds, known as the youth committee, we may be guilty of saying, “Hey, let’s pray real quick, and we can get started.” Then, when our very productive meeting is over, we say, “Hey, let’s pray real quick, and we will get out of here.”
In those moments, prayer is just something we do. But, we haven’t really stopped to consider who we are communicating with. If we took the time to consider who has given us access to the throne room of heaven, then we would slow down and pause before His presence. We would ask for Him to preside over the meeting and for his Holy Spirit to work among us. “Real quick” communicates to others that we know what we are doing, and God just needs to bless our plans. It also communicates to both students and adults that we talk to God, but we don’t have to listen. I’m not advocating to stop praying, but that we change our attitude toward prayer. “Let’s stop what we are doing. As we go to the Lord, let’s be thankful for what God is doing and ask Him for wisdom for the future.”
Changing our wording and avoiding use of these five phrases help us elevate the work of God and our compassion for students. In ministry, we are often in such a big hurry that we rush the important things like relationship with hurting students and giving students time to interact with God.