“People have no idea who I really am or what I am going through. My parents don’t know, and people at church don’t know either, but I know if I tell people what I am going through, they will look at me differently. So I just put on a mask everyday and pretend to be fine.”
The comment above was from a student in a local youth group, and she wasn’t talking about the masks that we have been wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, this comment was not a surprise. She made it appear as if she had the perfect life, but she was facing difficult struggles in her personal life. She was not being honest about her pain and she was not the only student in the youth group who was doing so.
The truth is, many teenagers today are walking around with a mask on because they are afraid to allow others into their messy life. We can see this reality in the youth ministries we serve in. Teenagers, much like the rest of us, present themselves in a way that will be approved by adults and their peers, but inside, they are fully aware that it is an act. They are not actively trying to be hypocritical, rather it is their way of protecting themselves. If it is true that students are both resilient and deeply wounded, how can we, as youth workers, begin to see behind their façade and meet them in their mess, their pain, and their hidden worlds?
Here are three ways to engage with students as you enter deeper into the world they hide behind their masks:
It’s vital to establish trust with your students in order to speak into the dark, covered up places in their lives. If you work with students regularly, you’re already an active participant in their life. However, a question you could ask yourself is: “Am I actually someone students trust with all aspects of their life? Would a student trust me with their story and struggles, knowing they will not be confronted with judgment or pity, but rather grace, truth, and direction?” Be intentional about listening to them and asking them questions about their life. Show them you are a leader who genuinely cares about their inner world.
Be a Consistent Encourager:
Students often feel pressured to measure up to expectations that have been placed on them by adults. Becoming a source of encouragement for students both when they want to celebrate and when they feel discouraged is vital if you want to engage deeper with them. Become intentional about honoring your students and celebrating them in their wins. Did a student in your church win a big game? Did a student get accepted into a program they’ve been working hard towards? Make space to celebrate them – publicly or privately. Make them feel loved, seen, and honored in their small and big wins.
Become an Example:
Every student we interact with carries a unique story and longs to find a caring mentor they can trust. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he said, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Our ministries need leaders like Paul who will encourage their students to live in this way, but more importantly, they need leaders who will be an example in these actions, gifts, and disciplines. These were not instructions devoid of personal experience. Paul himself said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). So how can you become a better follower of Christ and a better example to your students? Reflect on your actions daily, and consistently ask the Holy Spirit to show you areas that need improvement.
Students want leaders who genuinely know and care about them but they simultaneously fear their possible judgement. Your students may have been hurt by many adults and have felt the pressure to live up to their expectations. It’s our job as leaders to help them by building trust, by encouraging and advocating for them, and by becoming a person who leads by example.
- Reflect on your own leadership. Do your students trust you? Do you actively listen to them? Are you a source of encouragement in their life? Are you an example of Christ in your actions and interactions with others? Do you practice accountability in your own life?
- Create an atmosphere where students feel safe to be themselves. Emphasize having a “non-judgemental” culture in your ministry.
- Become an empathetic listener: Ask your students questions about their life consistently and listen attentively.
- Check out Feed Lead: a collection of videos designed to equip you and your team with innovative approaches to youth ministry. Specifically check out the Feed Table Talk: Hard Conversations series for tips on dealing with topics like this.
- We know that making shifts in the way you do youth ministry can be tough. The Feed Team has your back and would love to connect. Reach out to us at [email protected] to find out how we can partner with and support you in your ministry.