Real Ministry to Real Youth - Beneath the SS Answers and Youth Worker Know-It-Allness

Originally published October 2003.

I posted this question on a youth ministry message board including this journal entry from a 13-year old girl:

"Every day, just about, something new seems to be happening to this body of mine and I get scared sometimes. I'll wake up in the middle of the night and I can't go back to sleep, and I toss and I turn and I can't stop my mind; it's racing too fast, and everything is coming into it, and I think of my two best friends, and how their faces are all broken out, and I worry mine will break out, too, but so far it hasn't, and I think of my sizes, and I can't get it out of my head--the chest size and the stomach size and what I'll be wearing and whether I'll be able to fit into this kind of dress or the latest swimsuit. Well, it goes on and on, and I'm dizzy, even though it's maybe one o'clock in the morning, and there I am, in bed, so how can you be dizzy?

"Everything is growing and changing. I can see my mother watching me. I can see everyone watching me. There are times I think I see people watching me when they really couldn't care less! My dad makes a point of not staring, but he catches his look, I guess. I'm going to be 'big-chested'; that's how my mother describes herself! I have to figure out how to dress so I feel better--I mean, so I don't feel strange, with my bosom just sticking out at everyone! I have to decide if I should shave my legs! I will! I wish a lot of the time I could just go back to being a little girl, without all these problems and these decisions!"


How do you minister to someone who has so much anxiety inside but you don't have clue how much because she is not telling you so much? Would you have guessed? Have you ever personally been privy to such inside truth?

The journal entry was originally found in Wayne Rice's book, Junior High Ministry. A book many of us have read (or re-read if you really liked it because it is good). This question about how do you minister to someone like this is still on the message board. It was originally posted May 13. I have received four answers which have been "I have no clue" and "you got me" while two tried to answer. That is four out of a large message board where opinions fly on such "important" things as favorite fast food choices with your youth or opinions on Britney Spears.

Does anyone out there have answers on how to truly minister to a teenager? Does anyone have answers on how to minister to anxiety that makes them dizzy in bed? Does anyone have answers on how to minister to their secret worlds? If we reach their secret world, could Jesus finally be Lord of their lives? Can this even happen in adolescence?

Also a youth pastor posted elsewhere that one of his lead youth said he wasn't making the street evangelism team because youth group was not that important to him. What was your first thought to this statement? My guess is that it was "what?!" and then you question his walk with God and start praying for him to have the fire again. But could this statement mean that God is still important to him? Could it mean that he has a busy-scheduled life and in the priority of things, youth group is not that high? Could it mean that he is choosing his time for commitments that truly help him? (Remember that you can program every which way and not every youth will have it be a priority in their busy-scheduled lives. But that is not a reflection on your youth ministry, it is individual preferences.) Could this youth be so busy living out his faith that he doesn't have time to do "one more thing" for his faith?

It is hitting me pretty squarely in the face that we do not truly know our teens. I've studied plenty about teenagers and adolescent development. I'm credentialed and have credentials. I'm a veteran of youth ministry with many, many, many success stories. And many more non-success stories. I've misread teens' intentions time and time again and have offended them as I have tried to tell them what is important in their lives (because I know so much). I've also been burned many times by the secret lives of teens when their secrets became exposed due to some crisis. I've wondered and wondered why I didn't see it coming. Why he/she couldn't tell me what was really going on. I wonder if my teachings (in every form they are in) are hitting the mark. Can they when I don't know their secret worlds?

Let me repeat this survey by Teen People. The survey was about what youth think their parents know about them. These are scary results. While 74 percent say they get along with their parents, 82 percent don't think their parents understand what it's like to be a teen today. Sixty-five percent say their parents don't really know who they are. They say this about their parents who they live with! Do you think you know any better? Fifty- four percent would not confide in their parents if they had a serious problem; and 77 percent lie to their parents if they're doing something Mom or Dad wouldn't approve of. (Teen People, June/July 2003). Do you really think you understand your teens better than their parents with whom they live with? The teens in your group are definitely not a statistic and you have true relationships with them. But when they are alone in their bedrooms or driving in their cars and thinking, they are wrestling with thoughts we may never know.

Back to my own little one-question survey. I know the survey choices were tough and probably still did not accurately portray your personal view. Honestly, I was relieved to find out that half of you are aware of this secret world. Over the years I've heard so many generalizations of this is how youth tick, this is how to reach youth, blah, blah. I've heard too many youth workers say that they know more about their youth than their own parents do. They are fooling themselves. I have come to believe that even in those special relationships we have, there are still secrets and anxieties that they tell no one. No one.

On a that note, this is a poem written by a 17-year old girl.

You can't classify me.
You can't label me on a list
Or tie me up and put me in your pretty black box.
I'm original.
You have never seen anything like me before.
I broke the mold.
I am a new creation.
You can't place me in a group.
I don't belong.
I am an individual.
I set the trend.
I don't fit in with your petty misconceptions.
I don't follow your rules.
Instead I break them.
I am my own person.
I am not your typical teen.
Stereotype someone else.
--Lindsay Ray, age 17, Teen People, June/July 2003

Your typical teen is not in your youth group. Wonderfully created individuals are. How do you build a youth ministry that doesn't stereotype teens? That is a million dollar question. My limited advice is: teach God and the Bible, provide times for parents and teens to communicate, plant and water. Know that your relationship is not the end all--just another window into their lives. And be faithful to that window.