We’re discussing the strong emotions teens have (I’ve compared it to a roller-coaster of emotions) and what this means for youth ministry. Humiliation is a strong negative emotion we’ve looked at, but fortunately there are also strong positive emotions.
Acceptance is for teens one of the most powerful positive emotions they can experience. In high school, I was bullied. Not in the extreme, but enough to make it quite unpleasant at times. But when I look back on that time, what I remember most are my friends and the acceptance I experienced with them.
We were a group of outcasts: the nerds, the not-so athletic types, the gay, the misfits and the plain weird. But there was true friendship and acceptance in that group and that’s what I remember.
I wasn’t so lucky in my youth group. The middle school ministry was great, but once I transferred to the high school ministry acceptance became a foreign concept. It’s such an irony that in the one place I was supposed to find acceptance, I never did.
Do teens find acceptance in your youth group, in your youth ministry? Can they be themselves, weird as that may be, and still feel welcome and loved?
I was never more proud of my teens as when they welcomed the ‘outcasts’ with open arms. And we had our share of teens who had trouble fitting in anywhere else. Teens with severe autism, with exceptionally low IQ, with no social skills at all, with handicaps, they all found their place and were truly welcome.
It wasn’t always easy, it required a lot of flexibility and sacrificial love from us as leaders, as well as from our students. But it was so worth it. There is no stronger testimony to the love of Jesus Christ than unconditional acceptance.
What do you do to make your youth ministry a place of acceptance? Here are some thoughts:
- Have a strong anti-bullying policy and execute it. The same goes for the use of certain words or expressions. Don’t tolerate discriminatory remarks or racial slurs. Be careful yourself in the stereotypes you use in your messages and stories.
- Make love and unity key themes in your teaching. Our youth group was even named B1 (‘Be One’) to reflect the importance of unity. We also had a ‘group song’: You made us one, You brought us together, we honor and worship You’.
- Acceptance doesn’t happen spontaneously. Teach your leaders to talk to teens who have a hard time fitting in. Have someone share knowledge and tips about a specific condition when necessary. When we had a teen with PDD-NOS, we had his mom come in and share with us how to best approach him and love him. It made a world of difference.
- Set an example. Teens’ social skills aren’t fully developed yet and there’s that whole awkward thing going on. So show them how to accept and love teens that are a little different.
- Be explicit in your love and acceptance, use words. Say ‘I’m so happy to see you again’ and mean it.
- How ‘inclusive’ is your communication? Will teens recognize themselves in the pictures on your Facebook page, the language in your flyers?
- Are your events geared to all students? If you’re a guy: do you also do stuff girls love? Since the majority of youth pastors is male, youth ministries tend to be geared towards guys more than girls when it comes to events. Also, throw in some events for introverts as well, or for the students who love to dig a little deeper.
Above all, ask God to fill your heart with love, understanding and patience towards your students every singe day. I’ve found that the more time I spent praying for ‘special students’, the easier it was to love them.