The other day, a teen walked into our youth room. Another student immediately grew excited and exclaimed, “Oh great! It’s the funny kid!”
I’m pretty sure the funny kid didn’t hear this other teen and for that I’m thankful. I responded by greeting the funny kid by name, in hopes that the teen who’d called him that would hear me and follow suit.
I did so because knowing someone’s name is important.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago in a discussion with my high school students about Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. There, God gives Moses his name, I Am.
In my discussion with my students, we acknowledged the weirdness of God’s name for himself but then continued to wrestle with why it’s so significant that this all-powerful God gives himself a name.
Eventually, teens concluded that it’s awfully hard to relate to someone if you don’t know their name. Without a name, God is unapproachable – an all-powerful God who remains distinctly separate from his people. In contrast, learning someone’s name makes them knowable. It makes them relatable.
That’s true of God.
It’s also true of people.
For that reason, I constantly emphasize people’s names in my ministry.
To help teens (and adult leaders!) learn names, I repeat them… Over and over again. In fact, I rarely engage in a conversation or discussion in which I don’t call teens by name. (As an added bonus, this practice also helps imprint people’s names in my own mind.)
Calling people by name seems so simple that at times, I think we take doing so for granted.
But then something happens and we realize how often teens are called something other than their actual name, things like
The funny kid
The smart kid
The athletic kid
The fat kid
What all of these labels have in common is they rob a teen of their true identity, which like it or not, is tied to a person’s name.
I know because I’ve watched it happen all too often in my ministry.
I mean, have you ever noticed what happens to the funny kid when he’s not funny? He often shrinks into himself, as though he’s trying to disappear. He questions his value. If he’s not able to contribute humor, then what good is he? Worse still, what happens when the funny kid is having a bad day and feels unable to show any emotion other than humor? At that point, our label not only robs him of his identity, it also robs him of the ability to convey his true feelings; It stunts him emotionally.
And have you ever watched how quickly a teen will retreat when they’re labeled according to their relationship to their sibling (or parents)?
Just a few weeks ago, I mistakingly called a girl in my ministry by her sister’s name. Although I apologized to her (both in the moment and afterward), I watched as she retreated. Once I’d called her the wrong name, she didn’t utter a single word for the rest of our discussion. And why would she? In calling her the wrong name what I communicated to her (however erroneously) is that her sister is valued more than her.
In contrast, when we call teens by their name, we communicate their value and worth. In essence, calling someone by name shows them they matter – not because of what they do but simply because of who they are.
Maybe that’s why Scripture makes a point of reminding us that even though God knows everything there is to know about us, he calls us by name (Isaiah 43:1). In doing so, we know that we are his.
The same is true in our youth ministries.
When we resist the urge to label teens according to what they do or who they’re related to and instead, call them by name, we show them that they are ours. We show teens that they are known and that they belong – in our youth ministries, churches, and the Kingdom of God.