“Mama, do you need me?” my 2-year old daughter, Hope, cried from the living room.

The truth is, I didn’t.

When Hope cried out to me, I was cooking dinner – making homemade mac & cheese out of squash. I had two boiling pans on the stove and the oven was hot. I was afraid that involving her wouldn’t end well; that either she or I would get hurt.

In an effort to prevent this, I’d handed Hope some play-doh, hoping it would occupy her long enough for me to finish making dinner.

It worked… Until it didn’t.

When I didn’t respond to her initial cry, Hope came running into the kitchen.

“Mama, what you doing?”

“Mama, do you need me?”

As I stared into Hope’s eyes, I knew I couldn’t refuse her. More than anything else, Hope wanted – no, she needed – to be needed.

So, I called her in and explained how hot everything was. Then we carefully measured out the cheese and other ingredients we needed. When the buzzer went off, I turned off the burners, allowed things to cool, and then slid Hope over so she could dump all our ingredients into the pots.

Throughout the whole process, Hope grinned from ear to ear. Because she helped make it, Hope couldn’t wait to taste her mac and cheese. Doing something worthwhile made her feel accomplished. What’s more, she realized how good it feels to be needed.

If that’s true for a toddler, how much more is it also true for a teenager?

Most youth workers know it’s important to create a culture of welcome. So we spend countless hours creating an inviting space and training adult and student leaders to welcome others.

That’s good.

In fact, it’s really important.

But being needed is an equally important aspect of belonging. We belong when we are needed.

Although my daughter lives in our house, has all of her toys here, and sleeps here, unless she’s also needed, she doesn’t feel like she belongs.

So it is with our teens.

In order to belong, teens must be needed.

The problem is, unlike my two-year old daughter, most teens won’t tell us that. They won’t ask, “Do you need me?”

Instead, it’s up to us to recognize the importance of being needed and then to find ways – even when they create extra work for us – to involve our teens in our ministries in both big and small ways.

When teens contribute to our ministries, they go from being a consumer to being a producer. They feel accomplished as they realize they’ve contributed in a valuable way. They realize they matter; that they’d be missed if they weren’t there.

And that, maybe more than anything, is when they truly begin to belong.