When I was in high school, I taught a small group for fourth- and fifth-graders at church. It was an interesting experience. I really enjoyed it; the girls were contagiously fun and energetic. They were also poor listeners or they were victims of a poor disciplinarian, because I could not ever get them to sit still and work through discussion questions with me.
After I joined high school staff in October, I realized those fourth- and fifth-graders were now juniors and seniors in high school (and two are freshmen in college; I am SO. OLD.). I wondered if they would be interested in reconnecting with me or if they would even remember me from those long-ago days of elementary small group.
I can’t overstate how nervous I was to join staff. The thought of it was inspiring and I had felt God clearly calling me to do it after years of growing the idea in my mind. But to have actually joined, and realized I’d be faced with real human beings, especially after an unpleasant few years in that same youth group, was mildly terrifying.
On my first Wednesday, I ran into one of my old small group girls and we talked all night. P has a way of drawing people in; she’s charismatic when she tells stories but she’s also genuinely interested in hearing yours and she listens well. It was a good introduction to being on staff and eased my POOR NERVES significantly.
(In unrelated news, I’m thinking of changing my last name to Bennet.)
Tonight, I was at the counter in the student center when P popped in and we started talking about her efforts at friendship with another student. We were talking about the kind of person I was myself in youth group: introverted, extremely quiet, and not very well-connected with other students. And I told P to keep reaching out to that student, because as that kind of person then and even to some extent as staff now, I could speak to his appreciation if she was consistent about starting conversation. I told her she was a great person to do that because of her boldness and extroversion.
And then I quoted High School Musical, which I loved until my high school put it on THE FIRST YEAR it was made available for school productions and which I therefore now largely avoid. HOWEVER, one cannot avoid one of the best lines of the entire movie: “Just like kindergarten.”
We grow up and lament how difficult it is to form friendships when we’re older but I think we forget how much of a choice it is. When we were younger, we often decided to be friends and the decision itself was basis enough for that friendship to be solid. Now we subject our friendships and our friends to endless criteria – and I do think there is a way to be strategic and deliberate in friendship and that’s important, because it makes up a significant portion of our lives and I firmly believe good friends are critical to helping you carve out a purposeful and thriving life. It’s the reason I crave my own circle of local friends so much.
But it’s just not as simple, you know?
I’ve tried to approach youth ministry with the perspective that they can teach me as much if not more than I can teach them. There are obviously some things that only life experience and a wider perspective can teach, and because I’m older, I’ll be able to share those parts of my life with them as an example of what to do or what not to do. But because of conversations I’ve had with them in the past and even knowing how I’ve learned even now from journal entries and blog posts I wrote at their age, I know how much they know and how much they probably don’t actually need me to tell them.
P didn’t need to hear that she should be nice to people because it’s the right thing to do with a quotation of the Golden Rule to boot. What she needed to hear was that she, P, is individually equipped to reach out to that individual, and other individuals like him. She needed to hear her efforts will not be in vain when there’s not an immediate response. She needed someone to reaffirm her recognition that introverts feel uncomfortable when they think other people expect them to talk instead of simply wanting to enjoy their company even when they’re silent and tell her to keep on, anyway, because it takes them a while to realize, Yes, people do want your company. (I feel confident saying all that because she told me.)
And the thing is, I needed to be reaffirmed and re-energized in the role I see for myself, which is to encourage and to clarify. I’m not there to cast anyone’s vision; I think these high schoolers are smart enough and passionate enough to determine that themselves. But I do know they’re often wondering if their goals and dreams are valid and if so, how to start going after them. And in that, I feel confident speaking into their lives.
But more than that, what I really needed to see was building community is a deliberate and perhaps also a debilitatingly bold act. P could choose to speak to this student or she could choose not to. It was a decision she had to make, just like kindergarten. Just like the way I signed up for youth ministry, not needing any time to think or pray over it because God had already pressed it into my heart, choosing to intrude on the lives of young women who need just as much as me to hear they’re chosen, beautiful, valuable, talented, clever, loved.
Every Wednesday night I worship from behind or among the youth, praying the words we sing will be stamped into their hearts and raise the love of God in them. I carry such a burden for them to love Jesus well, because I have seen when they do it, and it’s beautiful. And if consistency is what’s called of me to grow that in them, then Lord, I pray You grow in me a greater commitment than I am humanely capable of giving, because Your Spirit’s strong in me, or at least I want it to be.
Last year I started a study on Gideon by Priscilla Shirer, and I will never forget her talking in one of the sessions about how all of us are a younger woman to someone and an older woman to someone else. And, she admonished us, if we did not have either of those in our lives, we ought to go out and find them.
Just like kindergarten. Just go and find them. Teach younger women the Good Way as you walk in it yourself. Model patience and kindness and goodness and grace. Speak love and truth and conviction and mercy. And in that, be an example to all believers.
This is the good fight, the kingdom work, the great commission.
Love. Go. Make disciples.
Just like kindergarten.