Ministry to children and teens is different from ministering to adults. Many ministry workers avoid children and teens, knowing it requires a different approach. We can often make the mistake of relating to children as we do with adults, when many young people simply cannot interact at an adult level. If we want kids and teens to open up about their world, and if we want to minister to them effectively, we need to connect to them in a way that makes them feel understood and known. This means we do what we can to meet them where they are developmentally. It requires working hard to see life through their eyes. This practice reflects the heart of Jesus, who reminded us that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven and that whoever receives a child in his name receives him (Matthew 18:2–4).
It is valuable to know young people both individually and developmentally. We can then speak into their world and help them understand themselves and their need for the Lord. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the temptations, struggles and needs of the human heart remain the same regardless of the stage of life. The soul needs to be nurtured with gospel truth at any age. Each individual needs to know Jesus and learn about God’s love and care at every age. Everyone needs to be challenged to love God and people. But even though biblical wisdom and principles are unchanging, the way we contextualize them and apply them to children is not always the same.
As adults, we often find it difficult to connect personally to young people. It can feel hard to draw them out or engage them in meaningful conversations. The disconnect usually revolves around our expectations—trying to have an adult conversation with a child, assuming teens are interested in what we are interested in, talking down to them, expecting them to be able to talk up to us, or making young people sit and have a conversation about things that have no felt interest or significance to them.
As counselors, some of us may feel more successful at connecting with children and teenagers than we actually are. We naively walk away from interactions feeling semi-successful. We kept the conversation going, got him or her to answer our questions, and may have even addressed a few struggles in his or her life. We may walk away from a conversation like this and think it went fairly well. However, when you ask the young person how it was, you might get a very different story: “It was awful. Boring. I hate talking and don’t want to go back.” The young person might walk away from such conversations feeling as though someone just pulled their teeth, and they will do what they can to avoid another painful visit.
We want our bonds with others to come easily, effortlessly, and naturally. We want people to like us. We may even presume the people we minister to can or should be on the same intellectual, emotional, spiritual, or social level we are. But an effortless connection or shared understanding is rarely the case with any person, much less a child. We mistakenly believe that good relationships always come effortlessly and that hard work shouldn’t be needed. When we think this way, we forget the lengths to which Jesus extended himself to love, share, and connect with us. He came down to us, and he continues to meet us in our weakness, feebleness, and childishness. He took on human flesh, humbling himself and entering into our experience, even experiencing death in our place (Philippians 2:6–8).
In light of everything Jesus has done for us, Scripture likewise urges us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4, NIV). In our relationships with one another, we are called to have the mindset of Christ Jesus. How can we model this heart of Jesus in our interactions with the young people we work with? What would it look like to approach kids and teens with the mindset of Christ Jesus?
We start by being committed to meeting young people where they are, not where we are, nor where we want them to be. We must be willing to work hard and thoughtfully to enter into their world. This will mean taking time to sit, observe, and help children and teenagers feel known. It is not until we do this that we will have won the trust needed to influence them for the gospel.
I often tell the counseling students I train that their ability to work well with adults does not mean they will be competent to work well with children or teenagers. However, if they can learn to work with young people, they will likely be better equipped and skillful at working with adults. Why? Because we will have spent extra time learning the unnatural skill of entering into another person’s world, striving to both know and love him or her well.
Drawing out young people means striving to unearth what is going on in their hearts and minds. We are uncovering their motives, desires, fears, hopes, temptations, and dreams. As Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” That is our goal: to draw out the purposes of the heart, and then speak truth back in.
When drawing out a child or teen, often it is the skill of an adult that determines how effective counseling is, more so than the ability of a young person to articulate his or her inner world. We tend to chat with a child and be tempted to conclude after a few minutes that they lack insight, thoughtful responses, or even care about their situation. We tell ourselves that we tried to gain insight but that the child just lacks personal awareness or is unwilling to open up. Unfortunately, much of the time we are wrong. Given genuine care, consistent pursuit, winsome approaches, the patience of a listening ear, and the willingness to ask good questions, young people can and do share deeply.
It’s not until you start to know a young person well that you can contextualize truth to meet their particular needs. This is a step that can never be skipped over. Jesus modeled the idea of knowing people individually. In his life on earth, Jesus modeled specific care and personal interaction to those he encountered. The woman at the well was known intimately and given grace despite her many sins (John 4). Zacchaeus, a tax collector, was sought out for fellowship (Luke 19). The Pharisees and Sadducees were rebuked and called a brood of vipers (Matthew 12). The little children were told to come and were embraced (Luke 18). Each disciple was known individually (John 1: 42, 47). Jesus often demonstrated that he knew his followers so well that he knew what they were thinking (Mark 9:33–34). He spoke to their doubts, fear, unbelief, and devotion (Matthew 8:26).
The Lord does not leave us to our own devices. He pursues us because he is a loving Father, a wise Counselor, and a good Shepherd. He meets us in our need, weakness, and frailty. The Lord is unwavering in his love for us. He shows compassion and is merciful and gracious. May we imitate him with a commitment to know, understand, and proactively pursue our young people.