I'm sure many youth workers have grappled with this question. I did. How do you get teenagers to do things they ought to, but don't always want to? (Pretty sure a few parents have asked that question as well.) One year at a summer camp I worked at, I had an experience that taught me a lot about motivating this demographic without looking like an ogre in the process.
But before I share this story, let me share this: back when I still lived in Montreal, and even when I lived in Sudbury... and for that matter, when I lived in the States, I was not known as the "Faith News Guy”, for obvious reasons. I was known as the “Youth Guy”; everything that I was involved in, from a ministry perspective, was aimed towards young people in some capacity. It's funny to think that the people I meet these days on a regular basis have no idea about my youth ministry past, and see me only as a writer. So from time to time, I make it a point to post something pertaining to that aspect of my life. Which hopefully explains why I’m talking about youth ministry in this article, and also explains why I’m writing about summer camp in December.
But on with our story: one of the first opportunities I ever had to speak to teenagers was at that Christian camp. I was working as a counsellor, doing the goofy things goofy counsellors do. Midway through every summer, the schedule and structure would change, and we focused on whole families coming to camp, as opposed to individual children and teens. That made my counsellor role obsolete, so I'd be moved to other positions within the camp. Award-winning tasks like maintenance... kitchen duty... bathrooms… the kind of things that you know, deep inside, make up servant ministry, but the kind of things that you wouldn’t necessarily volunteer to do.
So imagine my excitement when one year I was asked to lead the youth breakouts during the adult chapel services. First of all, we never really ever had youth breakouts. The last one was probably when those adults were teens. But this sudden change in programming presented me with the opportunity I was longing for.
I took this responsibility very seriously. I didn't know if I would ever have an opportunity like this again. So I decided to ask God about what I was to share with the young people I'd be speaking to, since I actually believed that he’d tell me.
Poor session attendance had been an issue in the past, which was one of the reasons why we rarely had these breakouts. So the leadership asked me to "strongly suggest" that everyone attend all sessions... no exceptions. But that came across to me as, "be the bad cop in the good cop/ bad cop scenario", and that just wasn't me. I wanted to respect the wishes of the leadership, but I couldn't extend that mandatory-attendance vibe to the teens. I wanted full participation as well, but willful participation.
As we gathered that first evening, I estimated that about 80-90% of the camp's teens were there. Giving them a sense that their presence was compulsory for the duration of the week could cause a drop in percentage. How could I ensure that those in attendance would return voluntarily the next day, and that the others would even show up? And how could I do it without being the bad guy?
While addressing the crowd during the first session, I felt inspired to issue a challenge. This was a Christian camp. Most of the teens were Christians, or at least open to faith. So I asked if anyone was interested in hearing what God thought about teenagers. I believed our talks could reveal God's thoughts toward their generation... but they had to show up to hear them.
Those teens that were present seemed to think this was a good idea. Me? I'm thinking, I gotta be nuts. Now the pressure was really on to bring relevant content that would keep them mentally and spiritually engaged for the entire week. I couldn't afford to mail it in, with this greater expectation to fulfill my end of the bargain. So we spent the rest of the first night discussing what to expect for the rest of the week (Part of me was wondering what to expect myself.) Then I dismissed everyone to begin praying about that next meeting, wondering if this hunch would pay off.
It did. I was pretty excited to see that 100% of the teens at the camp attended the following session, at least according to one young person who excitedly exclaimed, "Hey Steve! Look! We're all here! Everybody's here!" They had challenged each other in the 24 hours or so since we last met, to come out to the following session.
I learned a valuable ministry lesson that day. Back then, well-meaning folk would say that kids weren't into sermons. Which can be true. But it kinda goes without saying, I believe, that if they have a reason to listen to the speaker, they'll lock in without any arm twisting. If presented with something valuable and relevant, they can block out all distractions and keenly absorb the info, which happened that summer. I saw how youth will do things they may not want to, if they see value in doing it. (Hey, I should try this on my six-year-old daughter...)
By the way, wanna know what I spoke about that next session? As I said earlier, I went to the Lord and asked him to tell me what to tell the kids, and he did— although at the time I thought I was going bonkers when I thought I heard him say to talk about… sex?! To teenagers??? Um, God…
Too bad we won’t publish next month as we break for Christmas. Guess I’ll have to wait till February to share that one.