When I was a high school teacher and campus minister, I invited Alex, a faith filled man with incredible depth, to give a talk at an upcoming retreat. Unlike me, he was very soft spoken and not very dynamic. I worried he wouldn’t be able to grab and hold the teens’ attention. To make matters worse, his talk would be after lunch when teens are sluggish.
After slowly making his way to the podium and deliberately arranging his notes Alex looked up, looked each teen in they eyes, and then gave a nervous, sheepish grin. A few teens started chuckling, and my heart began pounding. I thought “This is going South fast and I can’t stop it.”
Alex began telling a corny Cajun joke and within two minutes the whole room was laughing—with him. He then told his faith story in his own humble way. The teens gave him a standing ovation and many remarked that it was the highlight of the retreat.
Alex didn’t try to get the teens to like or respect him. He captured their attention by being appropriately transparent, genuine and self confident. If I had told the same joke no one would have laughed because I’m not a joke teller. If I’d given a talk in the same way Alex did, it would have bombed because I’m a dynamic, expressive speaker. Alex’s talk worked because he did three things really well:
1. Be Appropriately Transparent
There is a balance to be achieved here. On one end it is essential that teens know enough about us to experience us as a “real person.” On the other end, total transparency by an adult to a group of young people is almost never appropriate. Even today, with almost twenty years of experience working with young people, I often consult others to check the appropriateness of any personal information I intend to share with young people. You should do the same.
2. Be Authentic
Be yourself. Although we tell teens this all the time, it amazes me how few adults really believe this: God has uniquely created you. If you believe this, you won’t need to try to be like anyone else. Being who you are is attractive to young people. Being someone else is not.
3. Show Teens Respect
Too often we underestimate the range of emotional and spiritual experiences teens have. As Dr. Bob McCarty is fond of saying “Teens are experience rich and language poor.” When in doubt about the level of depth in your sharing, go deeper rather than shallower. Better to risk missing the mark going “too deep” than patronizing them by being too shallow.
Teens want and need adults to be grounded in being an adult. When your goal is to be “liked” by young people your risk losing sight of the bigger goal ,which is to influence them to grow into Christian maturity. Secondly, you’ll lose the respect of the teen which is worth a lot more than being liked. When teenagers struggle, which they all do at some point, if they reach out for help, it will be to someone they respect. The key to effectively reaching them and deepening our relationships with them is not trying to be their friend, but by being friendly, authentic and respectful to them while maintaining healthy boundaries as an adult.