“Jesus Loves the Little Children.” When I first heard it, it spoke to me. At that time I was a little child; I listened, I learned it, and began to sing it myself. It resonated in my heart, and is likely the first time I began to think about other people different than myself. The song continues “All the Children of the World. Red and Yellow, Black and White/They are precious in His sight.” Now, I had seen pictures of other kids who lived in other places, but this is the first time I considered their hopes, their dreams, and that they had lives.
Over time, I realized how God had made humanity with a huge variance of thought styles, family cultures, and interests. Each person is made uniquely, and so the song we sung early could be endlessly amended with new lines to include verses about the creative, the logical, those who like to build, and the talkers, and philosophers. At all age levels, ethnicities, and across the borders of the globe, we are all created as different expressions of God’s own creativity.
The Psalmist wrote: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13-14). We celebrate the creation God has done in us, and each of us shows God’s image expressed in a new and exciting way.
One of the first tasks of youth ministry is to understand how each group of unique people coming together creates a new world – sometimes that world is a bit explosive with the energy of the young. But by listening to them, you may be surprised that even within the same community, their desires, needs, wants, hopes, and dreams can vary from pocket to pocket. The information you gain over time informs what the spiritual and communal needs of your youth are.
A group of kids in a mountain farming community might find excitement doing missions in a city. City kids might be more open to faith and growth while trusting you on a camping expedition or white water rafting trip. Youth facing constant crisis may find a prayer circle enough, while creative youth might want to start a worship band or participate in the liturgy on Sunday mornings. Theologically they will be all over the board. You’ll need to discern how to fill in the gaps of the whole Gospel.
By asking a few simple questions, and ask them frequently, a big picture begins to develop. “Where are you coming from? Where are you at right now? Where are you going? How can I help you get there?” These questions I learned in seminary and I ask at least one of them every single week with every young person, with eye contact, and we all process life together. In the midst of learning the answers and modeling the love of Christ you’ll laugh, play games, lead trips, and teach God’s word.
Love God, love them, be a pioneer, never give up, and by knowing their world you’ll be able to help them build the programs they actually need. As you learn, you’ll discover new ways to teach The Way.
(This article was originally published in The Advocate, South Carolina’s Connectional Newspaper for the SC United Methodist Church)