Photography by Matt Wyatt

Talking at the Picnic Table

Every first Sunday of June our church has ‘Celebration Sunday’ it’s a time where we give special recognition to our children’s ministry, enjoy a concert-style service and a cookout. I tend to sit with the teens during these potluck meals, attempting to break the divide between ‘adult tables’ and ‘kid tables’. It’s a little easier for me as a single guy and no obligations to sit with family. What isn’t necessarily easy for me is entering their conversations that reflect the ecosystems they live in. I may choose to sit at the ‘kid table’ but it’s been awhile since I have lived as an adolescent and studying adolescence at the graduate level is not the same thing as interacting at the picnic table level. When I first came to this church and started interacting with our teens my go to style of conversation was sarcasm. Sarcasm is my typical defense mechanism when I am nervous. It’s probably also the most ineffective and risky form of conversation to take on too. Don’t get me wrong, wit and good timing with jokes is fun at any age but I am convinced that my sarcasm was too much and caused me to just come off as phony and like I was trying too hard.

Eventually after I became more comfortable, I transitioned into genuinely trying to get to know these teens and their lives. School was my first go to topic because it encompassed so much of their lives but after a while I started getting responses like “nobody wants to talk about school when we aren’t at school.” I could understand that because like most adults I’m not much for talking about work after I get home from it. It was very difficult for me to not talk about school and I still have to resist the urge. It’s not a taboo topic, I just am purposeful about letting them initiate the topic when they’re ready. There is more to me and there is more to them than what we do, even if that’s the easiest thing to talk about. I’m trying to stay away from the easy topics because I want to be challenged to grow in my teenage conversational skills. There is a lot to think about when it comes to engaging in conversations with teens. I want to make sure that what I am saying is providing a good role model, age appropriate and that I am not engaging in making fun of others or immature behavior. As important as it is to remember all these guidelines, I expect to make mistakes but it’s ok because I am finding even though I’m not perfect at it and I over-analyze every word I say, when I dive into real life conversations with teenagers I seem to gain a genuine respect from them just for trying. So even when I am unsure of what to say I come out better in the end if I dive in and say something then putting up a wall of sarcasm.

Today’s topic of conversation was one I’m convinced I would’ve resorted to my sarcasm defense mechanism had I found myself in it when I met this group of students three years ago. Sometimes teenagers who are still sorting out their faith don’t only talk about ‘church appropriate’ things at church events. Maybe that’s a good thing because when we don’t talk about cultural issues, we don’t have a response for them either. It’s too easy to create a bubble or an us/them mentality but the problem is this is the exact opposite of the great commission. So when a student brought up one of the hottest current topics, it was an occasion when culture pushed its way through the protective church bubble and demanded a biblical and well thought out response. In a moment of silence in our church appropriate conversation a student said, “What do you think about Jenner?” Honestly, it caught me off guard at first because I knew a simple responses was simply not possible. After some awkward silence, the student said “My friends and I were joking about how big her jugs are”. I think it was an attempt at comic relief but if all they really wanted was to engage in inappropriate jokes about it I was going to move the conversation along to something else. We moved on to another topic but the whole time I was gathering a response in my mind. This was a current event and these teenagers were old enough to discuss it from a biblical worldview. In another lull in the conversation I found my opportunity to dive in, ‘Do you honestly want to know what I think about the Jenner situation?’ I asked assessing this student’s level of interest in having a serious conversation. What followed was a conversation of tough questions, lots of ‘but why?’ questions and a transition from social event to social impact. Teenagers are more than capable of engaging in some of the most important conversations Christians need to be having and adults can help by being a moderator who …

  • Isn’t perfect but Is willing to let down their defenses and dive in
  • Willing to engage with them at the picnic table level
  • Sees them for who they are not what they do
  • Keep the conversation on a track that leads to it being beneficial
  • Is always prepared to give an answer that’s Biblical, well thought out and full of grace (1 Peter 3:15)

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