There are these two teen guys that hang outside of our church. After school hours they bring their skateboards and use our curb as a playscape. The first time I saw them I was on my way to a student’s football game. I was planning on stopping by the church for a moment, but when I saw these two in the parking lot, I got nervous about the encounter. What would I say to them? How would they treat me? Often in our culture teenagers are synonymous with rebels, like gang characters from A Clockwork Orange and admittedly, I sometimes fall into these traps of pre-conceived notions too.
It didn’t take long for me to realize how silly it was for a youth pastor to be afraid of youth. I turned the car around went back. I gave a simple hello and introduction and I made sure to be friendly; the last thing I wanted was for them to think I was just another adult kicking them off of the property. Besides, this wasn’t just any property, this was a church; a place where they should feel welcomed and cared for.
So, it’s been a process getting to know these guys. A process I am still trying to figure out the best way of going about. I know their names, what grade they are in and where they go to school. I also know that they aren’t ready for an invitation to youth group yet. After handing them postcards with our youth group info on them, I found the cards ripped up in pieces in our mailbox the next day.
This was disappointing, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I rarely am. I was a little surprised that they had done this because they seemed like nice guys even telling me “have a good day sir” after I introduced myself. Maybe I was naïve or maybe I just skipped a step or two. After a little bit of time reflecting on things I have studied and chatting with some other youth pastors, their response started to make more sense to me.
Take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I am wanting to get these guys to the feeling of belonging stage and ultimately knowing the love that Jesus and the church has for them, but that’s about halfway along the winding road in the hierarchy. As much as I would like to skip all the small talk and get straight to them being active participants in our youth group, I have to realize that I am in a marathon not a sprint. I have to view this as a long term investment.
The first need on Maslow’s list is physiological. This includes life’s most basic needs like food, shelter and clothing. I assume these boys come from decent homes, but the truth is I have no idea. I could be up against past histories full of brokenness or teens who have been raised with values like respect and kindness. I just don’t know. What I do know is that I can use Maslow’s first need as a good stepping stone. What teenager doesn’t like food?
After physiological needs are met, these boys will need to know that they’re safe. Safe with me and safe at church, even if they aren’t ready to walk through the doors yet. Safe can mean many things, but I think one of the most important is the safety to be themselves. So many non-Christians have a view of the church as a bunch of rules and rightly so. Sure, lives need to be changed, but its only done through grace.
We have to share the grace of Christ first, before we ever insist someone fall in line with the lifestyle of being a Christ-follower. It sounds obvious, but often we mistakenly ask people to get themselves cleaned up first – before they can shower. Jesus is our example for giving grace first when he said to the woman caught in adultery, “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” John 8:11
Some of the best advice I’ve been given so far is to meet these guys on their terms. It really puts the “Missionary” in our church name, First Missionary Church. Building a relationship with these guys isn’t going to work if all I do is invite them to church tell them to clean up their lives. It’s going to take genuineness. So here I am at the beginning of a new road. I can’t speed to fast and I refuse to exit.