I am a firm believer that an essential part of youth ministry is getting on students’ turf. I find that school is an important place for us to strengthen our relationship with students while developing relationships with other students who do not have a church home.
When I was a young youth director, I spent too much time in my office thinking that if I built it they would come…and 20 to 30 of them did. As I grew in my understanding of how to grow a youth ministry, I spent more and more time on school campuses. Instead of ministering to 20 to 30 on Sunday night, I was began to minister to 20 to 25 during each of four lunch periods at each of the local high schools.
Here are the five keys to visiting school lunch rooms that I’ve learned over the years.
At the beginning of each year, whether you are new to the area or have been there for a decade, you need to get permission from the administration to visit during lunch. If the school allows outside visitors during lunch, they will have visitation policies that you need to follow. If you have to wear a bright yellow visitor sticker, then wear it! We should set the example for other visitors and for keeping students safe. I recommend setting up a meeting with the principal or an assistant principal, so they can get to know you and trust your presence.
One of my interns once told me they hated visiting the lunch room after only two visits. After pushing a little, I learned that he believed a middle schooler had thrown a french fry at his head.
I see this attitude several times each year with our CYMT students. Going to the lunch room brings out our adolescent fears. If you are going to have success visiting students on campus, you have to forget the bullies and the mean girls, and remember that you are an adult. If they throw a french fry, then duck!
You would think this applies more to new youth ministers, but I mean it to apply to both new youth ministers and veterans. Almost every church in the country has an active youth ministry that is under 50% of their church roll. Even if students only attend your church once a year, there is a good chance that they know who you are.
A student who is mildly estranged to your church and youth ministry will feel more estranged if you don’t know who she is. So be familiar with your role and get the help of your active students to point out and identify inactive youth group members so that you can meet them. You don’t have to sit at their table, but you should say “hi” as you seek to build relationships with them as their minister.
I have met a few youth groups that were so tight that their students ate lunch together at school, but those are few and far between…and I think it’s a little weird. Your students will be sitting together in pairs and trios intermixed with other students. My goal in a 25-minute lunch break is to say “hi” to all the students from my church in the room and then find two or three tables that I can sit with for five to 10 minutes to talk about their days.
I find that effective lunch room work involves getting to know our students’ friends. They sit with the same people at lunch every day. So if you visit the lunch room once a week, you’ll have ample opportunity to talk with them.
Be outgoing and confidently introduce yourself to their friends. Your students will feel more comfortable with you being involved in the table conversation than what might feel to them like an awkward one on one conversation with their friends excluded. Remember that lunch time is one of the only free times for them to engage their friends in open conversation, so participate—don’t dominate.
Kidding with your kids at church is one thing. Making them uncomfortable in front of their friends is not cool. Don’t give into your adolescent fears and don’t act like you are still in middle or high school.
When dealing with kids who are embarrassed that you are there, I recommend acknowledging their presence and giving them space. How will you know if they feel this way? You’ll know. They will be the ones who show outward hostility towards your presence and look like they pray you don’t damage their image. If you respect their space, you are more likely to be invited into it over time.
There are two of seven high schools in my area that we can no longer visit because other youth ministers broke “the rule.”
What is the rule? Don’t talk theology and don’t evangelize! Being able to visit the school is a privilege and not a right. I’m tired of youth ministers who get into theological arguments with Jewish or Muslim students or who want to talk about “being saved” over mashed potatoes. It only takes one parent who complains to the administration to end it for everyone. I’ve yet to see a school who just banned the offending youth minister; instead, they have to enforce a policy that affects everyone. Let your kids invite their friends to church. If their friends know you, they are more likely to come. Save the theology for appropriate spaces.
Go visit your kids. It will make a difference in your ministry to your students, to the school, and to your community.
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