A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak at Pine Brook Camp, a camp in Massachusetts I had attended and served at when I was younger. The C.L.I.M.E. program was foundational in my preparation for ministry, and I have many fond memories there. However, the last summer I was involved with camp was in 2012, because the following summer was the first time I stayed down in New Jersey, and I’ve been here ever since. It was a blessing to return, and to still see many of the staff and former campers who had been at camp while I was there. And it was also a unique experience, because I did not know any of the teenagers I was speaking to. While I knew some of their families, even the oldest teens I spoke to were 10 or 11 when I was last at the camp. It was the first time I’ve ever spoken to teens who I had no relationship with prior to that – because even the first time I spoke at my current church, I had been around for a few weeks as a volunteer before that. As I was preparing for and have now reflected back on the week, I’ve developed a loose theology of “speaking to those you don’t know”, and I wanted to share that with you.
A Theology of Speaking to Those You Don’t Know
Be available, get to know them
One of the advantages of speaking for the entire week, rather than for just 1 session like some speakers do, was that I was around during the rest of the day. I was around when they were eating meals, and when they had free time. I was around when they were playing sports (and even got in on a couple games and a relay race), and I was around when they were in the game room. One thing I noticed was that the more time I spent getting to know the teens, and the more time I spent letting them get to know me, the more they engaged with what I was saying to them. I also saw the presence of my wife and daughter, and my interactions with them, as beneficial to what I wanted to communicate, as I was able to reference them and to demonstrate what God’s love can look like from a father and husband’s perspective. Building the foundation of trust, familiarity, and openness, even for as brief a period as that week, enabled me to speak more effectively than if I had simply given my talk and then peaced out for the rest of the time.
Jesus himself modeled this, as he spent time building relationships with those he was addressing. The most obvious of those are the relationships he built with his closest disciples, but even to people like the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, who he spoke to once, we see him asking her questions about herself, engaging with her on a personal level, and giving her the dignity of being known by someone who wouldn’t have normally taken the steps to know her (like a Jewish man).
I think this point is well understood in our regular interactions with the teenagers we know and serve. We know that we have to build relationships with them, and that the more trust we build together, the more we can speak into their lives (because the more we know about them to do that, too). But all of us have encounters with teenagers we don’t know, either at all or very well, so I hope this can be an encouragement to be available and get to know them. Play games with them (you know I’ll always promote board games haha), be willing to have conversations about regular life things, and keep in mind that effective communication is enhanced by trust and relationship.
God’s truth is universal
The second thing I thought about as I prepared for the week was that God’s truth is universal, and that even if I don’t know everything or anything about someone else, I can tell them the things I know apply to everyone. While I’m able to address specific issues I know are pressing for the teenagers in my youth group, that have come out of questions they’ve asked or situations that occur, I didn’t know anything specific about the teens I was going to be speaking to. And so I focused on the gospel, the timeless truth that is relevant to all people. As we walked through the life of Abraham, I talked about creation, God’s expectations for us, sin and how those expectations are now broken, how God offers a covenant relationship for us to have with him through Jesus, and what a life of walking with him in faith looks like. All of those are incredibly pressing things to hear, for all people, in all places, and through all time.
I also think it’s important to understand that the universal truth of the gospel is as relevant for those of us who have been following Jesus for decades as it is for those who have never heard it. We never outgrow the gospel, because the gospel is about more than a moment of conversion. It’s about a God who wants us to know him and be known by him, in increasing fashion – and we can always grow in that.
One thing I think is important regarding this is to talk in such a way that it doesn’t sound like the same old. I know that as a teenager who grew up in the church, there were times that a speaker gave a gospel message that I tuned out, because it was formulaic and sounded just like many others I had heard. I don’t think we need to be incredibly revolutionary, or stop using the most frequent verses we turn to, but rather to be such students of Scripture that we can see the gospel truth in more than one place. Because all of Scripture is God’s gospel, his story of redemption, and we shortchange those in our care when we act otherwise. That’s one of the reasons I talked about Abraham, and Hebrews 6, because I thought it would be gripping to those who had heard the gospel a lot, and help them to see it in a fuller way.
Understand context as well as you can
Even before I got to camp, I could know something about the teens I would be speaking to – because they are teenagers in 2019, and there are some trends and research there. I know that smartphones are ubiquitous, and that while external issues like adolescent drug and alcohol use and sexual activity are down, internal issues like anxiety and depression are higher than they’ve been. I know that teenagers today face so much pressure to perform, to fill out a resume for college, and to schedule every minute of their life. I know that teenagers are still looking for identity, autonomy, and belonging. And I know that while these things are not the case for each teenager in every place, they’re common enough. And I could say things like “maybe some of you have crippling anxiety” or “maybe some of you feel like you’re performing well enough.” One thing I learned almost by chance was to phrase it in that way – where I wasn’t assuming my thoughts were true about all of them, but I was leaving the door open for some of them to say to themselves, “yeah, that fits me”. And I think that helped to build more trust and connection as I spoke.
The second way I understood context was not on purpose, but it will be in the future. As I was talking to friends who are part of the camp staff, we were talking about how the camp has changed since I had been there last, and part of that was related to demographics. I was able to know things like generally how many of the teens coming to camp are from churched homes and how many are unchurched. I was able to understand what towns they were drawing from most, and to get a better idea of who I was speaking to. It was a very beneficial thing, and is something I’ll be intentional about if I have a future opportunity to speak somewhere that I don’t know the teenagers.
Lastly, God literally became fully human – there’s no better way to seek to understand context.
So there you have it – a loose theology of speaking to those you don’t know. It’s important for us to be available, and be purposeful to get to know them. The only reason we don’t know them is because we haven’t taken that step. Know that God’s truth is universal, and while we can know which topics are most relevant for the teens we serve regularly, we should be in God’s Word so much that we’re able to communicate the good news that it is from anywhere in it. (And, even the topical stuff is still relevant to those we don’t know – if it isn’t directly applicable right now, it’ll be at some point) Do your research about teenagers and culture, so you can understand context as well as you can. Ask questions, be purposeful about closing the gap of how well you know them, and keep in mind that God was able to work through a donkey – he can certainly use you and me.
P.S. Take a moment and check out Pine Brook Camp, especially if you’re located anywhere near Western Massachusetts. The C.L.I.M.E. program, which stands for Christian Leadership Instruction in Ministry Excellence, was crucial to my development as a leader and into ministry, and ministry is done everywhere not just by those of us who do it full-time. If you know a teen or young adult who might benefit from something like that, you can find more details at the camp’s website.