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Why it's so difficult to get students to open up (and why that's okay)

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman

You ask the big, deep life and faith question, and all you get in return?

*crickets*

It's not that these kids don't talk. They literally never stop talking on trips in the church van.

But when it comes to real life, family, or faith conversations, it feels like you're pulling teeth.

What's usually happening here is something so under-the-surface, we might not even notice it.

We're being tested...

...and our students are waiting to grade us.

When you've got students who just won't open up, it might be because they're trying to gauge how much you're actually interested in them.

Now, there are several reasons why a student might not open up. Personality and perceived social standing are two of them. Good luck changing those things.

But there's a third reason, and it's something you and I can do something about. Often, there's something going on in a teenagers' heads - consciously or not - as they gauge you even as you're asking the question.

Let's call it the Perception of Authentic Interest. PAI is best summed up this way:

Teens want to talk about their lives, but more than that, they want to know that you actually want to hear them.

You've played this game a hundred times.

You ask a student how his day was.

He tells you it was fine in a notably sorrowful tone, his voice trailing off toward the end of the word, as he looks forlornly away from you.

"Just fine?" you ask.

"Yeah, I guess. It's just, whatever."

This goes on for a while. You pry, you experience resistance, but at every juncture, it feels like you're just being goaded to pry more.

You are being goaded to pry more.

This tooth-pulling, CSI-level interrogation is obnoxious and annoying for youth workers every time it happens. Why can't we just get to the point?

Because sometimes, that is the point.

Sometimes what a teenager needs isn't your advice or your wisdom or even the opportunity to vent. Sometimes what a teenager needs is to demonstrably know someone cares about them enough to truly desire to hear about that teenager's day.

Teenagers live in a world that's rich in talking and poor in listening.

They know that most people who ask them how they're doing don't actually desire an honest answer and will rarely stick around to listen to their response.

Most of all, there's this:

Too many teenagers feel like no one really cares about them. They'd love to tell you about it, but they'd rather give you a chance to prove them wrong.

Go ahead. Prove them wrong. Then, report back to let us know how things are going.

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Teenagers have a sleep problem and it's already affecting your ministry

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman

I stumbled across some research last week that absolutely blew me away.

I mean, I already knew that this generation of teenagers was sleeping less than every generation before them.

But I guess I just didn't realize how much less.

According to this, more than half of teenagers are now chronically underslept.

And while I know that a student's salvation is a more important priority than a student's sleep habits...

...this issue matters more than most of us realize, and it's already affecting our ministries.

Poor sleep habits lead to a host of other problems for teenagers and those problems quickly become your problems.

DEPRESSION & ANXIETY
Sleep deprivation is a key indicator of and a direct contributor to depression and anxiety disorders.

You've probably noticed it in your own ministry, and the statistics would prove you right. The number of students fighting depressive disorders is skyrocketing and it's happening at almost the same rate and on the same timetable that sleep hours are plummeting. This is no coincidence.

In my career, I've been likely to recommend Christian counseling and prayer as effective tools in combating depression.

I should also recommend sleep. It's effective and it's Biblical too.

[Click to tweet about this.]

EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING
You know those eighth-graders who are always riding an emotional roller coaster? They make friends and enemies at the same time, love and hate the same things in the same day, or regularly laugh and cry in the same sentence.

Some of that is media- and culture-driven. Some of that is the cost of being 14-years-old and excessively hormonal.

But much of it is a direct result of a lack of sleep.

If you've ever dealt with an emotional student calling or texting you at two-in-the-morning because of social drama, the temptation is to want to talk them through their issue.

But sometimes, the solution they need is just to go to sleep.

[Click to tweet about this.]

APATHY & DISINTEREST
If you've got students who sit in your Sunday school classes with blank expressions and silent mouths, it's natural to issue the classic youth worker's lament:

"They just don't seem to care about their faith!"

But would those students act any differently if they were simply exhausted instead of spiritually apathetic?

The truth is that those two states look nearly identical, and the good news is that what we see as apathy could simply be a total lack of sleep. Sometimes, when we're dealing with apathetic students, we're really dealing with very tired students.

[Click to tweet about this.]

What should youth ministry do about sleep habits?

This is a significant challenge to overcome. Helping students to develop Bible-reading habits or to adopt a prayer plan requires them to find ten extra minutes throughout the day.

But the data suggests that if students are going to solve their sleep problems, they're going to need to track down an extra hour or two. That's tough, and it's not something we can fix on our own.

Here are four quick steps you can take starting right now to address the silent problem that's hurting our students more than they realize.

EMPHASIZE REST AT YOUTH GROUP EVENTS
When you're at camp or on retreat, build your schedule so that students sleep 8-9 hours without exception. Be militant about maintaining lights out, for your students' sake.

When everyone's feeling that "camp high", make sure to point out the very valid reasons for it. Fellowship with others, quiet time with God, intentional periods of worship...

...and for the first time in who knows how long, actually sleeping like humans are supposed to sleep.

It's not lost on me that while many students will hang on to the spiritual habits they developed at camp for at least a few days, they return to poor sleep habits almost immediately, and everything falls apart shortly after that.

DON'T GLORIFY BAD SLEEP HABITS
I am so guilty of telling awesome stories about the epic all-night cram sessions that I pulled in college fueled by insane quantities of caffeine and sugar.

I don't tell those stories anymore, because the last thing I want to do is to tell students how amazing it was when I did something certifiably unhealthy.

I wouldn't tell them about how awesome it was that time I got super-drunk. I wouldn't tell them about how awesome it was that I drove 120 down the freeway. Neither would you.

Sleep deprivation is a very real problem that very often leads to other very real problems. It's not something we should lift up or tacitly encourage.

EDUCATE PARENTS
Sleep-science is an emerging field, and so much of the data that it holds is new. Adults already know that their teens aren't sleeping much, but there's an excellent chance they're not fully acquainted with the consequences of that.

Twenty years ago, the common thinking was that the primary consequence of not sleeping was that you would feel tired.

But today we're armed with information about sleep and its affect on overall health, sleep and its affect on academic achievement, and sleep and its affect on attitudes and behavior.

Maybe it's not terribly likely that the parents of a 17-year-old will start implementing a strict bedtime, but a little well-placed parental encouragement can go a massively long way.

ENCOURAGE STUDENTS
Jesus said it first: "Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest."

Today's teenagers are nothing if not weary. They're flat-out exhausted.

Students hear that it's a very Christian thing to go and do and love and serve. But they also need to hear that it's a very Christian thing to rest.

Years ago, a well-known teen-evangelist told my students to do "whatever it took" to reach their friends for Christ and added that "you'll have plenty of time to sleep when you're dead."

And while I'm no prophet, I can say with some degree of certainty that those are not the words that Christ would have used in the midst of the most underslept and over-stressed generation that we've ever tried to reach.

P.S. Everything that I wrote about students? It goes for you, too. Sleep deprivation is absolutely a contributing factor to youth worker burnout. Take care of yourself.


Leave a comment below, then take a nap > > >
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The biggest reason parents don't think youth ministry is important

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

You do youth ministry because you believe that it matters eternally.

If every parent in your ministry shared that belief, your job would be a breeze.

Students would show up every week right on time and communication would be so much simpler.

Finding volunteers would barely be an annoyance.

But since that's probably not the precise DNA of your congregation and ministry, it's time to figure out how we can make it better...

...and that starts by figuring out the way we just might be making it worse.

Youth ministry is eternally important and we need to keep that idea front and center for parents in our congregations.

Imagine for a second that you're planning a Nerf War at Sunday's youth group. It's trendy, it's fun, students will like it. How would you promote that event?

Think about that for a second.

We might send an email, make flyers, post something on Instagram.

We'll include an extreme picture of Nerf guns in action, the words Nerf Wars in a super big block font, and include date/time details. Maybe throw in the word FREE in big letters and also write that there will be pizza.

Include several exclamation points, and we'll have something that will really be attractive to teenagers. It's the perfect advertisement, right?

Not so fast.

Because while we might have succeeded in communicating to teenagers that youth group will be fun, we've failed to communicate to their parents that it's important.

Therein lies the problem:

In youth ministry, we often need to persuade
parents differently than we do teenagers.

I've seen youth ministry event marketing thousands of times through social media:

Come to youth group! It's taco night!
Come to youth group! We're playing dodgeball!
Come to youth group! There will be s'mores!

Let me be 100% clear: Those are not bad things to do, nor are they bad to advertise.

There are always going to be students on the fence about coming to youth group and it doesn't hurt to sweeten the deal for them.

But at the same time, we can't vilify parents for not making pizza, dodgeball, s'mores, and Nerf Guns a bigger priority in their life.

Too often, I've been guilty at emphasizing the things that didn't matter and then getting frustrated with parents for failing to read between the lines to figure out how important my event really was.

Just about the most important thing you can do is to look at your ministry through the eyes of a parent. Do they see the important Kingdom work that you do?

It sounds tough, but it's actually really easy:

How to see your ministry through a parent's eyes:

Look at the last seven pieces of information that a parent would have seen from your ministry. Those might be tweets, snail mail letters, Facebook posts, emails, or a video announcement in a service.

Don't cheat. Take the last seven and only the last seven.

Now, looking ONLY at those things, try to figure out what seems most important to your ministry. That's probably a decent approximation of what your ministry looks like through the eyes of an uninvolved parent, too.

So, what did you see when you gave this a shot? Any changes coming your way?

Leave a comment below > > >

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