It’s a phrase that is passed around in youth ministry circles all the time.
“Meet students where they are.”
This is largely communicated with a teaching mindset where we present the Good News about Jesus to teenagers in a way that they can understand and respond. We don’t want to give them lofty theological terms or difficult to digest concepts which they might not be ready for in their age and stage of faith development.
But unfortunately, this is often where “meet them where they are” ends. We still sit within the walls of our churches expecting our programs and entertainment to draw students to us. But no matter how many times we play 9 Square, bring in pizza, and preach what we believe to be incredibly engaging messages, we continue to be frustrated by the lack of growth and interest in our ministries.
This is because we don’t take “meet them where they are” far enough.
In John 1:14, we read something audacious: God became one of us and moved into the neighborhood. After hundreds of years of prophets and messengers attempting to “meet people where they were,” God physically showed up on their doorstep. And if we are going to meet students where they are, we need to actually meet them where they are too.
Here are what I have found to be six practical ways of moving into our teenagers’ physical (and digital) spaces.
Your students are gamers. Xbox, Playstation, Switch, PC or on their cell phones. They play A LOT of video games. So instead of bemoaning and preaching against their immense screen time (which they’ll continue to consume regardless), show up in that world with them. You gain instant respect and credibility which is vital for earning the right to be heard. Boundaries and barriers come down for your students as you get to share in a common experience together. Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox are still immensely popular and free to play on your phone. Send a message to your students asking them which games they’re playing and create some space to game with them this week.
In a similar vein, Discord is a one stop shop for engaging with your students. Discord is a community messaging app which was started for gamers, but with its easy-to-create channels, has grown into a go-to platform for many different communities and even companies (See: Chipotle Discord Hiring Fair). We use it for communicating while playing video games, but we also have channels for students to share pictures of their pets, their favorite memes, wish each other happy birthday, pray for one another, share their artwork and so much more). Discord has allowed us to engage with our students on a daily basis in a world which our students are fully immersed in and understand.
Chances are that you are on Instagram, but are you using it in such a way that engages your students? If you are just posting about upcoming events, using it as an information dissemination tool, you are not meeting your students where they are. Yes, liking their photos (when appropriate) and commenting on their stories is important, but if you want to engage students in meaningful dialogue, create Instagram story polls where they can anonymously answer difficult questions about life and faith. Using yes or no questions, ask them about money, fear, body image, addiction, mental health, family and Jesus. Then share the poll results a day later so they can see they aren’t alone in their thoughts and questions. Your willingness to talk about the tough stuff will go a long way building trust and as a result, deeper engagement with your ministry and Jesus.
There is no denying the importance of building into your students the ability to read and understand scripture. But for so many of them the task is quite daunting, so meet in a space where they and their friends feel comfortable. For our ministry, we meet at a local ice cream parlor with ample outdoor seating and pull about 12-13 kids each time we gather (our church is in New England which makes this even more of a miracle). But we spend the first thirty minutes of our time together doing nothing more than eating Rocky Road and catching up on what they’ve been watching on YouTube or Netflix. Meeting on their turf has given way to many faith-filled conversations and more than one student devoting their life to Jesus.
Yes, good old pen and paper stuff. In a world where seemingly everything is digital, this is one way to show your students just how deeply they are valued and loved. Every Monday, I choose three students to write a letter to and it only takes 15 minutes to complete. You don’t need to say anything special although pointing out specific things he or she has done is a plus. The impact and importance of showing up in their mailbox, however, cannot be overstated. Every time a student receives a letter, they let me know how valuable and loved they felt. I have even had parents reach out to tell me just how much a simple letter brightened their teenager’s day. Meet them where they are (use a postage stamp if necessary).
I know this sounds silly and straightforward, but if we ask our students to come to our stuff, then we need to do the same. At the beginning of each sports season, I ask students for the link to their sports/band/theater/club schedules. You’ll have to ask them four or five times, but when they give it to you, find a date that works and put it on your schedule immediately. Then show up and just be present. Say a quick hello and congratulatory remark to your student at the end and then go home. Never underestimate the value of presence over programs in your ministry. Showing up for a student’s event will go farther than you could ever imagine because it gives you the platform to tell that student about a God who shows up every day in their lives as well.
Josh has been in youth ministry for almost a decade and is currently serving Jesus and teenagers at New England Chapel in Franklin, MA. He is married to his best friend, Kelcy and they have a beautiful daughter, Kara. In addition to going on adventures with his girls, Josh is a avid Pittsburgh Steelers and Liverpool Football fan, runner and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.