Listening to Students
In a recent conversation, I learned of a community organization that is looking to increase their youth representation. As an organization that operates on behalf of youth and children, they were recognizing the value of listening to students, and learning from them. The intention behind that initiative is so that the dialogue goes both ways; they are not looking to only pour in. As they serve students in their region, this organization believes that it is vital to hear from students and have them speak into the organization at a high level.
I love this.
As the Youth & Family department, we’ve intentionally chosen the value of Elevating Youth Voice. Within our various initiatives and projects, we are internally asking how we can involve students in our processes.
We believe that the practice of listening to and learning from our students is a practice vital to the flourishing and well-being of our churches. As we look ahead in ministry, and moving towards practices of innovation, we want to encourage you to listen to your students.
Too often, we fall into the habit of making generalizations. We think we have a good overview of what students believe and practice, and so we make blanket statements, such as “young people are lazy” or “young people have no interest in faith.” We make assumptions about them, and develop ministry initiatives according to our generalizations.
When was the last time you sat down with a student and asked them about their beliefs and perspectives?
In a recent assignment in the ADC course I’m teaching this fall, I required students to have a conversation with a high school student. The purpose of this assignment is largely to ask questions, listen to the answers, and then reflect in a written piece, as well as in classroom conversation. I’ve led this assignment several times and I always value the insights as they realize the misconceptions they may hold about students.
Likewise, as pastors and church leaders, we often assume that we know what people in our ministries believe and practice. However, as we sit down and have conversations, we are often surprised. I value research and insights that come directly from students and other members of our churches, rather than the kind of research that only asks the pastor what they think their churches believe.
Youth & Family is in the midst of a research project that is asking youth groups across Atlantic Canada to inform us about their beliefs and practices. Through a lengthy questionnaire, we are inviting students to help us understand their perspectives, so that we can make recommendations for ministry practice. As the research process continues, we will be looking for youth researchers to help us understand what we’re seeing. Not only are we asking students to tell us what they believe, we’re inviting students to speak into our learnings. We believe that this practice will keep us all better informed.
We are aiming to do research with students, instead of only doing research about students.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our student and children’s ministry is all about what we do for and to students and children. We want our programs to be fun for them and our teaching to be relevant to them. However, we often fail to remember that our ministry is to be with youth and children. We look for opportunities where they can respond to the Gospel, and we celebrate when young children choose to follow Jesus and when teenagers stand up at a large conference.
But then, we often don’t invite them into the planning of ministry.
Our serving projects are planned by us, and students are invited to come. We’ll host a rally night, invite a speaker to come, and ask our students to contribute by inviting their friends.
Is that really valid contribution? Are we really doing ministry with students in these efforts? Or are we just doing ministry to students?
In next generation ministry, we have the incredible privilege of pointing students towards the activity of God, and helping them discover how we can collectively join with God.
We live in an accelerating culture that pushes us as church leaders to do more and to go faster. As a result, we are burning out. In the early stages of the pandemic, many of us took on extra responsibilities. (How many Next Generation pastors now became tech support for their senior pastors?!) As the pandemic continues to linger on, we’re trying to get back into the former rhythms of ministry, without dropping any of the newer expectations.
We need to slow down, re-evaluate what we’re doing, and seek guidance from the Lord. And one of the best ways to do that is to value relationship over programs.
Take time to sit with your students and ask them questions. Encourage your leaders to do likewise. Maybe you need to even scrap programs for a season, so you can make time to sit down with your students.
As you look to elevate the voice of students in your ministry context, take time to consider these suggestions:
Suggested Practice: Ask Questions
We encourage you as a church leader to sit down with a student, or a few students, and ask them questions about their experience with your church, ministries, and programs, as well as their perspectives on faith and life. This could be a great exercise for your youth ministry team to try. Invite leaders to each connect with a student, and use their reflections as the basis for a future meeting. Based on what you’ve learned from your students, how will this affect your practices of ministry?
Try asking some of these open-ended questions:
What is the best thing about life and why?
What do you think is the greatest problem facing the world and why?
What are the three top values you look for in a new friend?
What is the best song on your playlist right now?
Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person? If yes, what does this look like for you?
Have you attended church before? What was your experience like?
What are some of the biggest needs in your community? How could our church or youth ministry respond to those needs?
Suggested Practice: Youth speaking to your Leadership Team
When was the last time your church leadership team took time to listen to students in your context? When was the last time they invited students to come to a meeting and seek their perspective on matters concerning the church? As you encourage your leadership to respond to the viewpoints of students, prepare them to invite students to come to a meeting.
It can be intimidating for a student to walk (or zoom) into a room full of adults. Consider inviting a few students to a meeting for solidarity, and also share questions with your students ahead of the meeting so that they can reflect on their answers.
Encourage your leadership team to consider how they may invite greater participation from students. What opportunities for leadership exist for students in your church?
Following the meeting with students, spend time carefully reflecting with your leadership team. Don’t just let them dismiss your students and their concerns, but gently push for reflection and action.
In our current blog work, we’re inviting you to continue reimagining what ministry looks like in our current reality. As our Facebook timelines become polarized, and our congregations threaten us over whether we require vaccinations and masking or not, may we not lose sight of our students. May we continue to faithfully point them towards Jesus.
And we believe an important step in all of this is listening to them. May our innovation be grounded in attentive listening to Jesus and our students.