In a world that feasts on sound bites and snippets, meaningful conversation is challenging at best and non-existent in many homes and schools. Students live their lives virtually. Sadly, this has left them lacking in the ability to develop solid communication skills that can protect them in the present and prepare them for the future.
Walking alongside young people as they find their way requires a certain level of emotional intelligence. You must be able to “read the room” and pick up on the body language, all the while bringing compassion and confidence into the equation. What can you do as a youth leader to cultivate valuable skills of communication in your youth ministry?
1. Go Low Tech
This may sound like an impossible hurdle to jump. You know that many of your students are addicted to their phones and social media. The idea of having their phones out of their sight for even a short time causes them an incredible level of anxiety. Even youth leaders and parents may initially push back on this boundary. However, youth pastors who take the risk and make this change find an improvement in overall engagement and connection during their youth meetings.
2. Set the Example
Cultivating a culture of communication always starts with the adults in the room. Set the expectations high for youth leaders who serve in your church. Leaders should arrive early and have a few minutes of group prayer, refocusing hearts and minds on the opportunities at hand. As much as youth leaders enjoy being together, it is important that leaders are outward focused rather than caught up in their own conversations. Leaders need to set aside their cell phones for the evening and intentionally engage all students in the room. Good eye contact or a fist bump goes a long way in making a student feel known and appreciated.
3. Invest in Your Students’ Lives
Building trust with a student takes time and effort. You must know about their world – what interests them, where they go to school, and how they use their time. A culture of communication requires a depth of relationship that can bear the weight of greater conversations. If you want to delve into the deeper areas of life with your students, you must demonstrate a real interest in the seemingly little things. Those small details add up to the whole person who desperately needs to know you care.
The best way to grow in deeper communication is to invite your students to conversations outside of the youth room. Having a group over for dinner and a movie, going to their sporting events, or hosting a casual game night are all ways to break down barriers that will foster good conversations in other settings.
4. Listen and Ask Questions
Socratic discussion is a dying art that needs to be revived around dinner tables, in conference rooms, and in your small groups. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Socratic discussion is “a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.” Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.
This takes practice and intentionality. Have a few open-ended questions prepared based on the lesson or devotional reading of the week. It might even be helpful to practice with a few other leaders to grow in your ability to listen and respond in such a way to keep the conversation going. It is easy to ask a question, then (after a second of awkward silence) answer the question yourself and move on to the next question. This is content sharing, but it doesn’t take the conversation, or your students, any deeper.
5. Equip Your Students’ Families
The home is the ideal setting for meaningful communication to take place. The truth is, the conversation begins when a baby enters a home. It should continue, day after day, into adulthood. Unfortunately, many parents are ill-equipped to get their kids to talk to them. You can be a bridge from the church to the home by equipping parents with the tools they need to ask the right questions and guide their children into rich conversations. A home that is characterized by open communication typically sends out adults who are grounded and equipped for life.
Word of Life recommends AXIS as a great tool to help parents and caring adults know how to approach some of the more sensitive topics that youth face today. As you make strides to help your students grow in their communication skills, seek to avoid the following “conversation killers.”
- Interruption – Listen patiently without jumping in or talking over others.
- Reacting – Monitor your body language and facial expressions. Keep a calm, pleasant appearance while listening to others so as not to shut them down.
- Problem Solving – It is tempting to treat every conversation as a task or problem to be solved rather than a human to know and care for. Make sure you do not rush to step in with a solution and then move onto the next thing. This derails opportunities for more conversation.
Keeping these steps in mind, you can create a culture of communication that will enrich your youth ministry!
Filkins, Scott. “Strategy Guide: Socratic Seminars.” NCTE. https://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/socratic-seminars
“One Conversation Model.” Axis. https://axis.org/our-model/
Gretchen Gregory serves alongside her husband, Kevin, with Word of Life Youth Ministries in Pottersville, New York. She is passionate about helping women grow in their understanding of the Word and their walk with Jesus. Gretchen and Kevin have three grown children, one daughter-in-law, one son-in-law, and two sweet grandchildren. She enjoys long walks, good books, hot tea, and humorous friends.