Recently, I took my youth group on a hike at a beautiful state park about an hour away from our church. We got out of the city, into the gorgeous fall colors of Minnesota’s woodlands, and out into nature. And, while we were on the trail, I noticed something.
These kids literally never stopped talking.
And, it wasn’t a happy chatter of banter between long-lost friends. Their sentences always began with “I” statements: something they believed in, something they were interested in, some story that set them apart from their peers. They weren’t having conversations with each other. They were talking at others about their own little universes that needed no interaction from the outside world.
Kids do this: they love to talk, and in 6th & 7th grade, they need you to like them. They need you to know who they are, so that they can define who they are. This is a huge part of their development, and it isn’t wrong. At this age, they’re not narcissistic—they’re trying to figure out who they are, and they want you to help them. They need you to listen, deeply, and that is a call from God that youth ministers have: listening to our kids, and bringing out their gifts in community.
However, it is also our job to shepherd them towards full participation in community, and that means learning to listen to each other.
We all know that one adult who can’t carry a conversation. They’re never actually listening to you, they’re just waiting for their turn to speak. If you ask them a question, they won’t answer it—and they won’t ever ask you a question. And while it might be annoying to those of us on the outside, it’s also painful and lonely and miserable on the inside for this person.
Our culture is a culture full of noise. Especially during election season, we’ve seen this style of communication exacerbated to almost catastrophic levels. While we watch Donald Trump interrupt his way through debates, we may be tempted to think that he is a problem in and of himself, but I’d venture to say that he is just a symptom of several, much bigger diseases.
And one of those things, present everywhere, is that we aren’t learning to listen to each other. We aren’t learning the value of it, and we aren’t learning how to do it.
This year at PYM, we’re talking about metanoia—turning, repentance toward a better, more full life. When we turn away from the self, and toward our neighbor, we are turning towards a stronger, more full life in God’s promise.
There is an ancient Bible study practice, similar to Lectio Divina, called “Dwelling in the Word”, that can be adapted for almost any confirmation or youth group lesson. In this practice, the group splits into partnerships. You read a passage together, and discuss what you hear, and where the passage is calling you, and then you return to the wider group. However, when you return to the wider group, you don’t report back on what you thought, you report back on what your partner thought.
Working these types of exercises into our regular work with youth teaches them an important skill: turning away from the self, and focusing on the other. And, when their partner turns outward, they feel the value of another person truly listening to them. They simultaneously learn how to listen, and how good it feels when others listen to them. This reinforces to them that they are valued, while also helping them understand that they must play a role in valuing others. Hopefully, that leads to a quiet revolution in their souls, over years and perhaps decades, that can deepen their ability to truly love their neighbors and love their own self.
(Repentance and redemption are themes of the 2017 Progressive Youth Ministry Conference. Check it out and get tickets here.)