Not every youth leader is into youth culture. The fact that you do not like The Walking Dead, have no idea who Taylor Swift is, or have never even heard of The Hunger Games does not disqualify you for youth ministry.
It can, however, make it hard to engage in small talk with teens. Because what do you talk about with them? Here’s my advice.
If you’re new to the ministry and want to start building relationships with the teens, start with listening. Just hang out in their presence and listen to their conversations. What are they talking about? Make a mental note.
In the beginning, they may not trust you yet and may act differently around you. Give it time. If you’re consistent in your presence and your attention to them, they’ll open up and start being themselves more and more.
A second step is to respond to what they say to each other, without butting in too obviously. The goal is not to correct them, or dish out advice, but simply to affirm what they’re feeling.
Here’s an example: one of the middle schoolers I work with at an after school program was really upset because she’d broken up with a guy and now he was trashing her at school. I just listened to her as she shared this with a friend and then expressed my compassion for her.
3. Ask Questions
This is where it can get tricky. If you start asking too many questions, you’ll come across as either nosy or like an interrogative parent. Neither one will score you points or get you anywhere.
Still, asking the right questions at the right time is an awesome way to make small talk without having to talk about youth culture. The best questions are simply open follow-up questions about whatever teens are talking about.
For example, a few weeks ago some guys were talking about a baseball game they had played where a player from the opposing team had become violent. To get them talking, all I needed to ask was “What happened?” and ask some follow up questions and give encouraging verbal and non-verbal feedback. If you do this consistently with the right attitude, teens will sense you’re really interested in them and they’ll start responding. Before you know it, they’ll be walking up to you to share stories of their experiences!
4. Ask Teens to Explain their Passions
Another way is to ask teens why they are passionate about something, what they love about it. This does require some degree of trust though—and the right tone. But I’ve had fascinating conversations with teens about their favorite games (a topic I know little about), about drama club (again, no experience), crew and lacrosse (not my sports), you name it.
Getting Boys to Talk
Let’s be honest here though: getting girls to talk isn’t that hard, especially if you’re female yourself. Getting boys to open up however, that’s the tough part. It’s not you though. Many boys simply don’t like to talk, especially not about personal stuff.
Rosalind Wiseman describes this well in her book Masterminds and Wingmen, as she portrays the struggle many parents have with the monosyllabic answers to “How was school today?” In her book, she shares many practical suggestions for getting boys to talk. Making them feel like you respect them and like they can be themselves is a biggie for instance. I recommend reading it if you’re working with boys!
It’s completely possible to make small talk with teens, even if you know nothing about youth culture. That being said, I do think many youth leaders could profit from at least knowing some cultural highlights. It’s not so much about being able to talk with them about this stuff, as it is about understanding them and the culture they live in better.
(P.S. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check our my book Beyond Small Talk, which is all about this issue!)
Any advice you’d like to add?