Do you ever feel tongue-tied around young people, completely unable to relate to the teenagers and college students of today? Do you shake your head in despair, shocked by the disrespect and blatant rebellion of so-called Generation Y?
Indeed, popular culture today depicts a troubled relationship between the older and younger members of society. Grandparents often view children as wild and undisciplined while young people see their elders as out of touch and irrelevant. If you have tasted even a little of this intergenerational conflict, take heart, because you can build healthy, mentoring relationships with young people. In fact, teenagers and college kids need you in their lives. But in order to establish good relationships with young people, there are some points to keep in mind.
Many stereotypes of teenagers today are grounded in some truth. Contemporary culture indeed breeds disrespect — of history, authority, ideals, the weak, property and others. In addition, many children do tend to be lazy, hedonistic and extremely self-focused, saturated with a "Here we are now, entertain us" mentality.
But young people today are also tremendously honest. They are open about their doubts, sins, passions and dreams. They are also confused, vulnerable and searching desperately for meaning. Having been raised in a society that questions the existence of truth, surrounded by different belief systems competing for their loyalty, kids crave honest guidance, untainted by self-interest and ulterior motives.
Growing up in a cynical culture that assigns human worth based upon physical beauty and rare talent, young people are taught directly and indirectly that they are only valuable if they look a certain way and cultivate friendships with the "right" kind of people. As a result, they tend to be lonely, suspicious, scared and hurting inside.
When dealing with young people, it is essential that you demonstrate unconditional love. Teens today anticipate that their elders will condemn and criticize them — the music they listen to, the clothes and hairstyles they wear — without making an effort to understand.
So many of my peers long for a closer relationship with their parents and grandparents, yet often feel unloved and misunderstood.
If you want to form friendships with today's young people, you may have to take the initiative in demonstrating concern, respect and an interest in them and their passions. Take them seriously and try to understand their perspectives before passing judgment on them. This is not to say you should never offer advice, confront them with sin in their lives or share lessons from your own experience. In fact, most young people crave direction, to guide them in the fragmented pluralism of our society. But the cliché, "People don't care how much you know, unless they know how much you care" has never been more true than when applied to this generation. Unless young people feel confident that your advice is intended for their best interests, they will be skeptical, fearing manipulation.
Once you've laid a foundation of love and respect, it is also important to share the life lessons you have learned. In Titus 2, Paul instructs the older women to teach the younger. This principle of mentoring is demonstrated again in Acts 18, when Aquila and Priscilla take Apollos under their wing and lovingly instruct him in God's truth.
Having a long history of walking with Christ and having experienced firsthand the bitter betrayal of worldly wisdom, you are well-equipped to share what you have learned to help young people make wise choices. Whether imparting moral truths and practical life skills or simply reminiscing about your own journey, sharing from your heart can help to mold and direct young people in truly significant ways.
Unless young people feel confident that your advice is intended for their best interests, they will be skeptical, fearing manipulation.
Many of you may still be wondering how to personalize those principles, and may be grappling with practical ways to reach out to modern youth. Allow me to share some steps you can take to form mentoring relationships with the teens and college students within your sphere of influence.
The first step in developing such relationships is, obviously, finding some young people to interact with. You can build relationships with your own grandchildren, kids in the neighborhood, youth group members or college students visiting your church. Don't be afraid to initiate the conversation. It may be a little awkward at first, but I promise you, most young people will appreciate your effort.
Ask the highschooler in the pew behind you about her school experiences, hobbies, friends and dreams. Ask the college student on Christmas break about his classes, extra-curricular activities or the issues he's facing at school. As you demonstrate concern and consistent enthusiasm, most young people will respond with warmth and gratitude. Remember: a critical key to communication is the art of listening. Act genuinely interested in what a young person has to say — in other words, resist the temptation to lecture!
As you develop relationships with young people, invite them into your life. Take a teen out for ice cream or to a baseball game. Invite a college student over for Sunday afternoon lunch. Teach a young girl to garden or bake homemade bread. Show a young boy how to fix cars or work with carpentry. Invite the church youth group to your home for an outdoor barbecue. Teach a Sunday school class or chaperone a field trip. The opportunities are as varied as your own imagination.
Once you have formed close mentoring relationships with some young people, allow them to give back to you. Ask a young person to help you paint a fence, rake leaves or shovel snow. If you've been wanting to learn more about computers, solicit a teen-age computer whiz to teach you the basics of negotiating the Internet. Don't be afraid to learn from young people; rather, look for their strengths and wisdom and affirm them in their abilities.
Make discipleship, whether formal or informal, a pillar in your relationships with youth. Lead a Bible study for young believers; share informally about God's work in your life; and pray for those you're mentoring, because teens today face a host of temptations.
Model a ministry-minded attitude and a Christ-like spirit. And most important, don't underestimate young people. Be open to their opinions on moral and theological issues.
You might be surprised to learn something new!
Finally, be transparent about your own dreams, hopes, doubts and desires; in short, be yourself. By being vulnerable about your own struggles, you can refute the stereotype that all older people are closed-minded and judgmental.
Ministering to a different generation presents a unique set of challenges, but the rewards are worth the effort. Find some young people in need of unconditional acceptance and teach them what it means to follow Christ. Your mentoring may make the difference in whether a young person chooses the path of selfishness and self-interest — or one that reflects the integrity and character of Christ. As you demonstrate concern and consistent enthusiasm, most young people will respond with warmth and gratitude.