There’s nothing like living through a pandemic to get you thinking about what really matters. The past 12 months, for many people, has been filled with doing most things either socially-distanced or online.
Hanging out with friends
The list goes on . . .
But, I’m pretty confident in believing that I’m not the only one who is completely over it! I’m tired of looking at people through a computer screen and giving air hugs. Despite being an introvert who loves her alone time, this introvert is craving community in a deep kind of way.
Maybe it’s just the fact that I can’t experience community in the way my heart desires that’s made me want it so badly. Or, maybe it’s that I’ve just only truly realized the power and purpose of community.
The Things We Should Have Been Doing All Along
This all reminds me of the Ubuntu African philosophy that many of us have heard translated in English to be:
“I am because we are.”
The philosophy teaches the oneness of humanity and how we’re most human when we’re connected or sharing ourselves with others. It’s strikingly similar to the relational ministry of Jesus that was embedded in love.
As I reflect on the many lessons of this COVID journey, I can’t help but admire how churches all over the world got creative in trying to figure out how to do just this. It’s as if churches became way more intentional about doing things that we probably should have been doing all along. Yet this pause/upset/interruption—whatever you want to call it—gave us new eyes to see just how important it is for us to be there for one another metaphorically, when we can’t be there for one another physically.
As attendance numbers for many youth ministries took a nosedive in our early COVID days, youth leaders suddenly realized that focusing on attendance numbers was more of a bicep flex than a true measure of impact, influence, and success. To truly be the church will require leaders to look at their roster of students differently. Instead of seeing a list of student names with an “A” for “absent” or a “P” for “present” during our main programming time, we should try viewing it as a list of engagement opportunities.
Yes, it’s important for students to show up for our weekly programming. But it’s more important for the church to show up for them—wherever they are.
Measure What Matters Most
Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely helpful to keep track of your program attendance—it’s just not helpful in the ways we’ve historically viewed attendance and does not indicate ministry success. Yet because measuring spiritual growth and Small Group Leader connectivity is way more complicated than measuring attendance, we’ve fallen down the slippery slope of equating attendance with success.
Instead, we should be equating Small Group Leader and student engagement with success.
The more they engage, the greater the opportunities of developing a relationship.
The greater the opportunities of developing a relationship, the greater the opportunity of influence.
The greater the opportunity of influence, the greater the opportunity of discipleship.
So what does engagement look like?
- Phone calls just to say hey.
- Driving by their home to deliver a treat.
- Encouraging notes in the mail.
- Safe walks in the park.
- Playing video games online.
- Remembering something about them.
- Checking in on them the morning of that big test.
. . . It’s essentially learning who the students are and permitting their world to intersect with yours.
Influence Is Earned by Intentional Engagement
Building a small group culture that celebrates engagement in a new way takes work. But if a Small Group Leader only connects with students when they show up for church, it can easily feel like a tone-deaf, one-sided, clueless relationship. I know that might sound harsh. But just because an adult is a Small Group Leader with the church doesn’t mean they have an all-access-pass into a student’s life. These things are earned through intentional engagement.
With so many unknowns floating around these days, we have no way of knowing how it might be impacting a student’s life. We don’t always know the energy that it requires for our students to simply show up these days—either virtually or in person. We don’t always know the questions of theodicy running around in the minds of our students. But we can only get closer to knowing if we engage them.
If ministry growth is what we’re after, then we should begin tracking our student engagement. Truth is, things that are healthy will typically grow. If genuine personal engagement is there, the attendance will soon follow. I’m pretty sure of it. Don’t you want to be places that not only encourage, but also equip you to grow and make you feel like you truly have a place there?
If there’s one thing I hope we all take with us from our experience ministering amid a pandemic, it’s just how important both metaphorical and physical presence really are.
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