Things I Wish I Had Known Part 1: Be Their Friend, Not Their Buddy

Like most of you, I never went through a Student Ministry training course. I had been on the Youth Team for a while, but when a Youth Pastor was needed, I was thrown in the deep end and asked to swim. I had no idea what I was doing, in large part. As I look back over my time in Student Ministry, I discover that there are certain principles I understand now, that, if I knew them then, it would have saved me a great deal of frustration and even embarrassment. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to share a few of those principles. Today’s principle: Be their friend, but not their buddy.

I’ve spent some time flying this past weekend. Flying can be one of the most socially-awkward settings. Neither you nor the person in the seat next to you wants to talk, but you feel almost obligated in those brief moments between when electronic devices are turned “off” and when they’re turned back “on.” In those moments of small talk, at some point someone asks, “So…where you from?” My answer: the back of a minivan.

I grew up in a military family. It was a very transient lifestyle. I attended 3 different elementary schools, for example. This is not a recipe for social acceptance. When we finally settled in Jacksonville, I discovered very quickly I was a little behind the rest of the students in church. Being in Junior High, it didn’t take long for me to receive the “loser” stamp.

I learned to live with it. I did eventually develop my own little circle of nerd friends When I became a Youth Pastor, though, I felt that same need to seek acceptance that I found in High School. After all, my youth leaders were cool! If I wanted to be effective, I thought, I had to become something I had never been in my life; I had to be the coolest guy in the room.

I started to talk like them. I started to act like them. I would invite guys to hang out at my house. Instead of using those moments to get to know them on a deeper level and help shape their worldview (while having some fun, too), we spent the whole time eating Cheetos, playing video games, and dreaming up stupid pranks.

To some degree…it worked. Although I seriously doubt they ever really thought I was cool, they interacted with me like I was one of their peers. “Awesome,” I thought. “I’m really making my way into their lives.”

Then it came time for me to correct them, or admonish them, or try to steer their lives in the right direction. It didn’t go so well.

I distinctly remember playing football with the guys one day. One of the boys made a gesture that wasn’t appropriate. When I asked him not to do it again, he fired back, “Dude, chill out; it’s no big deal.” A verbal argument ensued. Any time you get into an argument with your students, you’ve already lost…and this was no different.

What I learned was they saw me as a peer, but did not respect me as someone in leadership over them.

You may say, “duh,” but in practice it’s a fine line. The truth is, if we are going to reach our students, it will largely be done outside of the pulpit. That means playing video games with them, going shopping with them, playing football with them…all of that is real-world, grassroots Student Ministry. We have to be their friend! However, there is a difference between being their friend and being their buddy. Here are some principles I learned along the way:

A buddy is just another fun person in your circle; a friend a voice in your life. Sure, fun is part of friendship, but we should be developing something much deeper with our students. What makes them tick? What are their greatest ambitions? Their deepest fears? What is their relationship like with their parents? With the church? As they begin to see your love and interest in their lives, they’ll begin to open up to you about the things with which they are struggling. This provides you an awesome opportunity to shape their worldview.

 A buddy ignores your faults; a friend helps you overcome your faults. We can’t ignore the things in our students’ lives that we know are going to lead them down the wrong path. If we are not careful, we will only deal with the big stuff. However, it’s the “little foxes that spoil the vine.” We must be diligent to use those small moments of indiscretion to mentor and train our students toward a proper worldview. By teaching them to overcome the little things, we build in them principles that will help them overcome the big things. The next one is closely related, but…

A buddy constantly seeks affirmation; a friend is secure in your relationship. If we are not careful, our entire self-worth can become predicated on whether or not our students like us. When that happens, the control of the relationship shifts from us to the students. At that point, we begin to make decisions not based on what we feel is best for the students, but rather based upon how we think our students will view us. This is a dangerous path. We have to be comfortable in our own skin. The fact is, sometimes the right decision is not the popular decision. Although our students may be temporarily annoyed with us, if we have demonstrated our love for them, they will accept in time that the decision was made with their best interest in heart.

As I realigned my focus, it took the students time to adjust. It was a tremendous relief to start being myself again. I think they liked me better as their Youth Pastor than their buddy.

So did my students think I was cool? Certainly not. But I learned something along the way. They don’t care if you’re cool; they just care if you care.

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