Ministry happens at school cafeterias and if you are going to stay in youth ministry for the long haul you need to learn how to go to a school cafeteria. While office hours are a necessary evil I think that a youth minister needs to meet the students on there own turf. It’s great to go to their ball games but where you really interact with them is at the cafeteria. They can’t hide behind a helmet, a uniform or bleachers and it is where you get to meet them and their friends. Is it awkward? You better believe it. Students can be relentless with their criticism and I am not free from getting made fun of as people laugh at me and make fun of me. I still do it after almost 8 years of ministry. Some kids run up to me and give me big hugs telling their friends who I am. I have some students who look the other way as soon as I make eye contact. I even went to eat lunch with a student before and they told me that all of the seats were taken at their table but I “could find someone else to eat with at another table.” Teenagers are relentless sometimes.
Yesterday I went to eat with a middle-school student and as I sat at the table the conversations were hilarious. This one girl took a ketchup cup and passed it around saying, “Wold you like some communion?” I started laughing but then I asked, “So do you take communion at your church?” I was able to have a conversation with her about church. At the same table another girl asked me, “So why are you eating lunch with ________?” I told her, “Because I am their youth minister and I want to.” She quickly responded, “But you’re a grown man. You shouldn’t be eating lunch with middle schoolers!” I started laughing and we had a good conversation as well.
So how do you make the most out of eating lunch with you students? I have a few ideas for you to make it awesome!
- Consider bringing them food from the outside. Some schools won’t allow it so check beforehand but nothing brightens up the day of a teenager like pizza or ice cream. Also consider surprising the teachers with something like a milkshake or something else. It will make their day.
- Get to know everyone at the table. Again, it’s awkward but what’s more awkward is you sitting there without saying a single word to anybody but the student you came to eat lunch with. Which reminds me…
- Prepare what you want to talk about beforehand. Weird? I know but in my experience most teenagers are too shy to talk to the old guy sitting with them so initiate conversation.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. I get asked, “Are you their dad?” at least 4 times a year. It never gets easy. So I just laugh.
- It’s not a time to have theological arm-wrestling competitions. Some teens are just ready to fight proving how Christianity is horrible or how your church is weird because they do this or that. Offer to talk later but simply say, “Can we talk about something else?” Most of the time they just want to embarrass you and prove that you are an egotistical know-it-all…let’s not prove them right
- Don’t talk/act like you are a high-schooler. This is a pet peeve of mine as youth ministers should be more mature than a high-schooler. Students don’t want to hear you add “izzle” at the end of every word nor do they care that you say “epic fail” or other teenager terms. Act your age and show a little maturity.
- Prepare for God to show up. Or maybe I should say, look for God who is already there. I have learned so many things about teenagers, God and myself just sitting down to eat lunch with a student.
I hope these help and please go and spend some time with a student.