Getting Them to Talk: Engaging Your Students with the Creativity of Christ
Toward the end of our lunch, Sarah* paused for a moment, looking down at her last taco. With a hint of sass in her voice she asked, “So are you going to ask me a ‘Liz question,’ or what?”
I stifled a little laugh and paused to ask Jesus for some wisdom. I was pretty excited at Sarah’s invitation to draw near, but I played it cool, knowing that enthusiasm could cause her to shut down in a heartbeat.
“I’ve loved hearing about rowing and the fun things going on in your life. Have you been wrestling with anything lately?”
When I think about connecting with students, I think about the incarnation. God limited himself in the form of a man; he put on flesh, and experienced all the pains and glories of being human (except sin, of course). He entered into time and space to bridge the gap between man and God. He intentionally shaped his words and actions for the sake of the other, in order to love well.
Jesus had a unique way of inviting connection. In Scripture, we don’t see him demand that others meet him on his own terms. Instead, we see him encounter different folks in different ways. It certainly isn’t cookie-cutter. He engages the Samaritan woman at the well with a practical request: “Give me a drink” (John 4:7). He gives Zacchaeus a command: “Hurry and come down,” and invites himself over to his house (Luke 19:5). He does a whole lot of walking with his disciples while traveling around (which likely involved some talking and some silence). And he is intentionally indirect with the woman caught in adultery; he stoops down, taking the attention of the crowd off of her and instead confronting them with their own sin. Having let the weight of her accuser’s sin and hypocrisy sink in, he invites her to reconsider the situation in light of a True narrative, instead of the one being told. And then he speaks absolving, grace-filled words over her.
Love Incarnate follows the Spirit’s lead in every scenario, refusing to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to relational engagement. And as we sit face-to-face with our students, it is helpful to remember Jesus’ flexible, others-centered posture. His death on the cross is most certainly a once-for-all act; but his life was lived with a creative love that honored the differences of the image bearers he encountered.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a playbook for relationships with our students – something that told us exactly what to say and when to say it? It might be nice, but it would also invite us to put our trust in the playbook and not in the living, active, dynamic Holy Spirit. It would dehumanize us, turning us into manipulators. And it would dehumanize our students, turning them into projects.
Loving our students through Christ is a much messier, grander adventure than running a set play with a clear win at the end. Love isn’t a task we complete and relationships aren’t merely tools we use. Living in light of Matthew 22:37-39 (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbor as yourself”) is not only inconvenient, but often times seemingly-unproductive, as well. When we are tempted to make our one-on-one conversations with students a tick mark for successful ministry, we remember that Jesus’ life of love looked nothing like the victorious triumph the Hosanna-shouters were expecting as they hailed him toward Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9). It looked like a cross.
I can honestly say that this is how the first hour of conversation with Sarah felt for me. I am somewhat known for my love of deep questions and meaty ponderings. But this posture isn’t what is most needed in every single encounter with students. Love can look a myriad of ways, and giving up my own inclinations for the sake of meeting a student where they are can be a very good practice of trusting Jesus. It is a small death to myself on behalf of someone else. And as her question toward the end punctuated: you never know how the Lord will show up!
Levels of Depth in Conversation with Students
When it comes to one-on-one conversation with our students, some of us are snorkelers who delight in weaving our way through the coral near the surface. We see the brightly colored rainbow fish and the spunky seahorses that live in that habitat. And some of us are scuba divers, who finally feel like we can breathe when we can talk about the beauty of the angler fish and the mysteries of the ocean floor. There is incredible value to both of these inclinations, and both need one another. It is important to know our default so that we are aware of what we (often unconsciously) look for in connecting with others. We want to prayerfully discern which end of the ocean our students default to so that we can lovingly swim to where they are.
Keeping that in mind, it is also worth mentioning that building trust takes time, and it is wise to build trust with a student on the surface of the water before swimming into the depths with them. This models healthy relationship-building for them, which is something much-needed in an era of so much disconnected digital engagement. Trust-building can be likened to the controlled descent of scuba divers (which allows them to progress safely). (As an aside, Brené Brown is fabulous on trust-building here.)
I will confess that one of my earlier failures in youth ministry was a failure to recognize the importance of snorkeling banter. Chatting about the externals (where you’re coming from, where you’re going, the things outside of and around you such as interests, sports, crushes, etc.) is an important part of the journey in connecting, and some students need more time in that water level than others. Vulnerability is not the measure of success in relationships with students. The finished work of Jesus on the cross is the only measure we look to. Loving our students, through Christ, is our aim.
External – Internal – Eternal
Swimming metaphors aside, it can be helpful to think of healthy conversation as having a direction (although, like the stages of grief, conversation is rarely-if-ever uni-directional). After we’ve spent some time warming up with the externals (think of questions engaging proximal and recent things: “How’s your soccer team doing?” “What’s the next step in college applications?” “How did the [enter their favorite sports team] do last night?”), we move to the internals. These are topics related more to the heart and mind: “How are you doing with the breakup?” “What’s it like to be waiting on your college acceptance?” “What’s something you’re dreading?” These are heart-level questions, and they allow for a more intimate type of connection. (Not romantically-intimate, just to clarify; we are helping students to learn healthy emotional intimacy in being their brothers and sisters in Christ.)
Often, externally-oriented conversation will flow from internally-focused questions. Desires, longings, suffering, and wrestling over identity, purpose, and worth questions frequently yield avenues of connection for the Bigger Story (God’s rescuing of His people from creation to new creation). This is where we might ask about how their conversations with God are looking these days, or sit in some of their existential wonderings with them. This is where we might offer Scripture, spiritual reflections, or stories of our own about the Lord’s work in our life.
Although there are many ways to connect with students, conversations truly can be one of the richest. When we come to our students with a curious, empathetic, listening posture, we invite them to be known and loved in the way we’ve been known and loved by the Father. Questions are incredibly valuable for facilitating this, so it can be helpful to have a couple of categories in your toolbelt. Open-ended questions are those questions that do not end in yes or no answers. They are the “who, what, why, when, where, how” questions that open up avenues for dialogue rather that closing them down. It can be incredibly helpful to ask these questions one at a time (single-barreled) in order to allow for the student to focus on just one thing. Most of us become flooded when we are asked more than one question at a time, as we then have to put energy toward discerning multiple things.
Some of my favorite questions to ask are: “What’s something you’re looking forward to?” “What’s something you’re anxious about?” and “How’s it going with Jesus these days?” It can be really neat to let your student teach you what it’s like to be them; so another way to engage might be with, “Tell me what it’s like to… (be in your family right now/be a girlfriend right now/be a sophomore at your high school/etc.).” I honestly don’t go into conversations with students with these specific questions on my mind, but with practice and prayer they have found their way into my toolbelt over time. Each student evokes something different in me, just as I imagine the folks Jesus encountered evoked something different in him. I am often surprised and fascinated by the questions that the Holy Spirit brings to the forefront of my mind as I learn what life looks like for the student in front of me.
My deepest hope is that we grow in reliance upon the Lord as we engage with our students, looking to him moment-to-moment to guide us and reveal himself to us. He is the third person in any conversation we have with our students, and he is ever eager for us to turn to him. He is faithful to use those of us who struggle to float with the coral fish, and he is faithful to use those of us who struggle to descend to the depths. Thankfully, we’re invited to show up with our meager sardines and crackers and see him make a feast.
*Student’s name has been changed.