In Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, an astronomer devotes her life to making contact with intelligent beings beyond our solar system. The means by which she is drawn into that contact makes for thrilling science fiction. I like Sagan’s writing (he was an excellent author and a brilliant scientist), but what I wish he had learned before his death in 1996 is that we don’t have to go looking for intelligent life in outer space—it’s already made contact with us.
As the apostle John wrote in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14a). God became human in order to be with us, to make himself known to us, to be our sin offering and to share his life with us both on earth and out there beyond known space and time. After his death and resurrection, the glorified Word, Jesus, returned to heaven. But before he left, he promised to send another Counselor, the Holy Spirit (John 14:16); and he gave his followers the commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Participating actively in this mission is our calling. And when it comes to disciplemaking, we can have no impact without contact. In all ministries, including our ministries to children, teens and young adults, it’s essential that we teach and model contact with nonbelievers.
Howard Hendricks, Christian author and educator, says it this way: “You can impress people at a distance [but] you can only impact them up close. The general principle is this: the closer the personal relationship, the greater the potential for impact” (Leadership, Summer 1980).
Contact involves two related principles: getting on their turf and making it relational.
Getting on their turf
First, we must connect with others on their turf. Jesus is the ultimate example. Talk about changing turf! Getting on our students’ turf means going where they are. Jesus has commissioned us to fish for people, and we can’t expect the fish to swim to us—we have to go after them.
If we want to impact teens, we can’t limit our contact with them to short times at church. We have to get on their turf—visit them at home or be there at a concert where they are performing, or accompany them to a sporting event they enjoy. We’ve got to contact them outside the church setting.
If we want to impact children, we can’t expect all contact with them to be in adult-oriented activities—we have to get on their level; be with them in activities they enjoy.
I was reminded of this when my wife and I visited Disney World in Florida. About 20 years before this trip, we had visited there with our (then) young daughter and son in tow. But now we were empty nested, and wishing we had a child to share the experience with. It felt weird riding with Donna through “It’s a Small World” with no children beside us! But more than feeling weird, it felt incomplete.
Children love it when an adult does kid stuff with them. That’s why we play fun games in Sunday school with young children—to get on their turf and bring Jesus and his gospel with us.
Making it relational
The second important principle is that contact, on their turf, must be relational. As teachers and parents, contact with our students and children is often about sharing information. That’s necessary, but the contact that has the greatest impact emphasizes the building of a relationship.
Have you noticed how Jesus affected his disciples? He built a relationship with each one by being with them in all sorts of situations, formal and casual. In John 3:22 we’re given an example: he took his disciples into the Judean countryside where (as it says in the old King James) he “tarried with them.” Tarried is from the Greek word diatribo, which in some contexts means to “rub.” Through relational contact, Jesus was “rubbing off on” his followers, and they were becoming like him.
We follow Jesus’ model of relating as we develop friendships with our students and children—showing personal interest in them, developing a lasting relationship. And that makes a lasting impact.
I’ll never forget when I went to my father’s funeral in Indiana many years ago. A young woman from the church he attended pulled me aside to tell me about the positive effect my dad had on her when she was young. She told me that he had sent her several letters to point out the talents he saw emerging in her life. Not only was she encouraged by this affirmation, she was helped to find her life’s calling. Such is the lasting effect of relational contact.
To be relational in our work as youth ministers and parents, we have to work on developing sensitivity toward our students’ and children’s developing identities. We need to relate to them in ways that are sensitive to their emotional, mental, physical and spiritual makeup—and that means accepting them as they are—with all their immaturities and other imperfections. We must strive to accept them as God’s creation and love them accordingly. They will sense this love and be much more responsive to the information we have to share with them.
I’ll close with one last bit of advice. Contact that impacts does not happen by accident. How about being sure that every child and teen in your congregation is greeted by name by an adult every week?
But don’t stop with what you do at church. What if as a team of youth ministry leaders, workers and parents, you plan to make frequent, personal contact with every youth in your congregation outside of the church service? You could assign certain ones to phone a list of youths every week. Or write them a letter once a month. Or visit them at a school activity once or twice a year. How about a plan to send each one a birthday card?
Let’s not just talk about it—let’s do it, and then keep on doing it. Your sustained, loving contact will make a lasting effect. Through that contact, you’ll rub off on them—and if you’ve got Jesus living in you, he’ll rub off on them, too. Go get ’em! (And have fun.)