One day in 1991 my youth minister, Troy, said,
“Hey grab your board, we’re gonna go set some junky ramps up in a random parking lot, invite skaters out, and tell them about Jesus.”
Since then I’ve been blessed to serve in many skateboarding and non-mainstream types of ministry. It’s exciting to see today’s progression of modern youth ministry as more people realize “ministry” can take on so many different forms for many types of students.
With that in mind, I’d like to speak into the work of discipling non-mainstream or “fringe” kids that you may struggle with connecting and/or communicating with as they tend to be wired a different way than you as a youth worker, your adult volunteers, or the bulk of your students. It’s often said in student ministry that we attract who we are but I think that assumption can be limiting. Our preferences and tastes should never be considered as influential as the Spirit who draws men unto Himself. Though skaters, who tend to be kind of rebellious in nature, may think and communicate differently than “mainstream” kids they all still want and need the same things during these years, they just find them in different places and process them in different ways.
Let’s categorize the basic needs of the teenager into three areas: IDENTITY, PURPOSE, and COMMUNITY.
IDENTITY (Who I Am)
Mainstream teenage culture has for decades been designed to place students within activities and cultures that develop and determine identity. Football player, band kid, cheerleader, etc. As a 5th grader I took on the identity of a skateboarder. For 8 years it influenced what I wore, how I spent my time, words I spoke, what my hair looked like, magazines I read, videos I watched, and of course my goals (PURPOSE) and who I hung out with (COMMUNITY).
Much has changed between then (late 80’s-early 90’s) and now but some things remain for those who are considered the fringe; namely, the constant awareness that they are in the minority in their schools and youth groups. This affects a couple of things:
- Fringe kids often seek deeper and fewer friendships than their mainstream counterparts. This can be a good thing as they may experience conflict resolution and be able to communicate effectively instead of simply avoiding people when things stop being friendly on the surface.
- They tend to form negative and sarcastic views of all things celebrated by the “mainstream”. As they feel rejected by the masses they begin to reject anything that has a hint of popularity and general accessibility. The fringe kid will stop liking a band when they get big. The problem here is they will write off people (and popular campus outreach organizations) as being “surface” and “hypocritical”.
Too often the non-mainstream kid can begin to define their identity by what they are not instead of by who they are.
PURPOSE (What I Do)
This area may be the most anemic for the rebel/skater as they often lack any real drive or conviction. When I was a sponsored rider I was motivated daily to work hard at it and progressed as a result but I remember many skaters who didn’t feel the same way. Since most kids who pick up a skateboard (or a guitar) don’t have much of an internal drive to be the best at what they do (ie, competitive spirit), they instead take comfort in the fact that they can do whatever they want or feel like doing from moment to moment. This is what makes the counter-culture so attractive: there are no rules or penalties to worry about. No one to impress and no one to disappoint.
To put it bluntly, in their eyes living with goal-centered intentionality just isn’t cool.
That is why your teaching over living purposefully will often fall on deaf ears. The fringe kid will often be creative and show promise in art or music but will struggle with practicing/putting in the effort to see things through. Creativity trumps productivity.
COMMUNITY (Who I Do Life With)
As underdeveloped as a fringe kid’s PURPOSE may be, his COMMUNITY will be of utmost importance. This is true of even the most individualized teenager you meet and that is part of the problem. As a part of human nature we are all drawn to those we would like to become. I learned quickly that to become a better skateboarder I needed to be around better skaters but that meant hanging out with older dudes who could care less about everything in the world (except smoking pot, they were seemingly passionate about that) because we all know the more we care the less cool we are.
So as my skateboarding ability increased the moral fiber of my life unraveled. Interestingly enough, some of the shadiest groups in our communities can also be the most accepting of loner students. We’ve probably all heard from kids that started hanging out with the “wrong crowd” simply because they were the only kids who would accept them. That’s no accident. Rejected kids are pretty good at accepting others.
When you realize that all teenagers are looking to fill the same internal containers of IDENTITY, PURPOSE, and COMMUNITY, you may see that the few fringe kids in your group just have a tougher time doing so, especially if they seem to have a chip on their shoulder and a rebellious attitude.
So how do we understand a fringe kid’s wiring and encourage them to submit all three to the Lord for Him to redeem?
I think it begins with pursuit and continues on with consistency balanced between acceptance and challenge.
There is no substitute for attention and involvement in teenagers’ lives. Ministering to fringe kids takes time and there are no guarantees you will see any change even in the 6-7 years you may get with them. I do recommend building trust with them by being consistent and confident around them. Part of accepting a kid for who they are is your willingness to be who you are in their midst. As they come to learn that you are comfortable in your skin they may feel the freedom to do likewise.
Once you build some equity in a relationship you can begin to speak truth into their lives based on what choices you see them making. Try to look beyond their behaviors and misguided efforts for attention and significance and be a calm and patient voice of wisdom in their lives. It’s never ok for them to be disruptive or disrespectful during your worship times or during the lesson so make your expectations known in a private conversation instead of calling them out in the group if possible. When it comes to your programming, knowing they are less excited about songs with hand motions may mean you can give their personalities some space but still be part of the group. A great way to get them invested in your ministry is to give them a job. Have them set up for an event or man the slide show.
Fringe kids have and probably always will present a real struggle for many youth workers in the areas of relating to and understanding but your leading and serving them will absolutely leave an impression on their hearts as God works to transform their lives.
Keep pursuing them.
Keep including them.
JOHN BARNARD is a veteran youth pastor of 20+ years. He heads up a mentor development outreach ministry called Middleman Skateboard Ministries (MIDDLEMANSKATEBOARDS.COM) and lives in TX with his beautiful wife Mandi, loud kids Dylin, Levi and Evie, and fat bulldog Oscar. He likes to turn a wrench while listening to Junior Brown and has never turned down a taco.