There is one day in first grade that sticks out among the rest. Actually, one moment in one day. It was during our music lesson, we were learning about musical instruments. Nothing too intense—kazoos and tambourines mostly. As far as music theory goes, it was pretty foundational.
We were paired off, and I was paired with the girl in class nobody really liked. She was considered “slower” (first graders are not politically correct), and she was annoyingly loud.
For the sake of this story, I will change her name. She had a pretty unconventional name that I have no idea how to spell, so I have never been able to Facebook creep on her to see how her life has turned out. Let’s call her Topanga, because let’s be real: we could all use more Boy Meets World references in our lives.
I must have gathered all the composure and maturity a six-year-old can muster, because I remember looking her in the eye. I told her the game plan: we will be quiet, learn, and master these finger symbols.
So that’s exactly what we did.
We listened, learned about new musical instruments, and worked together.
We did not become instant best friends, but I learned that we can learn to cooperate with people who are different than we are. I did not include any thoughts of God when I included or excluded people, but I simply extended a hand to Topanga. I am not trying to over-spiritualize this experience, but I think that is maybe what the Kingdom of God could look like to a six-year-old.
I say this not to point how great of person I am. It is to point out there is potential in each person.
This has shaped how I know and understand youth ministry.
I have a classmate who always points out how hyper (he sometimes uses the term “crazy”) the students in his youth ministry are. I have never met his students, so it’s probably incredibly true that his students have a lot of energy. However, to simply label them hyper or crazy limits the potential you see in them. One could think that you need to calm someone hyper down, but what would happen if we instead tried to find ways to cultivate their potential?
Harness the hyper, if you will. (Can that be a new youth ministry slogan?)
By seeing the potential instead of seeing the problems, we are re-empowering the learners. We recognize that they have something valuable to offer.
I’ll admit it: I have a lot of room for growth as a youth pastor and Christian educator. However, it continues to be my goal to empower those involved in the youth ministry. In the midst of their random stories, I see leadership potential.
According to Strengths Finders, my top strength is “restorative.” This might be part of the reason I resist throwing away the empty glass jars of salsa from Trader Joe’s. I look at glass jars and see potential. Restorative goes a little deeper. It means I like to solve problems. I do not necessarily think there is a problem with Christian education in the church, but I am not ruling out there is potential for improvement.
As I look for ways to improve, I want to emphasize that learning is about partnership and working together. Ultimately, empowering students stems from the realization that teachers and students have a lot to learn from each other.
Parker Palmer in his book, The Courage To Teach writes:
“I now understand what Nelle Morton meant when she said that one of the great tasks in our time is to ‘hear people to speech.’ Behind their fearful silence, our students want to find their voices, speak their voices, have their voices heard. A good teacher is one who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken—so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence.”
If you walk into the youth group room, you will notice that the chairs are set up in a circle. Do you think it’s because circles are my favorite shape in all of the geometry world? Nope. We sit in circles because it implicitly communicates that we see each other as co-learners, sharing meaning, creativity, and a common center. Since the youth group is on the small size, it is natural that our focus is often on dialogue–on exploring and learning together. That is not to say I don’t have a purpose for each lesson and activity. It is all very intentional.
Now, listen. Please do not hear me say that I looked at Topanga and told her, “You are so not living up to your full potential.” I am not saying that she was not good enough as she was in the exact moment. She was enough. To have implied that she was not good enough would have been disempowering.
An Bourmanne, in an article at Tiny Buddha, writes:
“Living up to our full potential is not trying to avoid making mistakes. It’s giving it our all, wholeheartedly, with all we’ve got.”
To that I simply say, Amen.