Over the past 5 years I have journeyed through the frustrating, confusing, and humbling experience of trying to figure out how to communicate and bridge the gap between myself and the culture of our students. I thought cross-culture leadership was supposed to be easier than it turned out to be. There were so many times when I felt lost, unqualified, and defeated when a room of high school students lost total and complete interest in what I was teaching, saying, or announcing.
It was through those numerous failures (and I mean NUMEROUS) that I started to make progress in leading and communicating to the cross-cultural context of Student Ministries. Rather than letting my cultural values/ideas/norms be more important than God’s Kingdom vision for these students, I started to live by a new student cultural rubric: seek to understand first, be flexible, and embrace failure and embarrassment as learning opportunities.
I needed to attend the hard-knocks cross-cultural school of ministry to bridge the gap that stood between myself and these students. Through some rocky training, a lot of listening, and hours of observing, I have come to learn that our student’s culture consists of so many layers. Each day, they are defining their cultural values, foundations, customs, dimensions (identity, hierarchy, gender, truth, virtue), language, aspirations, and behaviors. It is like a big stinky teenage onion!
So, how does one even begin to start pealing back these layers and start to understand this culture? Well, this is (for the lack of a better definition) the intimate and spastic reflections on cross-cultural leadership from a Student Ministries Pastor, who after 5 years is eagerly willing and able to engage with our student’s culture on their own turf. Phew. That was a mouthful. Was that a run-on?
Starting off in ministry, 5 years ago, as brand new fresh meat allowed me (or more forced me) to listen in order to gain the insight and guidance to learn how to do Junior High Ministry. Junior High students love to tell you everything about their life…so let them. Put the cell phone/iPad/tablet/laptop/space gadget/silly string down and authentically listen. You’ll be blown away by what comes out when you are actually listening, intentionally.
2. Be Slow to Speak.
Hanging out with students and talking like you know everything completely shuts down the lines of effective communication and completely turns off the attention and ability to captivate. So, listen and THEN slowly start to speak into their lives. Acknowledge the cultural competence and discernment of knowing what to say and how, when, and where to say it. Working with parents taught me that one.
We are educated, “seminary-fied,” and well spoken, but we are also the outsider.
3. You don’t know everything.
I know…ouch. Just because teenagers think that you know everything and that you are the coolest thing since the last One Direction hit single, doesn’t mean you actually know everything. Humbly consider what you say before you say it.
This was a difficult one for me. One of my biggest challenges was coming to grips with the understanding that what worked for me 15 years ago does not necessarily work now. Students live in a culture that has different social games and systems that require a new way of surviving, let alone molding into the image of God. And we have to be ok with that. What I experienced and what they are experiencing are different cultures that need to be bridged with humility and patience. In order to create trust we need to take a back seat and be willing to learn and accept the “social-game” that our students play.
4. Learn before you teach.
Every time I get up to present God’s word to students, I try to learn something new about their culture and context. It shows you care and want to meet them where they are. We need to cross the cultural chasm and take interest in the students we are praying for and pouring into. So know them more. Take a step back and allow room for your ministry and leadership to integrate what you do, teach, plan, and dream with the cultural values and dimensions of junior high, high school, and college students.
5. Always be moldable in leadership.
Do not ever think that you have one way of doing leadership. Whether it’s the 4R Model, Henri Nouwen’s journal, or SimplyYouthSpecialtiesXP3OrangeStickyFaith-alicous model…know that CHANGE is inevitable. Students change as time changes and the same goes for your leadership staff and the families that are engaged in your ministry. Want to be an effective cross-cultural leader? Be flexible and moldable. (Insert “The Potter and The Clay” reference)
6. Don’t let your objective and goals dominate everything.
This is big for me. What I want to happen is not always what needs to happen. High School ministry taught me how to have fun again once I let go of my “agenda.” They want to see the Kingdom of God through our relationship, not necessarily through what is planned out so perfectly on your ministry Cozi calendar. Projecting our expectations stifles our intentions and creates a more sizable cultural gap. This then further inhibits the ability to communicate, build trust, relationally engage, and simply allow for friends with them. Becoming aware of student’s unique cultural values has allows us to organically and genuinely create an environment for them to spiritually flourish. Letting go of our personal objective, agenda, and goals allows us to not succumb to frustration, but rejoice in uncommon achievement.
7. Relationships come first! AMEN! Relationships, relationships, relationships!
High School, College, and Junior High students need relationships before everything. Understand why they are the way they are, know their name, be captivated by their story. We are called to be fascinated with students not to fix them. Be in relationships that are genuinely non-judgmental and full of curiosity and wonder.
8. Do not recruit people before you know them.
This one falls into the category of student AND adult leadership. Yikes. Relationally get to know people before you ask them to take the ranks with you in ministry. Speaking from experience, it is easier if you figure this out before you recruit even if you are blinded by desperation. Few are ready to dive right in and follow you into the depths of Junior High small groups or spending a early Saturday morning cleaning out a cockroach infested supply closet. Get to know them first so you know how to equip, care, and encourage them.
9. Servant Leadership is always key.
I learned this lesson the hard way from my wife. In the midst of another stressed out, overloaded, “I need to be the one to do this-that-and the other thing” tirade, she lovingly reminded me, “You are not that important, Erik.” Yup. When we seek to engage and lead students, we always have to serve first and then have others follow. Make sure your actions match-up to what you say.
The best advice on leadership I have ever been given, “Don’t be a jerk.” – Jeff Fritz
Bottom line. Have the God-centered quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. This is a must have. So, have it.
11. Be fully devoted to God.
Fall in love with Scripture, God’s plan, and His redeeming grace and mercy. Keep learning, rereading scripture, and taking care of your relationship with Him.
I know much more could be added to this list, but I needed to start somewhere. I have made the decision to put a high priority on building a community of trust that is patient, open, and willing to listen. We need to spend time learning and allowing for space to discover this culture of college, high school, and junior high students. Allowing the room for all of the voices to be heard and valued opens a door. It is about recognizing that we are here to be fascinated by them, not to fix them. Approaching these students with the hope of building a community and relationship of trust is far more important than force-feeding them our own worldviews and ideas. Remember, the Kingdom of God is at stake in all of this. We have to become eagerly willing and open to engage with our student’s culture on their own terms so that we can better understand the needs of students and families. The hope and aim is for our students to live a life that fully reflects God’s image and greatness. So let’s decide to get into the cultural trenches with them.
Erik Anderson is a dear friend and one of the best youth workers I know. He not only is passionate about Christ and about students, but his passion gets results. He as grown his ministry exponentially and developed a culture among his students where Christ is pursued, grace is abundant, and lives are changed. HIm and his wife Jessa are currently in the final steps of adopting from Ethiopia. You can follow his family's musings on his blog, The Anderson Way of Life