I am now 33 which puts me in a slightly strange category. Where for much of my life in the church I was the youngest person in the congregation or on the vestry, now I am getting older that tag is leaving me (though not quickly enough, or in every case sadly). In the early days of being a youth leader I was 'down with the youth', or at least their age bracket, others still think I am, however to them I am most definitely not. For years I feared this day, but the more I get older, the more I am convinced this is a good thing!
In being relieved of that perceived and superficial connection through age, I am freer to focus on the connections that matter. Not trying to relate on some level of trendiness or 'relevance' (which I was never going to be able to do) but instead focussing on one of integrity and sincerity without the distraction or the fear of saying something irrelevant or being laughed at without a clue why! Accept this WILL happen every now and again, and embrace the irrelevance! It is actually a release to be seen as out of touch; simply acknowledging that I am now 33 and haven't a clue who One Direction are means I can laugh with young people about that, I can learn from them, they can educate me (!!), for this does something very special - this builds relationship. When we need them to tell us about their lives, then we are saying to them that we value what they have to say, that we want to listen to them, that it's not all one way traffic from our mouths to their ears.
We need to let our young people educate us about what is important to them, what is relevant to them - when we simply listen and ask genuine questions, we validate and edify our young people in ways that a back to front baseball cap and trendy phrases will never do. The truth is our young people are not looking to youth leaders for fashion advice or tips on being cool, they simply want someone to listen to them.
In fact, it's usually when we feel we must be 'tooled up' with all the language and phrasiology of the street in order to reach our young people, that we often come across as most irrelevant to them. I can remember one person telling me in complete seriousness about a particularly challenging young boy in their congregation who had ACDC (not ADHD), and another youth leader who tried to do 10 sit ups in front of the young people and nearly broke his back in the process. Neither really had the desired effect.
So my advice to you, regardless of what age you are, is to embrace the irrelevance. Don't try to fit in, or in using words from the Bible - 'Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.' Romans 12.2).
So we should renew our minds, not in learning about the latest top 10 or in learning the words to Rhianna's latest single. No - we should renew our minds to being people who are sincere in our faith, who acknowledge our weakness, who embrace our irrelevance and who look to our young people to educate us in the things they care about. For this is what our young people desperately need - 'irrelevant' people like you and me, who take the time to talk to them, to learn from them, and to remind them that their voice is worth listening to.
So we should neither be ignorant of the world our young people live in, or a complete expert in it, rather we must be aware that in a world where young people can feel increasingly misunderstood and alienated, we should be the people who love what they love, who care about what they care about, because they are the ones who have told us about it. When we love what they love, because they were the ones to tell us about it in the first place, then we make them feel 100 feet tall. Think about how you feel when this happens to you!
So, final word - embrace the irrelevance, act your age and make the effort to learn from and listen to young people. I genuinely believe this can build a firm foundation, and a solid relationship which matters. Perhaps in doing this, you may even be the only person in their lives who does this, and if the only person in their life who does this is a Christian from the local church, then how much more important is it that it is us who does it?
Sharing faith is ultimately about telling others about Jesus, but it is also as much about us telling others that they matter to God, through showing them how they matter to the people of God.
Go - Embrace the irrelevance...
Martin is the diocesan youth officer for Derry and Raphoe. He has over 10 years of parish based youth ministry experience, enjoys football, golf and fine food - though hasn't got a clue how to do any of them.