Gordon is an earnest Christian. He takes an interest in the young people. Yet his efforts have fallen flat. He can’t seem to get a conversation going with young people. They won’t confide in him, and that has prevented him from forming influential relationships with them.
It’s not from a lack of trying. Gordon has tried talking to them about all kinds of subjects, including the Sabbath, God’s holy days, prophecy and the law of God, but the young people don’t offer more than a few awkward glances and words in response.
It seems connecting with young people is as much of a challenge today as it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago. Times change, but young people and their interests and concerns haven’t really changed.
What is the worldview of a young person? Are they, like you, concerned with God and the Bible, His Work, and preparing for the World Tomorrow? A few. Most of our young people have carnal, material matters on their minds: sports, movies, pleasures, but mostly friends, and what those friends think of them.
They live insular lives, shared by like-minded friends. They speak the language of carnality. It should not be this way, but our young people face a multitude of steep personal and peer challenges. They live in a world that bombards them with pleasures that are difficult to resist (Hebrews 11:25).
The world of a young person tends to the degenerate, to loose standards. We may assume that they are being helped or that others will take an interest in their struggles, but their future in God’s Family could hinge partly on your influence. They need our help.
How can we win their confidence?
Two Kinds of Minds
Herbert W. Armstrong taught that there are two kinds of minds: 1) the carnal, natural, physical mind with which we have all been born and 2) the spiritual mind that has been opened by God’s Holy Spirit and now has spiritual comprehension. Read 1 Corinthians 2:11.
When he went on the radio to preach the gospel, it occurred to him that only the few are truly interested in a religious program. At the outset of his ministry, he learned that man’s carnal nature—as influenced by Satan from birth—hates God. So he determined not to put the gospel in terms of religion, but of education and human interest.
Mr. Armstrong wrote: “To gain the attention of the world—to get God’s truth—Jesus Christ’s gospel—into the consciousness of the millions in the world—we have to speak the world’s language! Not the spiritual-sounding language of the Bible” (Good News, October/November 1984; emphasis added throughout).
Breaking Through Prejudice
That brings us to God’s young people. The Apostle Paul set an example of speaking the language of the company he was keeping. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-23, he spoke to the unconverted with non-religious language.
With Jews, he spoke like a Jew. To the weak, he became weak. He strove to be all things to all people, and he did this for the sake of the gospel.
Mr. Armstrong did the same. He strove to empathize and understand his audience, and to speak their language, for the sake of the gospel.
Of course, it is God who set us a wonderful example of learning to be empathetic (Hebrews 7:25). The Word also became a human being so God the Father could better relate to His sons!
To break through to the minds of the unconverted, the Apostle Paul and Mr. Armstrong sought to first break through prejudice. They did that by serving their audience, by thinking and speaking like them (1 Corinthians 9:19). Mr. Armstrong wrote:
[W]e cannot gain the attention of the world by using religious or Bible-sounding language.
We have to be realistic. The world in general, by nature, is hostile to God’s message—when spoken in religious-sounding language. God explained this through the Apostle Paul. He wrote, “The carnal mind is [hostile] against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7).
If we go to the world with Bible language, the world will not listen! On the other hand, we know that the very foundation of all knowledge—the very basis of all right education—is God’s revealed Word—the Holy Bible! But the world does not know that. Nor will the world, if it knows the knowledge is coming from the Bible, accept it.
Actually—think of it—the Bible is the basis of right education. But the world will not look into the Bible for it. Nor, if you speak in Bible language, will it hear or accept it! To reach the consciousness of the world, therefore, we have to say it in the world’s language! (ibid).
The world is prejudiced against the Bible. So are many young people in the Church—even if just passively. It is their human carnal nature that is hostile to God. It wars within them! Read Romans 7:12-25 and Ephesians 2:2-3.
Mr. Armstrong was a master at reaching through prejudice. He wrote, “Once we gain the interest of readers and give them the knowledge, it may lead to their salvation, if God grants repentance and draws them by His Holy Spirit. But first we must reach past their prejudices and plant the right knowledge in their consciousness” (ibid).
No matter what spiritual state we find our young people in, we can employ this wisdom.
Notice Isaiah 40:3. Mr. Armstrong was the voice crying out in the spiritual din and confusion of modern-day Babylon. Because of God, we heard his voice, and now that of Mr. Flurry, and said I want that for my life.
God’s apostles, like Jesus Christ, are dynamic, effervescent, compelling men. Their lives exemplify abundant living. We are drawn to God’s apostles like metal shards are drawn to a magnet.
In the buzz and confusion of life, our young people need uncommon voices; voices that flash like a beacon of hope in a world of educational and spiritual darkness. They need holy voices to plant right knowledge in their consciousness (Proverbs 8:6-10).
To the young person eager to speak on the spiritual, speak on the spiritual, but to the young person at first awkward with the spiritual, we can ask them about principles of education, to bring them to the spiritual.
We can discuss with them cause and effect (Deuteronomy 28:1-2), blessings and curses (verses 3-68), how to be happy—that there is a cause of happiness and a cause of unhappiness (John 10:10).
Other subjects can include health (3 John 2), work ethic (Proverbs 22:29), development of right habits (Proverbs 4:25-27), emotional control (2 Timothy 1:7), friendliness (Proverbs 18:24), accepting responsibility (1 Kings 2:2), planning ahead (Haggai 1:5), keeping good company (Proverbs 1:8-19), eschewing foolishness (Proverbs 15:7; Titus 2:6), persistence, determination and ambition (Hebrews 3:14), patience (Ecclesiastes 3:1), respect for authority (Exodus 20:1-12), courage in the face of trials (Acts 27:12-22), and goal setting (1 Timothy 5:8).
Ladies should also speak to the young ladies about homemaking and other feminine subjects (Titus 2:3‑5).
And once we really get to know a young person, we should not be afraid to have a serious talk with them.
Young people need boundaries (set by their parents). Knowing that other people are watching out for them supports character development (Proverbs 4:20‑27). This is especially true of older teens.
Try to get them talking about their problems, and don’t be afraid of helping to hold them accountable to God’s fair and beneficial expectations (Romans 7:12).
Layer the Relationship
Despite Gordon’s best intentions, he could not get a conversation going with young people. He tried all kinds of subjects: the Sabbath, the law, prophecy, and other Bible-related topics. But his efforts fell flat.
Our young people should be keenly interested in these matters, but the reality is, many are not. Gordon is going to have to change his approach to break through prejudice first, and then, over time, build up to these truths (Hebrews 5:12-13).
If you barely know a young person, it would be wise to layer your approach to them. We can scare them off by coming on too strong too quickly. We should not be rash in our approach (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
Take time to ease into the relationship. For the first few weeks, try just saying “hello,” and give them a warm smile. Later, move on to a handshake or a pat on the shoulder (if it is a young man).
Once we establish a family-like rapport, we can move into short conversations of a warm and pleasant nature (Romans 12:10). We can ask them how they are doing, or give them a genuine compliment. After four to six weeks, we should be primed to make a more extensive advance toward longer conversations.
As time progresses in the relationship, we will come to learn their interests, befriend them and begin to exert a positive influence in their lives.
Of course, not all young people will need to be approached in such a delicate manner, but many find conversations with adults awkward, so unless we can immediately hit it off with a young person, we can layer the approach.
Breaking the Silence
Eventually, we will need to break the ice. A conversation usually begins with some easy pleasantries like How are you today? From this introduction, many move on to How was your week?
These are both closed-ended questions.
Close-ended questions usually require a one or two-word answer. “How are you?” Good. “Did you have a nice week?” Yes. “Did you like the sermon?” Yes. A conversation like this leads to awkward moments.
The hallmark of a seasoned conversationalist is his or her ability to ask open-ended questions: Tell me about your week. Tell me about your school. Can you explain why you feel that way? Open-ended questions require expression.
Think of a conversation as a trip down a river. The more we work with the current, the more smooth the ride. Open-ended questions smoothly propel a conversation along.
Starting off a conversation with a few closed-ended questions like How are you? and How was your week? is natural, but peppering the conversation with some open-ended question like How did you and your family come into the Philadelphia Church of God? and Why are science and math your strongest subjects? will keep the conversation moving along.
Of course, we would want to avoid shifting our line of questioning from first gear to fifth gear without shifting through the intermediate gears. Conversations that escalate from How are you? to What do you want to do with your life? need some intermediate questions.
In fact, it might take months to finally get a young person willingly talking about a serious-minded and important topic like a life career. They are probably not going to want to explore that or similar topics unless they feel comfortable with us. Understandably so.
So once we have a young person on an interesting topic, our goal would be to keep them talking by asking open-ended questions.
Body Language, Too
Even body language can help make or break a relationship, especially in the first few fragile moments of first impressions.
When approaching young men, it’s appropriate to shake their hands, but we should avoid staring. Don’t force it. Friends routinely look each other in the eyes, but it is very uncomfortable to have someone we barely know stare deep into our eyes.
Try not to stand directly in front of any young person to reduce the chance of awkward eye contact. This will give them the freedom to look away.
We can stand to their side, in a “V” grouping—standing shoulder to shoulder, at a 45-degree angle. Then, we can turn to look at them, and they at us, at leisure. As time goes by, natural eye-to-eye contact will occur.
With young ladies especially, it is important to not corner them, or back them against a wall. Give them a comfortable amount of “breathing” space. Men should not offer to shake their hand, unless the young lady first offers. If she offers her hand, don’t squeeze it too hard.
Men should also avoid unnecessary hugging unless first initiated by the young lady, and even then, try to side hug.
Speaking with an unaccompanied young lady in a private or secluded area, or sitting right beside her alone, for a prolonged time, should be avoided (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
We should also avoid singling out any young person in a group, say to answer a question. Many find that quite embarrassing.
When approaching the toddlers and younger children, it’s helpful to get down on one knee, and smile, to make them feel comfortable.
Finally, it’s important to not let our interest only occur on the Sabbath. Try to attend teen activities and other family-related outings hosted by your congregation.
Connecting with young people is a challenge. Yet they are our most important audience, and our family. Using these guiding principles should help us build lasting relationships with them.