It used to frustrate me to my core. Teachers and youth leaders that always seemed to have graduates come back to visit. During my first few years of teaching at various times of the year, college students would come back to visit their favorite teachers. But that isn’t what bothered me. As a new teacher, there was something I didn’t understand just yet. Why did students choose to come back and visit some teachers but not others? I wasn’t frustrated with the other teachers; I was frustrated with myself. What would it take to be that kind of mentor to my students, that what I taught them would never leave them?
I tried being laid back and make their lives easy. Didn’t work.
I tried being cool (as much as possible), so I seemed less like an adult. Didn’t work.
I even tried to be their loudest advocate—even when they were wrong. But that didn’t work either.
What I began to realize is, students don’t want the adults in their lives to make life easier or to be their friends. Students want the adults in their lives to simply be the adults in their lives. Students need to see what a normal functioning adult looks like. And not just regarding faith, but even the simple things like responsibility, obligations, emotional intelligence, and outward appearance. Mentoring is not about friendships, it’s about relationships. It is about how we, as adults, can come alongside the next generation and cultivate life-on-life mentoring.
The word cultivate is derived from the world of gardening and harvesting crops. It is what we do to the fields to get them ready for a successful growing season. But we can apply this same kind of understanding to mentoring. Cultivating essentially means to prepare the field, promote growth, and therefore produce fruit. Remember those P’s—prepare, promote, produce. So with a little help from Jeff Myers of Summit Ministries in Colorado, I want to dial in on these three specific goals in mentoring.
Prepare Students to Live Their Life on Purpose
Most students are naturally floating through adolescence in a state of flux. They are learning at a rapid rate, taking in information as quickly as they can find it. Of course the more information, the more voices; the more voices, the greater the strain on a student’s discovery of self. Which is precisely why making certain, time and again, they understand that they have a purpose in life is so critical. God has provided each of our students with special and unique gifts, talents, and interests in which to live out His purpose here on earth. So often in our Christian circles, we get caught up in the salvation of our souls only to sit back and wait for heaven to arrive. In the meantime, I’ll worry about being a nice person.
Instead, we need to be reminded that students are on a hero’s journey, and we are their guides. Meaning it is our job not only to inspire them, but also challenge them, and present opportunities for them. It is also our job to train and prepare them.
Promote the Teaching of Truth
I cannot say this enough. Be honest. Be honest. Be honest. Whether you are talking about Jesus or their behavior. Speak the truth, but do it in love. Yes, they will get mad, but they will appreciate it. One of my daughters was recently was struggling with making a new friendship work. We talked over several weeks about different ways to help foster the relationship, but at the end of the day, I had to simply just be honest with her. So I sat my daughter down and very lovingly and carefully explained that this other girl she was trying so hard to be friends with just didn’t like her. Which of course opened a floodgate of new questions and hence a much longer talk. We all know that it would have been much easier to avoid it all together and do everything I could to keep the peace. But the right thing was to be honest.
Do this with students’ lives but also with the gospel. Don’t sugar coat the truth because it may offend. After all, the gospel is offensive. The truth about what Jesus demands of us is not all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. Truth can be harsh. But whatever you do don’t avoid it. It is the only way to consistent spiritual growth. Even if they disagree, you will garner more respect.
Produce By Influencing Others
We learn best when we teach it. Students have a greater chance of living a consistent, biblical worldview when they are engaged in teaching it to someone younger. Get them involved with mentoring others. Students are never too young to start making disciples. Engaging your students in mentoring of their own will likely lower their degree of apathy, help them understand and live above reproach, and provide them chances to use leadership skills and other gifts.
But remember, you can’t just toss your students into a mentoring situation. Be sure to coach them through it. Correct them, encourage them, and celebrate success. With careful planning, you will see your students grow exponentially just by helping someone else grow.
It may not always feel like it from time-to-time, but consistent and frequent messaging to our students in these key areas will not only put you on their favorites list, but your students have a greater chance of living confidently by the standards of the Christian worldview. It’s about so much more than getting our students to like and respect us. This is about ways to create environments and spaces where our students can be crafted into disciples who can then go and make disciples.