One of the most rewarding parts of working with youth is watching them make those awkward steps from adolescence to adulthood. Nearly thirty years of working with tweens and teens has shown me the best and fastest acting tool for moving that process along is empowerment.
Even seemingly trivial forms of empowerment can actually transform how a person – especially an adolescent – sees themselves. Adolescence is a tough time and youth experience its passage in fits and starts. One of the gauges I use to tell where a youth’s sense of self is at any given moment is the ease (or disease) with which they make eye contact with me.
For several years, my wife, Leila, and I led a youth group which adopted the habit of meeting once a month in one of the members’ homes as a break from meeting in the church. There was one young woman in our group who had been going through a difficult patch. She was not sure who she was. She knew who she wasn’t…she wasn’t her older sister, to whom life and its opportunities seemed to come much more easily. In what she was probably experiencing as a sea of inadequacy, there was one beacon of good news: she’d passed her tests for a driver’s license.
Shortly after she’d received her license, our youth group was meeting at her house. At one point in the evening, her father needed to leave and my car was parked behind his. He had his daughter find me (probably getting creamed in a video game by some of the guys in the youth group) and ask me to move my car. I could tell by the look on her face that it pained her to have to ask her pastor to do such a thing. I handed her the keys and said, “Could you move it for me?”
The room fell silent. “You want me to move your car?”
“Yes…you have your license, don’t you? You do know how to drive?”
“Just back it out and park it on the street.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her mother, her jaw dropped nearly as much as her daughters.
About 5 minutes later she came back in the room, smiling, and making eye contact. She tossed me the keys from several feet away and gave me the old line I first learned from my dad for those situations: “It pulls a little to the left when it hits 80.”
Here’s the point: there are people all around us – not just youth – who have never felt they’ve been trusted enough to be empowered. But, when they are, they are changed…transformed…redeemed. If you want to start a revolution of transformation in your church, community or workplace, look for someone who seems to be avoiding eye contact and has never been empowered…and toss them the keys.