This is not a post attempting to convince you who to vote for. Candidly, I have no plans to vote for Bernie Sanders. I do not, as they say “feel the Bern.” I do think, however, that there are lessons to be learned from observing each presidential candidate.
This blog is about how Bernie Sanders has tipped conventional wisdom on its head and inspired a generation of voters who are young enough to be his grandkids. It’s also an attempt to debunk the long-held misconception that old people can’t volunteer in student ministry. In fact, the most left-leaning candidate for POTUS in 2016 illustrates quite nicely why older believers make the best volunteers in student ministry.
I can think of at least three reasons why:
1. Authenticity Beats Cool Every Time
In student ministry, it’s better to be the real deal than it is to be cool.
Bernie is so uncool he’s perceived as the coolest. Voters don’t like him because he is movie-star handsome. Voters like him because he’s just him. Unpolished, outspoken, and unkempt. That’s Bernie. He’s got a gravelly voice and slouched shoulders and looks like he might need a cane to get around.
Then he hits the hardwood and sinks twelve-foot jump shots with relative ease. Who is this guy, anyway? He’s him, that’s who.
Bernie Sanders kind of reminds me of a 72 year old man who volunteered in our ministry. He was gruff — a former football and wrestling coach. He wore gym shorts all the time and played competitive racquetball. He was sponsored and toured on the national circuit. He was a little rough around the edges, and he didn’t necessarily look like he belonged.
But man, was he a good youth worker! Kids were drawn to him. He was an open book. He was just him. Kids have a radar for that kind of authenticity. If you are a student pastor, you need to walk around your church and look for some uncool people with gray hair and recruit them. You won’t be sorry.
2. Compassion Goes a Long Way
In student ministry, compassion may be the most undervalued quality in a youth worker.
I don’t want to get into a policy debate. I know there are lots of people who don’t agree with Bernie Sanders on a number of issues (nor do I). My argument is not that he is correct about any given topic — my argument is that there is entire generation of people in their 20s who listen when he talks. One of the reasons is because he is viewed as very compassionate. He’s been quoted a lot on taking care of each other, how we’re all in this together, etc.
You might not like how he theorizes we should go about doing that, but you must admit that this is a great quality in a youth worker. Caring, walking alongside, belonging, togetherness — these are qualities found in the best student ministry volunteers. Kids are attracted to that kind of compassion.
It’s been said a million times — “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” More than cool youth workers, more than smart youth workers, more than fun youth workers, we need compassionate youth workers. Think back to your childhood and the adults who had the biggest impact on you. Did they demonstrate compassion? I’ll be they did.
We need people like that in our student ministries. Even if they’re 75.
3. Consistency Pays Off
In a time when life changes non-stop for students, consistency in their church family is a huge plus.
One last time (and all together, now!)…I am not making an argument about the merit of what Bernie Sanders says policy-wise. What I am saying is that he has said mostly the same stuff for decades. He changes his tune some — politicians are notorious for that — but on most key issues he hasn’t wavered. They were radical views 30 years ago, and they’re still viewed as radical by many. But that’s just the point, isn’t it? He doesn’t seem to care what other people think. He’s him. He’s stayed him. He oozes consistency.
Consistency matters in student ministry. Having someone patiently relate to the generation behind them (or someone three generations younger, for that matter) is a killer intangible for any ministry to teens. Slow and steady wins the race quite often in life. People who model that are very effective, very trusted, and very worthwhile to keep around.
Youth ministries really start humming when there are multiple volunteers who have been around for 3-5 years. Community among students is undergirded by community among adult volunteers. Staff sticking around helps a ton, too.
Listen, I’m not asking you to like Bernie Sanders’ politics. What I am asking you to do is watch him give a speech and watch the people watching him give a speech. Defying all odds, this nearly-an-octogenarian has 20 year olds slobbering all over themselves and snapping selfies with him in the background. There is a reason for that. At least in part, it is because he’s authentic, compassionate, and consistent.
He’s not going to be our next president…but he might make a great student ministry volunteer.