Mentoring: The Key to Engaging and Impacting Kids on the Fringe

Youth Specialties
February 21st, 2020

“You don’t deserve to dream.”

I remember reading that message on the T-shirt of one of my boys as we prepared to leave for summer camp. He was just stepping on the bus headed to an urban outreach camp that I’ve been involved with for 10 years. The bearer of this remarkable statement was a young man I’d met and befriended at school. This camp was his introduction to “Christian” camping—or any camping, for that matter.

You don’t deserve to dream. What a statement! I thought of Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 37) as he shared his dream with them. “Who do you think you are to dream such a thing? You can dream, as long as it doesn’t put you over us.” I thought of my many high school friends who are hearing the same things, thousands of years later. You don’t deserve to dream. I thought of the kids across this country that I meet from Southern California to Arkansas and from Florida to New York. You don’t deserve to dream.

What a lie the enemy of our souls tells them. He tells them there is no hope. He tells them no one cares. He tells them that it’s just life. “You deal with what you get.” “Deal with it, homie.” “Make the best of it.”

But if that statement, “you don’t deserve to dream,” is just a lie, what would be my response? How are we supposed to reach them? How do we help them dream when they have trouble being comfortable enough, in their own environments, to fall asleep?

Kids on The Fringe

The label, “Kids on the Fringe,” makes me pause because I wonder what we mean by that. Do we mean at-risk kids, kids who are more stressed because of family situations, kids who are cutting themselves because of molestation situations, kids who are gang-affiliated, or kids who never speak to their dad because he works all day?

Most (or many) of these kids make up the group that’s not crossing the threshold of our churches. They cruise by on their skateboards and bikes. They use our parking lots as turnarounds or meeting places before and after school—but they don’t come in. They jam the court calendars in our juvenile system and they require a vice principal in charge of discipline at many of our schools.

I think of Mary, whom I met as a 15-year-old freshman. I remember speaking to her for the first time and noticing the cuts on her arms. I remember the tears running down her face as she shared her story. I can still recall the emotions I felt as I listened to her share the relief she felt as the blade went into her skin. No hope, no purpose, and no dream. I remember praying and asking the Lord for guidance.

I think of young men like Juan, who came to me as a drug-using, gang-affiliated 15-year-old. His mother feared for his life, and he was resigned to accepting whatever came down the road. No hope, no purpose, and no dream. I remember praying and asking the Lord for guidance.

You Cannot Impact What You Do Not Engage

“Mentoring” and “discipleship” basically mean the same thing. They both capture the same essence: Relationship. “Meet me,” “Talk with me not to me,” “Can you hear what I’m not saying?” “Would you still like me if you knew this or that about me or my family?” After spending the last 20 years working with young people and families that would be considered “on the fringe,” I’ve come to one conclusion: You cannot impact what you do not engage.

Kids crave “real” relationships. The desire is for non-judgmental interaction. I don’t advocate for, nor condone, accepting negative behaviors. But I also don’t subscribe to the notion of playing the Holy Spirit and trying to correct every fault or inadequacy I see in others. So how do we reach them? We engage them. We engage them in the fast-food restaurants. We engage them on our campuses. We engage them under the bridges and down by the riverbank. We engage them in the shopping malls and in the back alleys of our communities.

This is not a new concept. It’s not something we haven’t all heard before. It’s not something that we don’t know in our heart of hearts. Maybe it’s just something that’s so incredibly hard to do. Let’s be real; they take so much work. They have so many issues. There’s always drama around them. Their families are so messed up. They look so weird. They scare our older church members. They scare us! “How am I going to help this kid?,” we ask ourselves. “I can’t relate to their lives. I’ve never had those issues.”

Their issues cause us discomfort. Their pain and hopelessness cause us discomfort. Part of it is a feeling of helplessness. How can I ever make a difference in this situation? How can I bring light to a place with so much darkness?

Seeing Like Jesus

I think of Jesus and his work with those on the fringe. The woman at the well was definitely on the fringe of society (married five times and shacking up with another guy), the woman caught in adultery, the tax collectors, the man in the cemetery in Gadara (talk about being on the fringe!), and the list goes on and on. Jesus engaged the fringe crowd in ways that many of us never have. How did he do it?

I think he saw them differently. He saw them for what they were—lost and separated from a God who loved them. Lost and separated from the plan that God has for each one of us. I think he saw them for what they could become. His vision was not clouded by what the enemy of their souls would say about them. The “accuser of the brethren” could not shake his vision for people. Remember his words to Peter: “When you are converted, strengthen your brothers.” Knowing that Peter would fail him, he could still see Peter as an overcomer.

Did you know that it’s possible that kids do not see themselves the way we see them? They may not see themselves as being on the fringe. They may not consider themselves “at-risk.” We see them that way. And because we do, it changes how we interact with them. Jesus sees them as people; we see them as gang members. Jesus sees them as kids; we see them stoners. And because we see them differently, we either engage them differently—or not at all.

But they are people, created in the image of God. They, too, crave relationship. Why would we think they wouldn’t? I grew up with a drug addicted dad, a confused home, and a host of other “at-risk” issues. I went to a youth correctional facility at age 15 and came out a 17-year-old gang member. I lost my 18-year-old brother to a gang-related murder. I’ve felt the stares and heard the comments. I’ve felt the stab in my heart as I was treated differently by others because of how I dressed.

But Jesus saw me differently!

Mentoring as a Tool

Mentoring is the new buzzword. It’s as if we’ve discovered something incredibly new or innovative. But the concept of mentoring is thousands of years old. Moses mentored Joshua, and what an amazing result that produced! But Joshua wasn’t necessarily a fringe kid. Paul mentored Timothy, and what a testimony to that relationship we have in Scripture. Except for his bi-racial status, Timothy wasn’t exactly a fringe kid either.

But Jesus mentored Simon the Zealot. Now Simon was a person on the fringe. He belonged to the Zealots, a fanatical sect of the Jews. They refused to pay tribute to Rome because it violated their principle of God being the only king of Israel. They rebelled against the Romans and became a band of outlaws. They were later called the “Sicari” because of their use of the Roman sica, which is a dagger. We don’t know how old Simon was, but since he submitted to the authority of Jesus, I’d guess he was younger than Jesus. So I’d say Simon was definitely a fringe kid.

For three years, Jesus poured out who he was to Simon to prepare him for what he would become. And we can do the same thing. Mentoring a young person on the fringe is loving the really hard-to-love until they see themselves as loveable. We engage them. We use the open-ended questions that we’ve been trained to use. We enter their world, and we begin a discussion about what’s important to them.

I know it’s possible: Juan graduated from high school as a standout kid. He was dating the valedictorian of his class. He was accepted into the United States Air Force and served honorably for four years. Mary is attending college in Florida and trying to move on with her life. Still some bumps along the way, but she’s moving forward.

They are works in progress, as we all are. Paul probably said it best in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” The Bible is full of “fringe people” who were redeemed by God. He used men and women who believed in others to impact those who did not believe in themselves. Twelve young men and a number of women engaged their world, and today we reap the harvest of their labor.

There have always been “fringe kids.” Thank God there are still those who believe that he is able to reach even them.

We cannot impact those whom we do not engage.

We impact those whom we engage.

Youth Specialties

Youth Specialties exists to elevate the role of youth ministry and the youth worker to grow the faith of the next generation.

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