Let’s pretend that tonight you have to go to a dinner party. It’s not the kind of party you’re looking forward to, though. You’re going alone, you know very few people, if any, who will be there, and you fear you will end up making small talk with acquaintances all evening. You’re not even sure how you were convinced to go, but since you’ve committed, you’re going.
Now, what’s the very first thing you do once you’re inside? Scan the room. You’re not scanning for appetizers. No, this situation is much more serious than that. You’re scanning for someone you know… anyone. As you survey the room, you can feel the pressure of the moment building.
What if I don’t find anyone I know? What if I have to endure this alone? And just when all hope seems lost, you spot someone. Like a beacon shining in the night, a friend saves you from awkwardly standing alone for the next two hours. Crisis averted.
Maybe you’ve never thought about it this way, but student ministry is a lot like a dinner party. Students walk in by themselves, perhaps only knowing one or two people, and feel the pressure to find their place in the room quickly. And if they don’t find their place – if they don’t see someone they recognize – they end up standing alone. And no one feels great about standing alone.
What’s worse, when a student feels this way in church, what motivates him to come back? An awkward environment gives students a reason to stay home, and the last thing we want students to do is stay home.
There’s one thing that can help: a friend. When you walk into an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar faces and then spot someone you know, anxiety gets exchanged for peace. It’s the same for students. When students see someone they recognize on Sunday morning, it brings peace to their situation. And while you can’t guarantee their best friend will be there, you can guarantee that you will be there. You can be the familiar face for the new, shy, introverted, or insecure students in your small group. You can be the beacon that their eyes are relieved to see when they walk into the room.
But for this to be a possibility, you have to show up before they do.
The moment a student walks in the room is the moment you have the opportunity to prevent a student from standing alone and ultimately feeling alone. That’s why there’s tremendous value in showing up early. It’s hard to be a “beacon” for your students if you show up after all of them are already there. By then your students have either found someone they know or spent 15 minutes feeling left out or unwelcome.
You have to show up before they do.
There’s no downside to showing up early. Arriving early means more time for conversations and inside jokes which lead to more influence. And it means there’s more opportunity to be that shining beacon—a familiar face, a source of peace, a friend—for an anxious student who feels like she showed up to the worst dinner party ever.
This week, be early. Be the familiar face for your students. Then scan the room for appetizers.