Recently, I posted a series of tweets about some of the things that my job as a youth minister has taught me. And those things have been on my mind a lot lately.
I’ve been involved youth ministry in some form for the past 5 years or so, whether volunteering or interning, and finally, calling it my vocation. And in that time I have seen all kinds of beautiful moments and heartbreaking moments and days when I want to throw in the towel and days I wish would never end. So, calling it a mixed bag is an understatement. But even in the hardships, God has been present and taught me more about himself.
So, without dragging the introduction out any farther, here are three things God is teaching me through Student Ministry.
1. To do youth ministry is to be both a student of culture and of counter-culture simultaneously.
If there’s one thing I find myself learning constantly working with teenagers, it’s that the culture of adolescence is constantly changing. I’m only 23, far from the “in my day, we used to” talks so prevalent among the elderly, so there is no reason that the vernacular should be so different in middle/high school after my 4.5 year college stint. Oh, but it is.
For example, this summer I took my group to camp. The preacher for the week was your typical high energy, loud guy who had a severe addiction to Cheerwine and Pork Rinds (he said so himself.) He was speaking at length about being the salt of the earth. An innocuous statement in and of itself. And then he used the phrase “Salty people make you thirsty.” That’s when I look over at one of my youth, and she is horror stricken. Just absolutely mortified by what he said. I had to ask her later what was so bad, and that’s when she told me what both of those words “mean.” To that, I say “teenagers are weird.”
But things in a highly technological and “social” society are always changing. Trends aren’t just represented by unspoken social morays and hairstyles and things of that ilk, but pop up on-line in places like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. The constant conversation that never stops is no farther away than your tablet or smartphone. And while our kids are fluent in that sort of connectivity, so many of us (myself included) are behind. And we wonder why we are seen as “out of touch.”
Now, I won’t pretend I don’t know what a hashtag is to make my point, or that I am ignorant of certain slang prevalent in youth culture, but sometimes I still have trouble keeping up. So, to be faithful to the calling Jesus has given me, I need to be a student of culture. I need to know what’s going on. YET, I also need to understand that while we are to be in the world, we are not to be of it. (John 17:14-15) I also need to take lessons from Jesus and fully embrace the counter-cultural teachings of Jesus.
What that means is to understand that the call of Christianity transcends social trending, it is beyond the values of an ever changing world, it teaches me that better than knowing what’s going on is loving students relentlessly.
The most poignant example I have of this is my youth leader growing up. Her name is Mollie and she is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life. She is also what some would lump into the “elderly” category. We’ve had many conversations over the years and still talk from time to time. When I helped her and volunteered in college, she always told me about how it bothered her that she couldn’t connect with the kids the way they needed it, but that she loved them so very much, and hoped they knew that. And I promise you, they did.
What we say about the character and person of Jesus does not change, no matter how many things in this world do. How we represent him by loving the people in our lives, the students in our ministries, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, that is the core of our preaching of the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, not how #relevant we are. And that is what makes all the difference.
2. Youth ministry is, to borrow from Paul, becoming all things to all people that I might win some.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul tells the Corinthians that he has “become all things to all people.” I was confronted with this verse in college at a time when I was having an identity crisis, trying to grasp how to speak to people about my faith, and mourning over the fact that, simply put, I talked way to much and didn’t listen to anyone. A dear, dear friend told me to become all things to all people and didn’t explain that a whole lot, and I still struggle with completely understanding what that means.
But I have seen it lived out in Mollie’s life and in several other key influences in my life. I have seen people sit with me and cry with me and pray with me, no matter how I had hurt them. I have seen people whom I had nothing in common with sacrifice their time and listen.
Conversely, I’ve also seen people react strongly to others and completely shut down the conversation when they say something shocking. Like when I took a group to a Christian music festival with rappers and rock bands and other stuff and the other chaperone panicked when the rock musicians came on and left. The kids were appalled at her, and so was I.
I will never understand when someone says they have a heart for kids and refuses to step into their world to reach them. Most of the time, you can “be all things to all people” by simply listening to them and not acting shocked when they do something you don’t agree with. Kids need a kind of love that stands firmly on the truth, but doesn’t react in a harsh, judgmental way. They need a kind of love that puts aside it’s own expectations and preference for the sake of the Gospel and their growth in it. A kind of love that says “come as you are and meet the one who can give you life.”
Love patiently, kindly, and see what comes out of it. See whose life is forever changed because you exhibit a mercy like Christ. Be all things to all people.
3. Any hope of success cannot be defined in the way the world defines success, but must be a complete trust in the person and work of Jesus.
Finally, it has been a recurring theme for me the past several months to doubt whether or not I was being effective in this ministry. But what is effectiveness? Is it a youth group of 100 kids, all behaving perfectly and never struggling? Is it the unwavering support of an entire congregation and a deep understanding of what your ministry is and what it does? Is it ushering that large youth group to get saved and start winning all their friends to Jesus in a 5 month period?
To put it simply, no.
First of all, this is not MY ministry, this is God’s ministry. When I answered the call to ministry on my college campus 4 years ago, did I just take what God have given to me and make it something great? No, I surrendered my will to his. I said “God, I trust you way more than I trust myself, and if you want to use me for something beautiful, it’s not mine, it’s yours.” When I sat with kids who poured out their hearts and truly wrestled with God’s overwhelming grace, was I doing it because I wanted to be successful? Not a chance.
I did it because its what I am called to do. Not to make me a good person or earn right standing before God, as if pastoring a megachurch somehow makes you a better Christian. No, I fully believe that I have right standing before God because of Jesus and Jesus alone. Nothing else is needed.
I would rather be faithful than successful. At the end of my life, do I want to be known for being successful or for being true to my calling? At the end of my life do I want to be known for anything? While, I struggle with those implications, I can tell you one thing, at the end of my life, I care a whole lot more about Jesus being known than me.
And that’s why I surrendered. That’s why student ministry, and all of the challenges within it, all the struggles I still face, is a worthy prospect.
And that’s what I’m learning. I think all of these things apply to way more than student ministry. But this is my experience, this is where God has placed me and I intend for my life, my vocation, my calling, to be an act of worship.
And my prayer for you, no matter where you find yourself, is the same.
Let my life be your song, Jesus.