Youth ministry has a painful double-edged sword.
One the one hand, youth ministry plays a critical role in the faith development of teenagers. It’s incredible to be part of life transformation at such a defining point in their lives.
On the other hand you are only reading one chapter on a teenagers life.
You get– Chapter 3: The Teenage Years.
It’s a time marked by fits and starts, missteps and false starts, and wandering between childhood and early adulthood.
Yet, the longer you do youth ministry the more you become aware of the double-edged sword. And, when we’re honest with ourselves, the more we become wounded by the same sword.
And the longer you do youth ministry the more you realize that you are playing a role in the life story of someone. You are a character who appears in Chapter 3. Maybe your character makes it deep into Chapter 5. And maybe you’ll help a student discover something that twists the plot throughout the rest of their story, but you will only really physically be a part of that students story during Chapter 3.
That can be painful and hard. You pour your heart and life into your ministry and you walk away week-to-week having no idea how that story’ll progress beyond Chapter 3. And the title of “youth pastor” sure feels like it should be more important than a sub-character in Chapter 3. That reality bites and gnaws and messes with your identity.
Few fit into that and accept the role for what it is. Others fight it and it ultimately drives them to something else.
Those of us who stay in youth ministry for a couple decades… we become more and more comfortable with this role.
Why? Because we like the process. We like seeing more chapters unfold. And we see the role we play in Chapter 3, no matter how valuable a character in Chapter 3, as critical instead of minor.
Becky – Chapter 3
In Romeo, Becky and her family were valuable members of our church. They were beyond supportive. Much of their life revolved around our congregation. Becky’s mom and dad took their parenting role seriously. In many ways, while far from perfect, they were a great Christian family.
But I always knew Becky was just along for the ride.
Obviously, Becky knows the fullness of what she was up to. I never saw her as particularly interested or disinterested, good or bad. She was one of the several “been there, done that” church kids in our youth group. She did what was asked. She played her part of good church teenager and I played my part of good church youth pastor.
When we left Romeo in 2008 Becky was one of the students we left behind in mid-process. And I didn’t hear from her much after that.
From afar, because of Facebook, as the years went on I started to get this macro-level view of things changing as she finished high school. And then I saw a big dramatic change and literally new life pour out of her. She shares a bit about this on her blog.
I was raised in a Christian home. Naturally, I went to church every Sunday and to youth group every Wednesday. For is that not what every good Christian does? I claimed to be Christian…saved at the young age of six or seven…baptized pre-teens…regular church attender. But the clean, “has it all together” exterior I displayed to others was just that, a display. I could act like the good Christian but inside I was festering a heart filled with bitterness, hatred, hurt and anger. I knew the right answers in church, which almost made my actions worse. It is a weird place to be when the things you do to make you feel better actually make you feel worse because you know better. But once again, nothing would change. I was in a hopeless state of mind – a hopeless wanderer, sleep walking through life. Living a life like I was, living a lie like I was, I felt hopeless. And hopelessness is what threatened daily to overcome me. I soon found myself on a slippery slope with people who I called friends. By the time I knew what was happening, it was too late and I was too far in. Or so I thought, of course.
Simply put– No amount of intervention was going to effect Becky’s middle & high school story. She had great small group leaders. She was there all the time, great stuff was taught to her, she had every opportunity to thrive but for whatever reason… it just wasn’t going to happen.
To put it in Jesus-y terms, the best thing we could do for her was keep tilling the soil and planting seeds. She grew up in fortunate fertile soil. She had parents who loved her, she had a church family who loved her. We provided her with ample opportunities.
But she wasn’t ready.
Becky – Chapter 4
Two months after turning 18 and graduating high school, I packed my bags and ventured down to Ecuador. I arrived a hopeless wanderer with no friends or family and zero skill in spanish. Those months turned in to some of the longest months of my life. The emotional and physical toll those months took on my body is something I had not prepared for. Even though they were rough, I would never take them back. I am who I am because of those times. It wasn’t all bad though, no, they’re scattered with heart wrenching memories of a love on fire and a passion that began burning so deep inside my soul. I never would have guessed where this adventure would tailspin me to where I am.
Now back to November 13 – the day I found out why. I was in the middle of the five month stretch of living in Ecuador. The Wednesday before the 13th, I had made a choice, a mistake, that went against everything my morally good self believed in. I got caught and punished for the choice, the mistake that I had made. Between Wednesday and Saturday, life as I knew it fell apart. But my life as I have come to know it now fell together.
On Saturday, November 13, 2010, while in my room in Ecuador, South America, I dedicated my life to being a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. And this, this changed everything.
Our Role is Faithfulness
Those who study literature know that good stories have a story arch and key characters. There are protagonists, antagonists, there is something to strive for, something to accomplish. There are muses. And there are sages.
Over a career, in Chapter 3 of thousands of teenagers stories, you play a role. It might be a central character or it might be the voice of a muse or it might even be the antagonist driving the character to struggle against things she prefer avoid.
But you do play a role.
My prayer is that we, as youth workers, play a role of faithfulness. That we are more and more faithful to the calling Jesus has on our lives, as a character in Chapter 3, one that says something that sticks or drives them crazy with ever-present reminders that Jesus is for them not against or that you are the voice of the muse in the desert reminding them that they are loved.
My prayer is that we are less and less worried about Chapter 3 resolving into a nice bow on a high school graduation gift and are more and more faithful to the role we play in Chapter 3.
Becky – Chapter 5
Becky is living Chapter 5 right now. I shared lunch with her earlier this year in Spokane where she’s currently studying to go into full-time ministry. I love the irony that the been there, done that kid– whose grandparents were missionaries, whose parents live a life in Romeo faithfully serving their church and following Jesus in their day-to-day lives– is now pursuing a life in ministry.
Fertile soil bears much fruit. Let’s push forward in faithfulness to the role God is asking us to play.