It was a Wednesday night, probably around eight. Everyone else had left but the rustle of their presence still lingered, though I stood there alone. Handouts were strewn across the room, some with little notes on them of importance, and some with just the doodles you’d expect from a teenage girl. I collected them and turned to put them in the garbage and the significance of the evening landed on me. It’s a feeling I won’t forget.
So I sat down on one of the couches and looked out the window across a cotton field and had one of those moments of joyful sadness. You know, like when a parent drops a child off for college for the first time. Joy and sadness mixed perfectly in a way words cannot account for, only stories.
On the first Wednesday night, there had been 20 students. Energy filled the air. No one could believe it. No one had ever seen so many young people in that room. Optimism reigned. My heart soared for days.
I had just moved to Greenwood, MS to start a youth ministry. While interviewing for the position, I was also talking with a large church in the Nashville area about being their Sr. High Pastor. It was flattering. It was Nashville and it looked like a good career path. But we chose Greenwood because we thought it was the least likely place a person would chose between the two.
Before I got there, Westminster only had very faithful volunteers and an intern or two working with their students. They brought me on full time to start a youth ministry. We fell in love with the people of this small Delta town and the town itself, quick.
I had no idea how to start a youth ministry. The only one I’d ever lead was ready-made for me when I got there. But one thing kept nagging at me whenever I would get anxious about the work involved in building a youth ministry. I assume it was the Holy Spirit telling me, “just be faithful to teaching and prayer.” So my expectation was that if I teach them well and pray for them, week-in and week-out, students will come and grow in their faith.
This is what I told the search committee and the leadership when interviewing. I was not interested in an event-driven youth ministry but one that revolved around the teaching and prayer and relationships formed on a designated night each week. Yes, we would go to camp and have some events but the anchor would be a midweek Bible Study. I sold them on it but they were skeptical enough.
Romans would be our starting point. So I decided to start there. We would crawl through Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians just like I had done with my youth in Augusta, GA.
On the first Wednesday night there were 20 students. Everyone was stunned. But this is what I prayed for. We started with those first few verses in Roamns. We ate a meal together, prayed, and then discussed those verses. No games. Just that in the electric air.
Next week only four showed up.
Deflated, I kept going. I was convinced teenagers not only had the capacity but the latent desire for depth and challenging thought. They just were not used to it. And the adults surrounding them were not either. They were convinced the only way to draw kids in so they could be discipled was through silly games and events. I was convinced through teaching the Scriptures, prayer, and being their friend we would see something happen over time. Slowly but surely.
And so we kept at it. Week after week, Romans. Slowly crawling. Sometimes discouragement would creep in among us and sit in front of the fireplace in the “Fireside Room” where we met each week. That Wednesday night meeting had to compete with sports and other larger churches. But we stayed the course.
One of the goals was for them to have a firm grasp on the gospel of grace. I wanted them to understand and articulate the doctrine of justification by faith alone. All of my students will testify to this fact. We went back to it week after week after week. We covered it early and often.
A few months in we settled into the routine of a Middle School Bible Study (no games, no music) and then a meal provided by a parent and then High School Bible Study (no games, no music). We were in the Delta so we started planning day trips to Jackson and Memphis with my sole purpose being to just spend leisurely time with them. Sometimes we talked about very heavy things on these day trips but mostly we talked about music and movies and clothes and sports and all the things that can clutter their world one day and then make it shine like the sun next.
I think I had been there about 18 months when I was talking to some of my students and we realized we were a lot like the early Christians in that our group revolved around the Scriptures, prayer, and spending time together eating. Was I the leader? Yes. But there was something else going on while I was in Greenwood. The longer I was there, the more they took on the responsibility of keeping the group together and I in turn became more a part of them. The division between “them” as the group being led and “myself” as the leader blurred a little. I can’t explain it any better than that.
And so I sat on that couch looking out over a cotton field. Over two years earlier I had begun teaching Romans to these students and we had come to the end. Over ninety Wednesday nights of Romans later, we were done. We all felt the significance of the evening. Many had gone on to college by now. Many had joined later. And some had just quit coming. But many had stuck around and there were a number of us who had been there for over two years working our way through this book.
We did not finish without misty eyes and full hearts. Most adults had never done what they had done. By now, we numbered around 40 students and we knew we had something special. Unique.
We were a small community in a small church in a small town. It was all at once the most unexciting and exciting work I’d done. We were not an appendage to the church but a real part of it. We had the full support of the elders, the parents, the volunteers and each other.
Over the years I’ve watched a few students fall away. But I’ve watched many more grow and flourish in college and in marriage. Some have kids. So many of them are still friends and are more like peers. I remind them often that I will never stop being their youth pastor.
All of this is what I think of when I hear people say we need to get rid of youth ministry. Some call it a danger. Some say we should just chuck it. Some even argue that it contributes to students leaving the church.
After I left Greenwood, MS I went to a church where the enormous youth room had stains on the ceiling from previous games of “Zebra Cake Wiffleball” played before Bible Study. I tried to take my version of youth ministry to that church and then they paid me to leave less than a year and a half later. The first weekend after I left, they played “Zebra Cake Wiffleball.”
So I can understand the concern. All the silliness and mindlessness and weak teaching and immaturity makes me even worry sometimes. But I have seen something wildly different. I have no desire to offer what some will want in the way of a defense of youth ministry. Most likely, like any other pastor, I did a few things that are indefensible.
All I have are the stories of lives changed, profound moments of tears and laughter and worry and tragedy and hugs and anger turned into softness. I saw prodigals come home and evangelism happen without me asking and siblings learning to love one another. I got a front row seat of teens struggling with a growing faith and growing bodies and how to use them for God’s glory and the good of others.
The temptation is going to always be to look down on youth ministry. It will either be seen as a stepping stone towards other more significant work or as illegitimate. I can understand both views. The first makes sense because youth ministry is a great way for young men to learn about the church…to see the sausage get made. And youth ministry in many churches is a silly thing – just bait to keep them there long enough in hopes they will bite onto belief. It is usually trendy and moralistic and does not seek “the old paths.”
But I want to encourage those who are tempted to only see youth ministry as one of these. It can be profound. It can be deep. It can be full of wonder in the midst of all the difficulty.
I can remember one night when some students and I were driving back from one of our day trips in Jackson. The sky was black as tar except for the ten thousand pinpricks of light. We stopped on a lonely road, got out and looked up in wonder. And we just stood there in a silence only broken by the sighs of amazement. It was a holy moment. There was too much joy and unity and understanding of the glory of God to think otherwise.
When I left youth ministry, I admit I started to think it was below me. Flattery will do that. But now, from this distance, I cannot help but feel it is more likely above me.
One last story. Jimmy (not his real name) had an infuriating way of asking hard questions that let me know he was not buying everything I was trying to teach. He was not a member of the church I was serving but had been brought by some others. He was smart and funny and lived in a single parent home. He could be remarkably kind and could be surprising in his angry putdowns. But over time he softened and became an irreplaceable part of our group. Then his little sister started showing up. Last I saw he was a student leader in RUF and my heart soars still.
The stories and my soaring heart, I know it’s not much. But it’s the defense I prefer over all others.
A related post here