You CAN’T MAKE someone want Jesus.
We can use “gimmicks,” but not everyone will respond.
Sometimes our great plans flop:
Recently I got a call from a former student who was struggling in their faith. Honestly, it was greater than that. They made the decision that the “cost of following Christ” was just too great. Life was not working out the way they had hoped. Trials had come and as Jesus himself predicted of some, the thorns had choked the life away. My heart broke as we spoke. This had been a student who was entirely “on fire for the Lord” not only through High School, but also through their first years of college. The student told me it was just “too hard” to live the way Jesus wanted them to, He continued to let them down anyway so they were walking away from Him.
In the same week I opened up the paper to see the mug shot of another former student. When he was in Junior High a family tragedy had forever changed his attitude about life. Two summers ago he came back to our programming for a short time, and I had been encouraged. Then once again he dropped out of sight, and we couldn’t find him. That is until he has been arrested for armed robbery.
This is not the first time something like this has happened. I have had other students make life choices that have forever altered their path. Former students have been murdered, committed suicide, joined gangs, ended up in abusive relationships, and become addicts among other things. Each time there is something inside me that feels like I am the one who failed.
Before you tell me I’m not, I know all the right answers. I am the first person to remind others in ministry that we are never the Savior of anyone and Jesus is bigger than us or the students for that matter. However, I can’t help it. I feel like I could have “done” more. I couldn’t even tell you what the “more” is every time.
As these two events collided this week I started to wallow at my “lack” of success. This is when my husband reminded me of a vital truth, “These are their choices. This has nothing to do with your success or failure in life, and certainly not your failure or success with Jesus.”
How easily I forget. I can so easily make their decision about me. I should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, it has nothing to do with us at all. The beauty in God creating us with the ability to choose, is we are given the ability to be in relationship with Him. The ugly side, of course, is that we can also choose to do our own thing.
I think I need to remember how easy it would be for me to walk away from the Lord as well. As CS Lewis once said, “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had ever been done.” The problem in running from God is that we look over and He is running with us.
So what I can do is to pray. Pray and realize my success comes the moment I show up and choose to be with Jesus again today. Pray that my students would realize the same for themselves. Pray you would remember for yourself. Pray I would choose to believe what I wrote.
How do you deal with the days you feel like a failure?
As the pastor of a church, I say this because I believe failure does at least the following 4 things:
Do you think you are failing enough?
Have you ever experienced one of the following scenarios in youth ministry?
I have been through each of these, some more than once (or twice, or multiple times.) It can leave me disgruntled, disheartened and wondering why on earth I remain in youth ministry at all. The bottom line is it can feel more like we are falling and failing some days than doing a mighty work with and for the Lord. There can be a tendency to cling to the one kid who graduated and fits our mold of having “made it.” We think it’s alright because at least there was one. However, is that really the way the Lord wants us to look at it? He is looking to each student as one he longs to be His, fully and totally, in spite of what we see. So then what is success with students?
Personally I Start Here:
1. A Searching Heart
When the students are asking questions that cause them to wrestle with who this Jesus is to them, it is powerful. They may still not be making awesome life choices, but are they wanting more? Can we see a spark that the Holy Spirit is working?
2. A Changing Attitude
Sometimes we are so focused on the future of a student we forget to look at the small strides they are making. This is the student you have a deep conversation with, they appear to not listen, and all of a sudden you see something starting to transform in the way they see life. Look for an attitude in process as a sign the Lord is changing a heart.
3. Willing and Eager to Learn
Part of adolescence is to appear aloof. Are they asking questions? Do they pull you aside and want to know more about how to live for Christ in any way? Do they tell you about mistakes they are making with an eye to a remedy? It is a major push forward when our students desire to know more about who Christ is and how to know him past their time at church or youth program.
In the end we can never forget to celebrate every victory, no matter the size. To our inability to perceive it might seem minute, to the Lord he is treating is like the winning touch down. It is less about how much scripture they can memorize or their ours in service. Truly success is all about choosing to see every student as the Lord does: His.
How do you see your students as a success?
I’ve FAILED as a youth pastor…
… if I put the ministry ahead of my relationship with God.
… if I put the ministry ahead of my relationship with my wife and family.
… if don’t invest in meaningful friendships outside of youth ministry and/or the church.
… if I don’t continually work to grow closer to my Creator.
… if I allow my identity to be found in my work.
… if I allow the numbers to discourage me OR make me feel good about myself.
… if I become jaded toward the church because of envy or pride.
… if I allow people’s view of me get in the way of God’s view of me.
… if I allow how the church/leadership values me to define my worth.
… if I am not a disciple AND a disciple maker.
… if I constantly look beyond student ministry toward “the next big thing.”
… if students feel like numbers and not individuals.
… if the work I’m doing “for” God doesn’t align with God’s desire for me or the ministry.
I’m sure there are others we need to be aware of as pastors/leaders/volunteers. Any others that come to mind?
Our ministry at USAFA Club Beyond relies heavily on its volunteers and so there is a deep need to help set them up for success. Here are three things we do to ensure we achieve it.
Empower them. Training is one of the fundamental parts of a great team. Whether you have a group of veteran volunteers or first-timers to youth ministry, everyone can benefit from training. A single yearly training is not enough nor are one hour monthly events. The single, longer session is perfect for vision casting, youth ministry 101, and the overall mission of the youth group. At the same time, monthly meetings are perfect for Q&A from struggling volunteers, tweaking skills, and going over future curriculum. We incorporate both and find that they appreciate all of it.
Equip them. This includes a thorough and purposeful curriculum, a four or six month calendar of events, and all of the necessary equipment. Their job is not to come up with the questions or the lesson (though several of them are great at it and I ask for insight when writing up the curriculum). On their best nights, they stick to the core of the curriculum but follow the discussion of what the students bring up, asking different questions and using other illustrations than what is printed. But when life gets hard, they have a terrible day at work before youth group, or get into an argument with a family member, now they are not coming to club at 100%. This is when preparation key to providing success.
Encourage them. Sure our title is youth worker but at least 30% of our time is invested in adults like our volunteers and so we must make a point to focus on them too. Many of them are hurting just as much as our students but they have figured out how to cope. We need to minister to them in their successes, failures, mistakes, and accomplishments. So if a student is giving them a hard time or they are going through a crisis, buy them a Starbucks and give them an hour or two of your time to be a sounding board or help bear their burdens.
Jeremy Smith is a 26-year old youth pastor at the Air Force Academy chapel, working for Club Beyond, and attending Denver Seminary for his Master”s of Arts in Counseling Ministries. He has been involved in Youth for Christ for eight years and absolutely loves sharing the life of Jesus with teens. Check out his blog at Seventy8Productions.