When I first told my pastors about the call God put on my heart for youth, I genuinely cared about the youth and I was eager to serve them. Yet there was also a small part of me looking for glory. Those kids were going to love me, open up to me and ultimately let me change them. I had visions of success stories about teens moving from drugs and abuse to a passionate love for Jesus. I wanted to be a rock star to these kids. It was only a small part of me, I promise, but it was there.
My fantasy view of youth ministry came from watching inspiring movies of teachers and coaches taking on inner city kids who were plagued by gangs and abuse and teaching them life lessons, hard work, and teamwork. The movies often end with tear-jerking scenes when the kids line up to tell that teacher or coach “Thank you.” I secretly wanted that line-up. The reality of youth ministry is much different, but just as meaningful.
I work for an urban church in California, in a city infested with gangs and drugs. Over the past few years our church has been introduced to some heavy issues going on in the community that many of us were not aware of. The two main issues include the growth of gangs and sex trafficking targeted at the junior high kids who walk to school and back home every day.
Our youth ministry is relationship-oriented, using various programs and events to develop those relationships. One day a week one of our pastors and a youth worker sit on the sidewalk where a lot of junior high kids walk home from school and offer cookies and prayer. Their presence on that sidewalk has made a difference in many young lives, especially since that is also the time of day a lot of those kids are being targeted by gangs and drug dealers.
Our youth group has what I call a “crusader heart.” We really enjoy doing work that reaches out to our community. We had a “Free Yard Sale” that gave us an opportunity to give to people in need at no charge and with no agenda except to share God’s love. We also found a way to have a more hands-on effect on our city by participating in our Community Clean-Up Day. We painted curbs, picked up trash and covered graffiti.
Though we had to get up at 4 a.m., almost no one complained about the time or the hard work. We had fun knowing our work would give hope, showing we care too much about this city to let it fall apart. That’s our job as Jesus’ followers—to show people hope and to be people from whom true hope comes. My personal hope leads to my personal goal for youth ministry.
My desire in youth ministry is to create an environment where love, grace, and compassion are coupled with conviction and accountability. With only love, grace and compassion, all we get are kids who like coming to church because the people are nice and because it can be fun. But then, when “more important” things like school activities and jobs come along, they drop out. By holding young people accountable for their actions and showing them how to be taught by their convictions, we help them build character and we create leaders.
One of my gifts has been to create an environment where the youth feel free to open up, be honest, and talk about the things they are going through: family conflict, forgiveness, gossip, dating, all the concerns of teenage life. I often lay out the topic, question, or idea and allow the youth to lead the discussion. The discussions give space for them to ask questions, learn about each other and even address some personal conflicts and struggles. I also found that it allows for the youth to say things they didn’t think they had permission to say, such as: “I don’t know if I believe in God,” or “I don’t see the point in church.” Sharing these thoughts out loud gives the leaders an opportunity to come alongside and help them in their personal struggles.
What I also love about the personal and organic interactions with the youth is that it builds trust between the youth and the leader. When youth are being listened to without interruption or judgment, they feel safe, and they want to share more. This is when they know you actually care. It’s when I choose to sit and talk to a teen after church, that I’m often asked for an opinion or advice.
There is a small part of me that would still love a line-up of people who I’ve impacted to say “Thank you.” And there have been a few occasions when some of the students have thanked me for being there for them, listening to them and giving them rides. But I will probably never know the difference I have made in many of the young people I have come across. And that’s OK. Because youth ministry really belongs to Jesus. It’s his story and his name that has power. My job is to love people and introduce them to him and let him make a difference in their lives. I believe youth ministry is one of the church’s greatest resources for introducing people to Jesus. And if we are training our young people to become servants for the kingdom, when they are adults the congregations they serve will be unstoppable.
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