I wrote this a year ago after some time with some former youth. I’m currently working on a sermon that brought it to mind and decided to share it again.
I’m starting my thirteenth year as a youth pastor at the same church. That is a really long time in youth ministry and a really long time as a youth pastor in the same church. I remember my current youth when they were mere babies and the first youth I had in my ministry are now having babies.
Over the thirteen years, I’ve shared countless moments with hundreds of teenagers. I honestly don’t have a number for you but I do have names. Names and faces; joys and sorrows.
It is important to remember the joys from the years. Those memories are life-giving and often help spur continued years of ministry. I recently experienced reunions with a couple of youth that had taken the Prodigal Son route and when they were ready to return home, I’m so grateful that I could help demonstrate God’s grace and love to them. I can’t capture in words how much joy that brought to my life to see them let go of baggage and grab hold of God again. It is worth it all to see them come Home, to see them shed the guilt, pain and burdens.
But I still remember the time when they “left”. When our relationship was broken or distant. And there lies some of the darkest moments for a youth pastor (and pastors and parents and pretty much any human that loves another human).
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On Wednesday night, I was talking with the youth about our sources of significance. What or who is it that we look to to validate our worth and to prove our significance?
There is a lot of similarity between how teens and adults would answer: Relationships. Work or Grades. Success. Money. Popularity. Looks. Influence. There is a long list of fleeting things that we allow to have a lasting impact on our lives. When these things serve as our sources of significance, we live fearful, chaotic lives because we are always chasing that which can’t be caught.
It was ironic to me that Wednesday night’s youth gathering turned into a long look in the mirror regarding my source of significance. Wednesday night was off – in so many ways. Tech issues. Tired youth. Interruptions. It was one of those nights where you could sense that we were there but not really there. Some kids ignored another kid. During singing some kids were goofing off and distracting. And it made me angry and frustrated and I chewed on the kids some out of frustration.
I was trying to think later about why it made me so upset. Maybe it is because I’ve been patient for so long and then I lose it. Maybe it is because I get really angry when I see people exclude someone else. Maybe it was because I was more frustrated with myself that I was late getting things started.
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The youth in my youth family teach me a lot of things. There are the very useful things like how to master the Wii, how to SMS bomb someone, how to have fun, how to fart on demand (okay, I already had that mastered.) They remind me that you can make a difference and that it is never to late to start. They remind me that you can have fun regardless of the task at hand. They remind me to relax and that to be present in someone’s life is more important than designing a stellar program or event. They teach me that selfishness is pervasive and that I once was as awkward and self-conscious as they are and I would be wise to not forget it.
My awesome teachers on our recent mission trip.
They frustrate me a lot, too. I can’t count how many times we have had a really great discussion or awesome retreat and then in the next breath my youth are treating each other like no class citizens. I love social networking until I read the passive-aggressive status that “wish a certain someone would just get over herself” or “hate it went so-called ‘friends’ ditch you at the last moment for their loser boyfriend”. One can’t helped but feel used when the only time you see or hear from a youth that you’ve cared for is when they need a reference or recommendation or they are having a horrible time in life. But you hang in there with them. Because you love them. Because God strengthens you to love them. And because you are reminded ….
The way my youth behave is how I behave with God. First of all, let it be noted that I’m not comparing myself to God. The comparison here is completely in the way my youth act and respond to someone that loves them and the way I act and respond to Someone who loves me. How many times does God teach me something and I’m totally excited about it and like, ready to live it out 24/7 and then, like, forget it, like, in 24 minus 7. How many times do I acknowledge the debt that God has forgiven me and then turned around and expect a friend, a church member, or a youth to pay up now or pay later with interest. How many times do I run to God only when I need God to fix a problem, calm a worry, answer an unknown, or recommend me to an awesome guy whom He knows really well. Yet God hangs in there with me. Because God loves me and forgives me. Sure, God lets me fall on my face or down the stairs in front of hundreds landing, wisely, at His feet. But He is always waiting at the bottom to pick me up, to brush me off, and walk with me again. And after making sure I’m okay, to rib me until my ego is put into place.
It took me awhile to learn this lesson but it was a lesson well-learned. I’m a better youth pastor for it. By no means perfect but glad that when I get frustrated with my youth, God whispers in my ear, “I know exactly how you feel.”