Have you ever had one of those weeks where you lock up the church, start up your car, and then instantly torture yourself with the haunting question, “Did tonight even make a difference in anyone’s life?”
Try having a whole school year of these gut-check sessions following a youth group.
Hands down, the hardest thing I’ve done in youth ministry is start a high school ministry from scratch.
There was no organized high school when I arrived at this church. In fact, there weren’t many high schoolers in the congregation. But we determined that we were going to do everything in our power to keep grades 5-12 from having to be under the same ministry umbrella.
After pulling as many 9th – 12th graders together as possible, we began our adventure with eight students. It would only take five minutes being at our first week to know that this was not a squeaky-clean-church-grown crop of kids; it was… well, the opposite. And that was refreshing. That was exciting. Until we tried to crack open the Good Book. It was chaotic. There were disruptions. There was no focus. In fact, I abruptly closed our time with a toast to pink lemonade.
Why? Because they were far more interested in that than what the Apostle Paul had to say that night.
The trend continued. Each week was a different battle. It ranged from trying to get earphones out of their ears to breaking up chesty macho standoffs. There was a boatload of side-chatter during the message but deafening silence during small groups. Every time an issue arose, the turmoil within myself welled up. Do I come down hard? Should I be understanding? Would it be worth it to ask the ones who aren’t serious to not come back?
But after doing some soul-searching as a team, we chose grace. We realized that this was a sign that we were reaching the kids who needed it. Learning more of their backstories only caused our compassion to grow. It gave us more patience for those moments we felt constantly disrespected. And even though we were seeing very little fruit, we kept plugging away.
Our group felt like such a fragile arrangement for quite some time. I was convinced that the bottom could fall out any given week. We were plucking students from such diverse backgrounds. Now sure, that sounds wonderful, but since we were so small, they actually had to like each other for this to work. And it took until late spring for that defining moment where one of our most vocal students articulated to the whole group this one wonderful concept: we are family.
Lightbulbs went off. They got it. They felt it. It took a full school year to build trust and friendship, but after this moment, we started to see baby steps towards Christ.
Even though our group is much larger now, I look back on that first year with incredible fondness. God did something special. I’m grateful we didn’t get in the way of it.
A few years later, I had a raw conversation with that same student who spoke up and cauterized the notion that we are family. He said that the reason that our group held it together in that first year was because in the midst of all of the chaos, disrespect, and hyper-activity, they looked at me and saw a composed, patient presence. I didn’t react. I gave them space to be them. After time, they mirrored what they saw in me.
I could have easily dismantled that notion if I acted the way I wanted to internally. But thankfully, God gave me a composure beyond myself.
A mentor told me that we don’t get to choose the sheep that God brings to us; it’s simply our job to shepherd them well. If you find yourself with a tough crowd, I hope that God will give you the chance to walk alongside students in the middle of their messiness and then be humbled by the ways God used your presence more than any message you ever gave.