“If those two are allowed to keep coming, then my boys will not be coming to youth group anymore.”
This father’s words were as hard as rock, and I knew it wasn’t an idle threat. The anger that seeped through his voice and dripped down his face was something I’d rarely encountered in my interactions with parents. Our youth ministry was full of mostly church kids who had church parents who usually spoke in calm, kind tones to their young youth pastor. This dad, however, sensed a threat to his kids and expected me to do something about it.
There were a couple boys with a reputation for causing trouble in our small town, and they had decided to attend our youth ministry. Maybe they’d taken an interest in the girls of our group, or maybe they just saw a new venue for their antics. They’d been visiting for a couple months and already had ruffled a few feathers. I genuinely liked the guys, but to be honest, they occasionally seemed to go out of their way to irritate and upset the other adults—adults such as this dad who had less patience and more reason to be upset than I did.
I had a feeling it was the only kind of attention they knew how to handle. I knew without a doubt they had no idea how intensely they were loved by God or how uniquely they’d been created for His purpose. I also knew our student ministry was geared to show them exactly those two things.
Understandably, some of the parents were concerned these two boys would be negative influences on their own kids. (They really had been in a lot of trouble around our tiny town). A few, such as the father who made the initial comment, weren’t sure they should be allowed to come to youth group or were very sure they should not. Effective outreach was making a mess of our comfortable little bubble.
This incident let me open up an important discussion with our church: “Who are we here for?” I knew this church family, and I knew the kids were going to see Christ at home. I also knew the trouble-making boys were not. If we kicked them out, there was a chance that would be their one, memory-making experience with the body of Christ. As I talked with our youth ministry team and our leadership, I was convicted that there was no way I could in good conscience let that happen. We were here for boys such as them, so I made a difficult call.
I explained to the dad that we would not be kicking these boys out. We’d still do everything we could to minister to his family, as well, but that Christ was compelling us to keep offering His message of reconciliation to the boys. I assured him that we’d built in some new parameters the boys would have to learn to live within; but ultimately our youth ministry was being called to reach these guys, and we couldn’t walk away from them. Jesus didn’t die to make good people nice. He died to make dead people live, and we had an opportunity to bring a couple students to life!
Then I asked him to help.
I didn’t just ask him to be the behavior police for these two boys, but really to help them experience the truth of God’s love and purpose the way he’d done for his own boys. It wasn’t always easy for him to give grace, but he did. The two boys began to see a new way to live in light of God’s patience and love and purpose…and we were reminded that we weren’t just there to keep church kids out of trouble. We were there as an outpost of our King’s ambassadors, begging those far from Him to come a little bit closer.
The incident with these two boys was a key moment for us as we redefined what our student ministry was there to do. Along the way, we wrestled with three questions as we re-envisioned and re-engineered our youth ministry:
What kind of place is this?
In one word, we were safe. We’d created a cocoon of church events and activities in which the children of our church families could spend their adolescence protected from the world. We had safe music for them to hear, safe shows for them to watch, safe(ish!) games for them to play, and safe friends for them to hang out with. As we talked about Jesus’ relationship with His disciples and what they did after His death, safety didn’t seem to be a major concern. Sure, there were warnings to keep one’s self pure and uncorrupted by the world’s folly, but somehow the early Christians mostly did that without jumping into bunkers and hiding from the world. Could we do that?
We found that the early disciples followed Jesus at great risk, but also with great commitment that came as a result of His transformation of their lives. Maybe that whole “don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed…” thing Paul wrote about in Romans 12 had something to say to us. We aren’t supposed to be a safe place, where the pattern of the world was sanitized and replicated. We are supposed to be a transforming place, where God built brand new people.
So we stopped being safe. We raised the bar of what we really were calling kids to commit to and increased the focus on God’s desire to transform our hearts and minds so we could send students out as His ambassadors into an unsafe world. We shifted from being a safe place to a transforming place.
Who are we here for?
The biggest part of this shift for us was realizing for whom we really existed. As we looked at what we did, we had to acknowledge that it was pretty much all geared for kids who’d grown up in the church. In our tiny town in the middle of the country, everyone assumed everyone else already had his or her own church, so outreach wasn’t really a priority. Everything was more about taking care of the kids with whom God had blessed our families. That’s all well and good if all the students in your area have a similar spiritual family looking out for them, but our behavior as a youth ministry was based on the wrong assumption that the truth we held to also was embraced by the rest of our community.
It was eye-opening for our people to find out there were kids within a stone’s throw of their homes, workplaces and our church building who never had been to Vacation Bible School or a Sunday School class, who’d never been told the God who made everything loved them more deeply than they could imagine.
Why hadn’t they heard? Because we all were too busy with our own kids and our own lives to notice them. How could they believe if they’d never heard? How could they hear if no one had been sent to them with Christ’s message? Were we being sent to them? Yes, we were going to be a church for students who didn’t have a church.
Who is responsible?
This is where things got a little messier. We weren’t just talking about youth ministry anymore. The transition from safety to transformation that began in the student ministry revealed a shift the whole body needed to make. We weren’t just talking about being the kind of youth ministry that was more actively engaged in outreach. We were talking about being a different kind of church that was fully engulfed in the mission of Jesus to reconcile His wandering creation with His faithful Father.
Up to this point, the youth ministry was seen as the responsibility of me and a handful of volunteers under the direction of the youth ministry committee (which was a couple elders, some volunteers and parents, and me). As the need in our community became clearer to our church body, a new vision for student ministry came into focus, too. Our church realized that youth ministry—specifically a healthy, outreaching youth ministry—was the responsibility of the church. The snowball effect was incredible! As people saw God working in the lives of students they’d never noticed before, they wanted to be a part of it. They wanted to help. They wanted to draw kids into Christ’s life. As they worked to do that, those kids’ families began to come, too. As outreach efforts began to blur the lines between who belonged and who didn’t belong, our youth ministry became integrated with our church.
This sounds like a nice, tidy process on paper. It’s not. We were a mess. Sometimes individuals didn’t like giving up the security they’d felt when things were nice and safe. Sometimes we stumbled as we sought to reach out to our neighbors with Christ’s love, but we kept stumbling forward and doing our best to show our community what God was really like and how deeply He wanted to reconnect with them. By asking, “What kind of place is this? Who are we here for? Who is responsible for youth ministry?” we were led to become the ambassadors we were supposed to be.
Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, but it’s only by wading into the messes that we get a chance to be a part of them. Grab a mop. Your community needs your help.