The voice on the other end of the line was saying something that I was not grasping.
“I want you to jump in with me, into Student Ministries.”
“What is that?” I replied. I had no idea what Student Ministries was or meant. The only image that filled my mind was college campus outreaches replete with super hero tracts.
“It’s youth ministry. Teen Ministry,” the voice replied. More images flooded my mind. This time it was pizza parties and sweaty roller skating. I had no intention of ever roller skating…ever, if possible.
“Bro, I don’t do pizza and roller skates.”
“Good, neither do I.”
This was the conversation that launched my wife, our 2 kids, and I into full-time youth ministry. We uprooted from our comfy home in Fort Mill, SC and made a 16 hour journey to move back to Kansas City where I had grown up. We had recently heard the call and moved from there just 4 years earlier.
My view of teenagers, like most of yours, was rooted in a horrifying thought: myself a teenager. When I closed my eyes, I saw myself at 15: idealistic, way too confident with bad ideas, scared others opinions and ashamed of my life failures. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I realized my distaste for youth ministry was, in reality, a distaste for myself.
Every summer, the ministry I worked for ran a God-focused teen camp. Young people would come from all up and down the east coast for 2-3 weeks and trounce around our ministry facilities. Break things. Break lots of things. Say the wrong things. Mix up bible verses. Sweat. And then sweat on top of that sweat. It drove me crazy.
The way I viewed stereotypes, as far as teenagers go, was this: they’re pretty much all true. Why is it that being around teenagers is something we see as having to endure?
After re-locating to Kansas City, I tried to get my mind around what was happening, and what was this great mystery called, “youth ministry” all about? I remember the first night heading into youth service with my wife and kids in tow. About 100 teenagers were dotted throughout a darkened room with a well-lit blue stage at the front. Cool sounding harmonies and guitar lines floated out of the speakers. One of my first thoughts was, “Wow, we have really good music.” Throughout the night we were greeted by 1 teen. I mean, we were the new guys. They no doubt were intimidated by our outrageous coolness.
The first year was a huge challenge. Not only was I learning a ton about youth ministry and trying to acclimate to an unfamiliar, albeit soundly forgotten world, but I didn’t realize I had massive adjustments to make. The difficulty ofttimes isn’t in the learning itself, it’s realizing you’re learning. Like many, I came in idealistic, thinking I had so much to offer. Which I did. But something else began to happen in that first year. Something surprising. Something that I wouldn’t have believed if you had told me.
Youth leaders are a rare breed. And they’re getting rarer. On average the American youth leader stays connected 18 months before moving on. Because of this (and other dynamics), the youth ministry world is in state of constant flux. Whenever I meet another youth leader that’s been in the game for longer than a year or 2 there’s kind of an unspoken understanding that passes between us. Most youth leaders are under immense pressure that derives from 2 key places: themselves and their pastors.
The youth leader can often see themselves as above those they are leading. After all, I’m older and have more life experience. What could a teenager actually teach me? If asked a question that I don’t know the answer to, I have enough lingo to fake my through it without giving substance and definitely without admitting, “I don’t know.” As a 30 or so year old, it can be difficult seeing ourselves invested long-term into youth ministry. Youth ministry can in many ways become the training ground for “real ministry” that we’ll hopefully (dear Lord, hopefully) graduate into after our time is done.
Senior pastors love the idea of having a fiery, growing youth group. Heck, that sounds awesome to me. But the way that it plays out after the youth pastor is hired and sent to shepherd the sheep is not always pretty. Reason: metric of success. What is the metric of success for the youth group? For many, the measure of success is if the youth group gets bigger from year to year and if those graduating continue to attend and tithe at the grown up’s service. It takes a little self-honesty to actually see it this way. It can be dressed up in lots of different ways, but unfortunately it can’t be re-told for what it is.
Those youth pastors “grow up” and do the same thing that was done to them. Broken fathering taught by broken fathers.
When I began youth ministry, the Lord began doing something shocking: ministering to me. What I saw as broken, what I saw as annoying, I began to see as…me. I was broken. I was in some ways more broken than those I was leading.
Because of the nature of my job (the mind and heart of teenagers) the Holy Spirit began to take me on a journey. That journey was not fame, appreciation from others, and powerful testimonies as I had imagined. It was a journey into my youth. He began to ask me:
“Isaac, when you think of yourself as a teenager, what do you see? What do you think I see?”
This process was often uncomfortable. But through it, my heart began to receive healing from the pain I had incurred over 10 years before. As this happened, the Lord gave me new eyes to see those whom I was leading. No longer was I focused solely on the outward brokenness and immaturity. I began to actually enjoy the teenagers.
I began to enjoy teenagers when I saw that God enjoyed me when I was a teenager.
In spite of my sin, self, and pride. God still took me seriously. The decisions I made to love Him and choose Him in my teenage years were so precious to the Lord. At the time I was so wracked with guilt I thought they were more along the lines of wishful thinking than earth shattering resolves.
Principle: we grow slowly, over time, making consistent decisions (rather than perceived radical ones).
I get to enjoy teenagers because God enjoys teenagers.