Longevity, messiness, and yard work. These are some of the approaches to youth ministry I have taken over the years.
I recently received an email from the dad of a former student. In his email he simply thanked me for the times I had spent with his son. His son is now preparing to go to Ecuador as a missionary for a few months, as he continues to sort through and wrestle with God’s calling on his life.
I have had the privilege of walking him through these thoughts and discussing many other issues and areas of his life over the past seven years. I have been able to watch him grow and develop through the awkward stages of puberty and mature into a fun and solid man of God.
These types of conversations and experiences did not happen during youth group, Sunday school, or even in small group.
They happened during the times when I shared my life with him…as one friend to another and as one man to a man to be.
Whether it is sharing a home-cooked meal at your house, meeting at a coffee shop for a cup of coffee, watching a sporting event or school play, traveling and talking, visiting an elderly person together, or doing yard work, I tend to believe that in these moments the divine presence of Jesus meets our everyday ordinary interactions and transcends them.
I have spent 7 years investing time, prayer, and lunch money into this student..and consider him now more a friend than student.
When I had yard work projects, he would be the first I would call and while pulling up old stumps and cutting down shrubs we would talk about life, family, relationships, faith.
Every week the topics would change and he and I would both be in different places as well, but the relationship continued.
We would sit and talk as we chowed down our “Cluckin Russian” sandwiches from the local deli.
Here is my point.
I am proud of this relationship and thankful for the email. It believe that is what youth ministry needs to be. I only wish I did it more often and with more kids.
For all of the __insert name here____’s out there, how many more would benefit from these type of relationships?
I struggle with this because obviously as youth pastors we cannot be all things to all people at all times (even Jesus didn’t see every person and meet every need). Some needs he must have left unmet and unfulfilled. Others he passed onto his disciples.
So, time is certainly one major obstacle to overcome in relational youth ministry and it gets worse, if and when you get married, and eventually have children.
And sometimes, if the truth be told, we connect easier with some students and look to avoid others at all costs.
The other factor with relational youth ministry is fighting the temptation to spend all of your time with a few select (and small) group of students. While to some degree this is necessary, I often wonder how many occasions I made a decision for the wrong reasons.
As youth pastors, we also have to battle against dependency and too much intimacy. We never want a student to feel like they “need” us.
For one, we will never have the space we need personally. Second, valued time may be taken away from other students. Also, our goal should be the long-term health and well being of the student, and only God can provide that. If a student “needs” me for much more than a semester of so, I think we are in trouble. Who am I anyway?
Additionally, we must be very careful about the opposite sex. Naturally, we must check our own hearts and motives. But sometimes, members of the opposite sex (or maybe even same sex) can be attracted to those in our positions as youth leaders. Be careful not to forge an emotional bond that may be taken the wrong way by your student. Sometimes being too kind and friendly can lead down roads you ought not to travel.
I get it. Relationships take time and are hard work, but they are worth it.
I have included part of the email sent from this dad not to boast. It is actually another confession, because I rarely get these kinds of emails. I wish I did more often because that would probably mean I was using my time wisely and efficiently and doing relational youth ministry more.
I doubt you would remember, but we met very briefly at my son’s (______) graduation party 1-1/2 years ago. I was glad to meet you then, and had heard a lot of positive things about you before that from ____
I wanted to send this note to let you know how greatly appreciative I am of the time and effort you’ve been investing in him, and to let you know how gratifying it is to hear how his faith and spiritual maturity has been growing over the last few months.
…I felt our relationship becoming more distant, and I know that a couple of times in desperate attempts to right the ship, I said things to him that probably alienated him further instead of drawing him in.
Yesterday, however, he called me, and we spoke for nearly 2 hours. It was one of the most amazing conversations I’ve ever had with him as he shared with me some of the things he’s been learning and really internalizing through his meetings with you and from his own study.
For the last several months I’ve been praying that God draw _____ to Him, to provide him wisdom in his decisions, and that we could connect again. This was such an answer to prayer, and I fully recognize how God has used you to help bring about that answer. I felt I needed to write to let you know that God is working through you mightily, to encourage you by letting you know that you’re making a difference, and to Thank You for your efforts and commitment.