Youth ministry isn't always rainbows and butterflies. Anyone who's actually worked in youth ministry for more than five minutes could tell you that. When I was a Youth Director in Ramona, I faced a lot of discouraging situations. That's gonna happen even (especially!) when you're doing it well. But we can also get discouraged for the wrong reasons.
I helped coordinate a network of youth workers in Ramona when I was there. We gathered once a month to support one another, share resources, and maybe even partner in ministry together sometimes (this was always optional because we wanted to remain open to diversity and not everybody's ready to do ministry together, but we still ended up doing it a lot). As a result of this networking, I had several opportunities to come and speak or lead conversations with kids from other church youth groups. For whatever reason, it seemed like all the kids from every other church were more spiritually healthy than the kids from my church... or perhaps I should say, they were more religiously formed or socialized in their behaviors. They knew the Bible better than my kids. They could pray out loud more articulately than my kids. Every group had leaders in it who wanted to evangelize to their friends. Sure, more often than not, their theology was terrible (read: super conservative) but at least they knew who I was talking about when I talked about Paul or even Jeremiah. My group was basically apathetic when it came to the Bible, they didn't want or know how to pray out loud (in fact, they were terrified by it), and they thought sharing their faith with their friends was just some obnoxious thing their Calvary Chapel friends tried to do (I may have agreed with them on at least one level). In short, everyone else's kids just had higher potential than mine. Theirs were spiritual superstars, mine were Sunday School dropouts. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong!
(Of course, this was just my perception. In reality, I had some incredibly talented and passionate kids with a deep Christian identity and spiritual passion. And of course there were kids in other groups who were just as "delinquent" as some of the kids in mine. But you always exaggerate things when you're comparing yourself to others)
Because I thought that I was supposed to tap into the potential of my students to form them into some version of myself, or some version of what I thought it should look like to be a good Christian. I thought that I should be able to measure the success (or failure) of my ministry based on how well my kids behaved, how quickly they could cite Bible passages, and how great their prayers sounded. So obviously, I felt like I was failing in ministry. So I tried to focus and build my ministry around those few kids who seemed like they had the potential to be leaders, to be the spiritual superstars of the other youth groups in town. Implicitly, I was beginning to create a youth ministry that was for that kid who had the right stuff, the stuff I could preserve and expand into the future.
This is what so many Youth Pastors build their youth ministries into. This, in fact, is what so many Senior Pastors build their churches into--ministries for the 'most likely to succeed.' But what happens to the least likely to succeed? What about the people who just aren't going to be the walking Bible concordance or the people who aren't ever going to feel comfortable or interested in voicing their prayers out loud? What about the people who, according to our standard, just don't have potential? Aren't our ministries for them too, if not especially for them?! There's at least some Biblical foundation for thinking that it is--think of Matthew 25 or the Beatitudes. It says "blessed are the poor in spirit" not "blessed are those who've got the potential to be rich in spirit."
There was a turning point in my ministry. This was about the time in my ministry when I started reading Andrew Root and Kenda Dean. And this was when I first heard Bart Campolo speak at a conference at a camp in Southern California. I don't feel the need to describe the specifics of these contributions to my formation as a minister, but suffice to say, I was opened to the possibility that my ministry wasn't about tapping into potential, but loving and serving those who don't seem to have any potential, and trusting God to do the work of formation. My job isn't influence or formation, that's God's job. My job is to love. My ministry is not for the most likely to succeed. My ministry is for the least of these. And the invitation which we have all received according to the raising of Jesus from the dead is to identify ourselves with the crucified Jesus, to minister to the least of these and to find ourselves as the least of these. We're free to judge our success or failure according to whether we loved and served, not just according to how well we formed, the kids in our ministries.
Here's the deeper theological rationale for this [bear with me for this next paragraph]. There is a deeply eschatological orientation to this perspective. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. Everything in the present is subject to death. But the resurrection of Jesus allows us to see that death does not have the final word even for those things which are subject to death. The final word--that future word which says, "God will be all in all"--has been spoken now in the resurrection of Jesus, the first fruits of the world's redemption now present among us as the anticipation and promise of the coming of God. The word of promise has been spoken on the cross for the one who hangs there is one who has resurrection as his future. God, in Jesus, is made subject to suffering and death, joining us in our present experience and thus bringing us into God's resurrection. Because our experience is God's experience, God's future (which has already occurred in the raising of Jesus, occurs provisionally in those actions and revelations which correspond to that resurrection, and is coming to this world in the coming of God when God will be all in all) is our future. That means that the future is not the prolongation of the present, the preservation of the good parts of now, or the expansion of the potential that the present holds to become the future. The present is not the thing we need to form into the future, but the present gets its meaning from the future, from God action, from the resurrection, from the new creation and the world's redemption. This allows us to see the present on its own terms, not just for the potential it holds. The resurrection of Jesus, which is present now according to promise, was not the resurrection of those parts of Jesus which were not subject to death. It is the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, the dead Jesus, so it is death which is healed, the future is the resurrection of the dead world, the world which has no potential. The meaning of the present comes from the future, not from its movement into the future. Seeing the future as the truth about the present rather than seeing the present as the thing we'll bring into the future, subtle and semantic as that shift may sound, actually allows us to look for life in the present not just in the parts that don't seem subject to death. It allows us to hope also for and proclaim hope to those places which don't seem to have potential--places like Golgatha and the cross. In the division and contradiction of life and death, in Jesus Christ, the crucified God of the resurrection stands. How much of our ministry simply becomes the preservation and expansion of the 'good parts' of the present rather than witness and insistence upon the radical interruption of God's future into the darkness of the present? Ironically, the ontological prioritization of the present (looking at the present as the thing which gives meaning to the future) perpetuates the division of darkness from light, hope from hopelessness--leaving the crucified on their crosses--rather than identifying hope with hopelessness through the identity of Jesus in the total contradiction of the cross and resurrection made possible in the ontological prioritization of the future over the present.
All this is to say, with some theological precision (though I don't claim too much of that), our hope is in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. It is a hope which exists not only among the most likely to succeed but even (if not especially!) among those in whom we see little potential, little enthusiasm for the gospel. Indeed the resurrection of the crucified Jesus claims the "potential" (with nuanced definition) and the present dignity of those kids who don't want to pray out loud and aren't ever (ever!) going to bring their bible to school or witness to their friends. All this is to say, our ministry is for and with the doubters and the skeptics, the weary and heavy laden, the least of these, and the poor of spirit. We're invited to look for the presence (and action) of God in the pain, doubt, apathy, ignorance, and whatever else frustrates most Youth Pastors of those least likely to succeed. We're invited to join in what God is doing, simply by being with and loving those kids who aren't going to be the Christian club president on their campus. And we're free from having to interpret ourselves as failures if we can't single handedly coerce the present to become the future. You know the kids who don't fit the modern myth of potential, those kids who don't like to pray out loud or witness to their friends. Youth ministry is for them too.
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