I was a youth pastor for about 28 years, and have been out of the ministry for nearly 8 years now. And today I am going to share the most important thing I know about ministry to students, something that has become more clear to me the longer I have been away from serving churches. You want to know the key to simplifying student ministry? Want to know the one thing you can do (because Jesus does the rest!) that makes youth ministry have a lasting impact in the lives of teenagers? Well listen up, because here it is. Go where the youth are. That's it. And here's why....
All of pictures on this post have one thing in common- not a one of them was taken at a church! One of the first things I ever learned as a youth pastor was that waiting for students to show up at church was not an effective way to build relationships with them or to help them grow in their relationships with Jesus. Unless they grow up in the church, lots of students are a little scared of the place. I was taught early on that in order to really let kids know that you care, you had to meet them on"their turf." That meant seeing them at their homes, their schools and their extra-curricular activities. So I did. Like most professional (and many volunteer) youth workers I ate many school lunches, was attacked by numerous household pets (and a couple of parents) and spent many a happy moment with students in restaurants and arcades. And I spent hours- more hours than you could count or would believe- at sporting events, band concerts, dance recitals, school fund-raisers, cheer-leading competitions, school plays, piano recitals and much more. There was nothing quite as good for the ministry's PR as being at football games in Trinity, NC or Waycross, GA on a Friday night and being seen by the entire community. There was nothing quite as odd as going to swimming, gymnastics or badminton competitions when I was in Hinsdale, IL (It is hard to cheer for a badminton match and look enthusiastic. "Kill that birdie, kill that birdie, GO GO!") and seeing the stunned looks on the faces of the students who could not believe I actually showed up. No matter the event, I made an effort to see each student in action at least once a "season." It was important ministry- even though I did have one church tell me that the hours spent at such events did not count as work (that same church at one point actually had me punching a time clock). I would submit to you now that not only did those hours count, but in many ways they were Job #1.
Sometimes the events themselves were quite tedious. I remember going to a three hour piano recital to see two students perform- and both of them played in the last 15 minutes! I remember going to soccer match after soccer match, trying desperately to pretend I enjoyed the sport. I pulled for incredibly bad football teams, watched horrific marching bands and clapped loudly for off-key violin players. I also saw some amazing things over the years. But in reality, the results didn't matter. What mattered was being there. I loved seeing students after the event, in the lunch room or at their home and hearing the question: "Why are you here?" When I gave them the simple answer- "To see you"- their smiles told me I had just taken a step towards a real relationship with a teenager. And real relationships open doors for sharing Jesus.
The movie Field of Dreams taught us that "if you build it, they will come." While it is one of my favorite movies, when it comes to youth ministry (and ministry in general) that particular statement is a lie. The truth is much closer to this- If you show them you care, they will come. So as my old buddy Geoff Moore would say, "It's time to get out there- and play ball!" It's time to cut back on office work, skip a few staff meetings and get out there and love students- on their turf! Youth work is hard. But it can be a little bit simpler if we remember that relationships are Job #1. They don't care how much we know until they know how much we care. It's a truth that will never change.
Because of Jesus,