Is the author of Ecclesiastes suggesting our work in student ministry is not worth it when he opens with the following remarks?
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
I’ve been sitting with Ecclesiastes for a while now. As part of our young adult, mid-week bible study, we’ve been working through this book passage by passage. We’re only a few weeks in and already it’s raising questions. The introductory 11 verses are a slap in the face to everyone who reads them, Youth Pastor or not.
It’s hard to hear and come to terms with what the narrator, a “Teacher” says: Within two generations we’ll be forgotten (1:11). As the world rotates around the sun, as the rivers continue to run, as the ocean never fills, and as the winds blow from here to there, so too our lives and ministries will be forgotten. Perhaps Rihanna is right when she sings, “Round and around and around and around we go.” Rightfully, we might ask the Teacher, “What do people gain from all their labor and work, at which they toil under the sun?” (1:3) What do we gain from our ministry with youth, at which we toil under the sun?
Like me, you may have had times when you’ve asked the same question of the youth or student ministry you lead (or are involved in). We have students for a limited time. They come and they go. The year follows a rhythm – Christmas, Easter, the summer holiday, the significant events in the life of our church, the annual camp, the Sunday meetings, the afternoon meetups, the conferences, and the coffees. The ministry year happens so quickly and may bring with it a sameness and a grind that is tiring and wearisome.
Oh how comforting the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is when he reminds us that in a few years, no one will remember us! All that work and toil we’ve undertaken in our ministries will be long forgotten. The weeks and months and years of investing in people, seeking to help them know Jesus and grow in Jesus, becomes a distant memory.
It’s like the Teacher is trolling each of us.
If we read his words carefully, we might actually find encouragement in our toil and boldly continue our work with young people. While the book of Ecclesiastes seems to suggest a pessimistic view of life – like a grumpy old man who has turned bitter at the end of his days – we do find glimpses of hope and relief in the midst of the grind.
In 2:24-25 the Teacher writes,
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness…
Of course, we want our ministry to be meaningful, not only to those who we serve, but also as individuals seeking to follow God’s leading. To be a Youth Pastor means we have a deep sense of care for our students and wish to see them come to know their true Caretaker. It seems, according to the Teacher, that with God things aren’t as meaningless as they seem. We find enjoyment and satisfaction when we understand that all we’ve been given is from God himself.
Have you considered that the people under your care, the church family you’re a part of, and the students you lead are all gifts from God to you. Despite our natural tendency to think that we’re the ones ministering to students, we often find that they are ministering to us. This is a gift from God.
In a similar way to the beginning of Proverbs, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes understands that it is God who provides. 3:9-14 reads,
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
The burden placed on our hearts for the young people of our church and community can be overwhelming at times. As we track with young adults who struggle with their mental health, body image, self-esteem, or sexuality, our own hearts can become tired and rotten. Yet out of this toil God makes all things beautiful. He brings us out of the gloomy mess, lifts our chin, and helps us to see a bigger vision. A vision of what is truly lovely, enjoyable, and worthy. Amongst all the hard work that comes with youth ministry, by grace alone we can see that God gives us the gift of satisfaction in work, in food, in drink, and in all things. When we see this, we are driven to our knees in worship.
As we make it to the end of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher summarises all he has said into a few lines (12:13-14):
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Despite the hardship of student ministry, when we have a vision for all that God has given us – all that we don’t deserve – we are drawn into gratitude and worship. In doing so, our enjoyment of life and satisfaction in our work is put into perspective. All worries, failings, and pressures of ministry rest upon his shoulders, are completed in his timing, and give us hope for what is to come.
For the Youth Pastor who is tired, frustrated, and wondering why we do this thing called ‘ministry’ – we can gain strength by looking to God, thanking him, and seeing the big vision of why he created us. When we wonder what will happen to those in our care about to leave for college, to explore other areas of life, or to seemingly walk away from the faith altogether, we gain comfort by looking to God, thanking him, and tasting that grand vision of his sovereign hand. When we find it hard to enjoy God ourselves, when we must preach and teach when our hearts are dry, we gain strength by looking to God, thanking him, and taking hold of the vision he has for the world.
The demands of student ministry are ever present. The world in which we live is hard, frustrating, and energy-sapping. But we know, as the Teacher reminds us, that God is real, the privilege of the task brings joy, and only with him may we walk in strength wisdom through it all.