God is Great, Ministry is Good, and People Are Messy

The text message came around 9:30 at night.  “Peter has been arrested.” I stepped away from watching a student’s soccer game to contact Peter’s mom. Susan was actually quite calm. “The police said they had been keeping an eye on Peter, and when someone reported their car keys had been stolen, they knew exactly where to go.”  I guess neither of us were surprised.

Peter had been spiraling out of control. He had been getting into trouble at school, smoking marijuana most days after class, and disregarding his mom’s attempts to reign him in. Peter, currently a 10th grader in my ministry, had been involved our program since our church’s children’s ministry.

The same week Peter got arrested, another student sat on the couch across from me in my office and told me she didn’t care what the Bible said about homosexuality.  She had made up her mind, and what the Bible said was irrelevant. Several days later, two of my recent graduates posted on Facebook their celebration of the victories made in the fight for transgender equality.

That Sunday morning, as I headed to church for a busy day of ministry, I found myself narrowly pondering each of these incidents.

Are these the disciples my ministry produces? Am I generating a bunch of students who have no regard for authority, who could care less what the Bible has to say, and who actually celebrate the sin and brokenness we see in our world?  

As I considered the events of the week, I found the Spirit speaking truth to me. Here are some of the things I have heard as I continue to listen:

1. It is appropriate to ask the question, “Is my ministry effective?” Our ministry’s mission statement says we want our students to encounter Jesus. When I see a pattern of students living lives that don’t reflect that encounter, then I should ask, why? Has my ministry moved towards developing community, promoting social justice, or preparing for the next missions trip at the expense of providing opportunities to encounter Jesus?

The way I’ve previously understood the notion of “encountering Jesus” is this: it leads to changed lives. When I see my students move from being silent during testimony times to being vocal and excited to share praise reports, then I know that by the power of the Holy Spirit that they have encountered Jesus. When students engage during a Sunday School class and go out of their way to say they enjoyed the discussion, rather than staring silently out into space, then I know they are encountering Jesus. If I am not observing any life change, then my students are not encountering Jesus. But I’m learning more and more that outward behavior and appearance should never be the only way we judge the fruit of our ministry.

2. Once I have asked the hard questions, I need to rest in the fact that a healthy ministry cannot be judged simply by the outward behavior of students. In the same way that I should not determine that I am a failure based on the bad behavior of my students, I should equally not proclaim myself “Youth Pastor of the Year” when my students look neat and clean and well-behaved. Students’ hearts are so much more complex than their outward behavior. Jesus had a lot to say about both “sinners” and those who “clean the outside of the cup,” and rarely did His assessment of their hearts match what could be seen on the outside. Maybe I need to broaden my understanding of what it truly means to encounter Jesus.

3. I keep reflecting on this thought: the church is intended to be a “hospital for the sick, rather than a museum for the healthy.” When I look at the events of this past week through this lens, my perspective changes. I become grateful that students who are really struggling with lots of mess are in my youth ministry. What if my ministry was made up of a bunch of students who perfectly obeyed authority, accepted God’s Word as absolute authority with no reservation, and clearly saw through the lies of our culture’s worship of brokenness and political correctness?

First of all, I would be out of a job. Beyond that, it would mean that my church and my youth ministry have utterly failed to engage those around us who actually need Jesus! What if instead, the presence of messy students in my youth ministry was actually the grid by which I measured my ministry’s success?

4. The presence of despair over my failures is often a sign that I am missing all of the good gifts God is giving me. I have the amazing opportunity in my life right now to be mentored by my senior pastor. He has the profound ability of always seeing the “glass as half full.” He constantly notes the ways He sees God working and providing, long before he begins processing all of the problems he might be facing. I believe that his ability to stay in ministry for nearly 40 years comes in large part from his discipline to maintain a proper perspective on the good gifts God gives him, right in the middle of all of the challenges of ministry.

God has given me some amazing opportunities in my ministry right now. I have a group of fourteen student leaders who have stepped up in profound ways to actually do ministry. They no longer see themselves as consumers when they walk through the church doors, but rather the people God has called to set an example to the believers. I also have a group of parents and church leadership who could not be more supportive of our youth ministry. What a gift this is! I have discovered that the discipline of thanking God for all of the gifts He gives me actually acts as a weapon or defense against despair. Often times, when I do feel discouraged, I recognize I have not been taking time to dwell on all of the good things God has given me.

Last week, I sat across the table from one of my students, Greg, as we talked about his desire to have a more effective approach to reading the Bible. We chatted while he shared his desire for growth and asked me really cool questions about his faith. God is good. People are messy. I am grateful that God is using me in this really challenging ministry to help my students encounter Jesus – in outward, inward, and all sorts of untidy and unexpected ways. Thank God He is patient with me, and works in spite of me. God is good!

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever. 

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

Todd Hill is the youth director at New Life Presbyterian Church in Dresher, Penn.  He earned his bachelor's degree in Bible and in education from Philadelphia Biblical University. He also holds a master's degree in education from California University of Pennsylvania.  When he isn't running his two children to soccer practice, Todd loves to play basketball and travel with his wife Young-Mee to places with good food.

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