How Grace Empowers Our Relationships with Students

In my 25 years of working in youth ministry I only have several regrets, most of which occurred earlier in my “career” when I figured I knew everything. One of my largest regrets is not extending the grace of Jesus – grace that I taught my students about, and claimed I had also received.

One situation in particular comes to mind.

I had graduated from seminary six months earlier and I was serving at a church in Denver. We had an evening youth event at our church and for some reason I had changed clothes. A couple of hours later, I went to get my wallet and discovered that it was missing – including my driver’s license, cash, debit and credit cards. It was at the end of a long night, I was tired, and now I was angry.

Someone in the youth group had stolen my wallet.

A few kids quickly communicated to me that they saw David near my belongings. David was a neighborhood kid who came regularly, was funny, and a bit shy. When I questioned him about my wallet, I interpreted his shyness as guilt. I never found my wallet and David, despite my attempts, never came back to youth group. I could get my ID, debit, and credit cards replaced; I was only out $40 cash. But I couldn’t get David to come back. When presented with an opportunity to live the grace I attempted to teach, I failed.

Over the years, I have taught and taught and taught on the concept of grace. Scripture is dripping with grace. We worship a God who forgives and pursues his people relentlessly, in spite of their rebellion. I realize now that the teenagers in my life are watching me closely to see if my life reflects the truths I teach and claim to believe…and that night, I taught David that grace is a nice idea, but impractical.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is a sobering reminder to me of the grace I must extend to students I forge relationships with. Romans 3:23-24 reminds me that I have fallen short and sinned, as much and more than any teenager I know. This parable reminds me that I have been justified by grace made available by the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Like St. Paul, I am foremost among sinners, but the grace of our Lord yet overflows for me (1 Timothy 1:14-15). I am the servant who had a debt of ten thousand talents, a debt so large there would be no hope of repayment. Yet, when I fell on my knees and confessed my indebtedness, the Lord had pity on me and forgave my debt. This forgiveness, the more I see my own desperate need for it, makes me want to show grace and mercy to others as the Lord has shown to me (Matt. 18:33).

Embedded in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant are some practices that have empowered and encouraged me to extend this same grace to students I care for and love.

The servant who owed ten thousand talents (which would take 200,000 years to repay) appears to have ignored his debt until repayment was demanded. How he treated the fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii (which would take 4 months to repay) showed how out of touch he was with his own sense of debt and indebtedness. If I don’t regularly practice the confession of my own daily sin to God, and the subsequent receiving of grace, I put myself at risk of becoming self-righteous and incapable of extending the same grace to my students.

Augustine wrote, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” If I hope to teach others about grace, I must first understand personally how it is given and received.

Why was the first servant unable to forgive the other who owed him only 100 denarii? He likely didn’t understand the magnitude of his own debt, and also didn’t trust the master who had forgiven him. In Galatians 5, Paul tells the church that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything…only faith (trust) working through love. We must trust Jesus, and believe that we are truly forgiven. When we trust like Paul instructs in Galatians 5, the fruit will follow.

Why was the servant forgiven his insurmountable debt? The master had pity on him (27). In Romans 2:4 Paul writes that “God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance.” The relationships we cultivate with students should ooze the kindness that has first been shown to us.

Keep the end in mind.
What would compel the master to forgive such a huge debt? In extending grace to his servant, the master must have had a larger goal in mind in regards to that servant. In forgiving his debt, the master assumed the servant would become more like the master. When we interact with teenagers, we must also prayerfully “keep the end in mind.” We can’t get bogged down in who a teenager is today…we must strive to keep in mind who God has created them to be, who they are becoming, and who they will be when Jesus returns. We must remember the “telos,” or the end.

Relationships permeated by grace point our teen towards the cross, the empty grave, and the Kingdom of God.

I have many regrets, but I also have some moments when the Holy Spirit empowered me to live out the grace I’ve received. Josh was a kid who loved Jesus, but had some rough friends. In trying to show Jesus to his friends he’d sometimes stumble. Josh showed up to youth group high a couple of times. While I acknowledged with him the mistake he had made, I allowed him to stay, knowing that he needed to hear the gospel as much as anyone. I could have turned Josh away, telling him he had to clean up his act before coming to church.

Extending grace to Josh in this situation kept the door open to continue speaking the love and truth of Jesus into his life in ways that might not otherwise have been available. Today Josh is a committed Christian, who attended a Christian university and is now exploring God’s call on his life into ministry.

Kris currently serves as Director of the Kansas City Fellows and has been a youth ministry practitioner for more than 20 years. In addition to loving Jesus and loving teenagers, he also has a deep appreciation for all things coffee, cycling and Djing. He recently completed his Doctor of Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a Sticky Faith certified coach. He's been married to his wife Heather for more than 20 years and has two daughters.

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