There are plenty of grown adults in my own social orbit who are still growing in their own self-awareness, myself included. This is even more so the case for our teenage students. Any youth pastor can tell you how complicated it is for a teenager to grow in their self-awareness and identity in Jesus Christ. When students are relationally distant, does that mean they are simply shy? If a student acts disrespectfully, does that mean he’s poorly mannered? What are they really thinking, anyway?
The work of youth ministers inherently involves journeying alongside teenagers who are in process and meeting them where they are. In order to minister effectively, we have to grow an acute sense of living in “the middle.” I borrow this term from Eugene Peterson in his commentary on the Book of Revelation. He writes, “The pastor is the person who specializes in accompanying persons of faith “in the middle,” facing the ugly details, the meaningless routines, the mocking wickedness, and all the time doggedly insisting that this unaccountably unlovely middle is connected to a splendid beginning and a glorious ending” (Reversed Thunder, 8).
Living in the Middle
While Peterson is not describing youth ministry per se, it is a beautifully accurate call for youth ministers to live in “the middle” even as our students exist in the “unlovely middle” and tension of their teenage years. Often, our students show up to youth group with a host of issues, grievances, hurts, pains, and brokenness. When we try to relate to our students, a simple question doesn’t yield a straightforward answer.
Vulnerability and openness are hard to come by when teenagers are dead-smack in the middle of discovering their true identities in Christ. But, we continue to enter this space because Jesus is the one in “the middle” (Rev. 1:13, NASB). Jesus Christ, who is present in all of our stages of growing, is the one in “the middle” of our circumstances, and our students’ as well.
My hope is that as youth ministers, we can trust in this Jesus. As our students discover their identities in Jesus Christ, may we point them to the very one who is in “the middle” of every life circumstance. Here are some words of encouragement as we learn to minister in “the middle” alongside Jesus:
The Power of Patience
First, be patient. Discovering who we are in Jesus Christ as he forms us into his image is a life-long journey. When you see students who seem “to not get it” or need repeated reminders about things they should have realized a year ago, ask the Holy Spirit to bless you with patience. Suspend judgment and seek God’s wisdom in prayer. Bring not only the cares and concerns of these students to God in prayer, but ask him to minister to these students as whole persons. Jesus can minister to our youth in places and ways in which we only scratch the surface. Just as the Lord is mercifully patient in how he deals with us, his children, let us model Christian patience towards our teenagers for whom we pray change and growth will come.
A Gospel Community
Second, embed your teenagers in a community that receives and lives out the gospel. Many of our students come to church to make relational connections, but even at church, not all relationships focus on the gospel. We must invite students into intentional spaces of discipleship where we nurture faith conversations, speak the truth min love, and challenge behaviors antithetical to the gospel.
I sometimes see students acquiesce to a dominant voice or behavior, even if it’s wrong, in fear of losing friendships or being canceled. Rather than calling out what is wrong, I sometimes notice more onlookers and bystanders. It’s heartbreaking to see how this kind of behavior hurts our communities.
But when communities allow the gospel to take hold, even through tough conversations, the priorities of grace, truth, reconciliation, forgiveness, and mercy begin to flourish. As youth ministers, we might be inclined to take the softer approach of offering more fun and recreation or to focus solely on teaching. I believe we should challenge students to embody and reflect the gospel in such a way that it impacts how they live and the choices that they make. There is no better place to witness the fruit of the gospel than within the context of a growing Christian community.
Third, help surround your teens with older adults who can offer different perspectives on life, challenge their worldview, and hone their discipleship journey towards greater maturity in Jesus Christ. As students grow a sense of their identity in Christ, they should have mentors who have lived through the same experiences that teenagers face. While the actual experiences may differ from one generation to another, the enduring questions we all ask about God, ourselves, and the world remain the same: Who is God? Where do I belong? What is my purpose here in this world?
While our students might not arrive at the same answers as those of previous generations, they do not have to figure this out on their own. I have observed that students who surround themselves only with peers who act and think like them, even if they are church kids, tend to have a stunted view of the Christian faith. They maintain loose ties with the church past their teenage years and sometimes end up abandoning their faith. When we position our youth alongside more mature Christian adults who have asked and wrestled through these fundamental questions of life, their wisdom can guide our students towards greater understanding of who God is, who they are becoming in Christ, and their place in the world as God calls them.
Jesus Carries the Load
As ministers of the gospel, may we be encouraged to know that it is Jesus who carries the load. Jesus Christ reaches to the parts of our students we are unable to in our own strength. Jesus meets our students in the deepest parts of their interior lives, touching heart, mind, and spirit. He is the one found in the messiness and awkwardness of the teenage years. As we disciple students, may we not forget the good news that Jesus is the one who shows up to our students first, in ways both seen and unseen, relating to them as only he is able in “the middle.” May youth pastors live with greater freedom to trust in this relational God.
Interested in learning more about relational discipleship in youth ministry? Check out our youth ministry training videos on Rooted Reservoir.