Peter: Hope for Youth Ministers

This article by Mark Howard previously appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

I was happy in my previous job as a fundraising consultant.  I never dreamt of full-time church ministry, and I definitely didn’t think of myself as a good fit for youth ministry. I don’t have a jazzy personality and I’m not naturally outgoing.  I much prefer to be in the background than in the spotlight.

But, in an unexpected twist of life, circumstances, and calling, I am coming up on four years in youth ministry now. In this time, God has pushed me to grow personally and as a minister.  He’s exposed many weaknesses, yet he’s also shown that he is faithful to those who trust in him.

It’s been a bumpy road – as those of you who’ve been in ministry far longer already know, and those of you who are just starting are probably learning.

In this journey, I’ve found the apostle Peter to be a great source of comfort and hope.  Here’s an ordinary man, a fisherman by trade, who heard the call of Jesus and responded to Christ’s appeal with his usual impulsiveness.

I admire Peter’s zeal and find inspiration in his willingness to put himself “out there” for Jesus.  I need to be encouraged and spurred on by his boldness.  But I really appreciate the way the Spirit not only preserves stories of Peter’s zeal and faith…but God also (and often in quick succession) gives to us stories of Peter’s failures, lack of faith, and struggles to overcome his own shortcomings.

Peter was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus as the Christ (for which Jesus called him ‘Blessed’), only to quickly stand in Jesus’ way of being the type of Christ the Father required (for which Jesus called Peter ‘Satan’).

Peter was the only disciple that asked to join Jesus as he walked across the water, yet shortly after leaving the boat, Peter began to sink as he took his focus off of Jesus as his faith failed him.

Peter alone drew his sword and struck one of the men coming to arrest Jesus (being willing, apparently, to die before seeing his teacher taken captive); yet not much later, this same Peter thrice denies knowing Jesus, presumably for fear of death (for which he later bitterly weeps).

Peter, through the Spirit’s prompting, was one of the first disciples to reach out to Gentiles; yet even after seeing the Spirit’s miraculous work – some 14 years after Jesus resurrection – Peter still must be rebuked by Paul for hypocrisy in his unwillingness to associate with Gentiles in the presence of members of the circumcision party.

How often do we begin with the best of intentions and lofty hopes in ministry, only to find ourselves lacking?  How often do we feel like we’re finally seeing progress in our personal sanctification, only to lapse?  How often do we talk big, but live small in relationship to the gospel?

After finishing their breakfast with the resurrected Jesus beside the sea, Jesus twice asks Peter if he loves him, using the Greek word agapao for love – the noblest and highest form of love.  Twice Peter responds, saying “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” but Peter uses the Greek word phileo for love – a more friendly or brotherly type of love.

Certainly, this could be just a stylistic change in wording as some argue – I could be reading too much into this. But I don’t think I am.  Because when on the third time Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?”, Jesus comes down to Peter’s level, asking Peter if he phileo loves him – and John tells us that this grieves Peter to the core.

I can almost see Peter’s pain as he responds a third time, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.”  Peter owns up to the inadequacy of his love for Jesus; he knows that his love is imperfect – and this he does (likely) in front of the other six disciples.

After prophesying the awful death Peter will experience because of his faith, Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.”

And, amazingly, he does.

There are many times in my ministry when I feel like Peter.  I know that my love is inadequate.  I know that I fall short of God’s glory.  I know that my witness to the Gospel in my thoughts and actions – more often than I’d like – is a declaration of my desperate need for a savior.

God knows this about us, just has he knew this about Peter.  As Jesus once revealed to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9).

He can use even me.  He can use even you.

Part of the beauty of Peter’s witness is that he wasn’t perfect – but God still used him in mighty ways.  Peter was right in his honest response to Jesus: he didn’t agapao love Jesus – none of us can truly love God perfectly.  But Peter firmly knew God’s agapao love for him through Jesus, despite his faults and inadequacies.

In a letter he wrote near the end of his life, Peter encourages the church to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).  It’s a good reminder for those of us in youth ministry.  Peter’s confidence was in God’s grace, and that is where our confidence needs to be as well.  Peter, like Paul, had learned the truth that God’s grace alone is sufficient for our weakness.

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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