Alone at 10:30 p.m. in a dark, smelly youth room, I got down on my knees to pick up a half-eaten chicken wing off the stained carpet floor. I remember pausing and looking around. This was not what I had expected.
How did I get here? What have I chosen to do? Is this really what I want to do with my life?
I posed these questions in conversation with the Lord that solitary evening in the initial weeks of my first full-time youth ministry job. A month prior I had left the engineering field to pursue a call to ministry and to begin seminary studies. I was elated. My heart’s desire was to share Christ with young people, since I had come to faith as a sixteen-year-old myself. In my transition to youth ministry, I had rapidly gone from interacting with people around my parents’ age in an industrial environment to teenagers in sticky youth rooms. It was jarring socially.
I think everyone who serves in ministry has moments like these: moments of tension and clarity, in which we become acutely aware of what it means to serve others. These are ordinary moments, and the Spirit speaks in the midst of them. God exposes our pride, reveals the nature of true discipleship, and challenges our idolatrous ambition in these times. And yet, counterintuitively, these are exactly the moments that Jesus uses to recalibrate our ministry ambition toward unselfish, rightly-ordered gospel ends through the power of His unquenchable love.
My own soul-searching that night in the youth room revealed that I needed to learn doing faithful youth ministry would only result from embracing an attitude of humility. I would not be of any good to these chicken-wing-discarding, somewhat entitled sixteen-year-olds unless I was willing to submit myself to Jesus’ way of doing things. The Master desires that I serve in His manner and with the willingness that He exemplifies (John 13:13-17). Just as Jesus willingly and sacrificially gave Himself for my sake, even to the point of death on the cross, He has called me to empty myself of my rights and lay down my life in service to my neighbor (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this is the heart of gospel ministry – a ministry that Jesus alone empowers. Only by resting in the loving friendship of God, no matter how I fear I might be perceived, will I be strengthened to truly do kingdom work. For me, this “chicken wing moment” was the beginning of Jesus recalibrating my ambition in life and in ministry.
Christian philosophy professor and writer James K.A. Smith compares our ambition misadventures with that of church father Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) in his recent book On the Road with Saint Augustine. Like us moderns, Augustine wrestled with the core impulses to garner attention. Channeling Augustine, Smith points out that our problem is not too much or not enough ambition, but rather a “disordered” ambition. The solution Smith proposes is “not some holy lethargy or pious passivity” but rather “recalibrated ambition that aspires for a different end and does so for different reasons.” The problem is the direction and motivation of our ambition. My problem is the same as Augustine’s. So is yours.
In youth ministry, we are often aiming at the wrong thing for the wrong reason. I often seek my own glory because I desperately desire to be noticed and loved. This impulse does not have solely unholy origins, but it has been corrupted by sin. I crave the love of my Father and yet look for it in the fickle responses of teenagers to my sermons and supposed programming genius. We aim low at idols. For me, this was exposed as I picked up the chicken wing that dark night.
The way forward is found in the recalibration process. Instead of aspiring to ministry success and influence, we need to fundamentally aspire to friendship with God – something we could never lose. Through Christ, we are drawn into relationship with a Father who has compassion on us even when we are a long way off, who runs to us, and who embraces us (Luke 15:20). This is a love that is freely given. This is a love we can find rest in. This is a love that reorients and fuels our ambition with a “different fire.”
Here are some practical steps I have found helpful in learning to recalibrate my ministry ambition. I encourage you to see these steps as an opportunity to grow in fellowship with the Father who loves you and freely offers you His all-sufficient grace.
- Set aside a morning or afternoon to take an inventory of your ambition. What do you aspire toward in life? What do you aspire toward in ministry? Think big and long-term. Be creative and have fun with it. Converse with God in prayer as you go.
- Share your ambition inventory with a close friend, mentor, and/or counselor. What are the roots of your ambition in your life story? Consider the values that were promoted and celebrated in your family of origin, the culture and environment you grew up in, the personal trauma and loss you have experienced, your personal attributes and natural gifting, and your personal successes and failures. Which aspects of your ambition are godly and kingdom-oriented that can be affirmed? Which aspects are disordered and rooted in idolatry that needs to be redirected?
- Make a plan of two or three practical steps you can take this year to help you aspire to friendship with God in Christ fundamentally. This could involve how you go about your personal devotional time and prayer life, the network of friendships you pursue, how your plan to care for yourself physically and emotionally, etc.
- Consider doing a personal study of the Father’s love. This could be done by surveying Scripture (you might start with Exodus 34:6-7, Deuteronomy 7:6-11, 2 Samuel 7, searching the phrase “steadfast love” in the Psalms, Isaiah 53, Jeremiah 31, Luke 15, the Gospel of John, Romans 5-8, Ephesians, and 1 John) or by using a book as a guide. A few books I recommend are: Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves, The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, True Spirituality by Francis Shaeffer, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazerro, and You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. God’s love for us in Christ is both the fuel and the destination of our ambition, so we ought to be thoroughly acquainted with it.
- Set aside a day later on in the year to check in on your recalibration progress. Find encouragement in the fact that this will be a lifelong process and that making progress is what matters the most. For the Christian, progress looks like the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) being more readily and regularly shown in your day-to-day life. It feels like joy, peace, and freedom as your go about your ministry to youth. God’s love and the activity of His Spirit within you is the reason you can be confident of growth.
In Christ, we can aspire to do great things in life and ministry, and we can do them for the right ends. Like Augustine, we can fulfill our ministry calling with humility, boldness, and joy. In the freedom of the Father’s love, we can stoop low and serve teenagers even in the “chicken wing moments” of youth ministry.
A Poem for Recalibration: “Ambition”
The gift that cannot be lost
Joy sustained despite the cost
Spending and straining
Reaching and gaining
Vigor expended for you
Insatiable, the will to dominate
Craving deeply, go generate
Looks and praise
Formless, faceless mobs
Incessant game, fated to play
Aim low, undo, lose the day
Savor a peace ever longed for
Fire kindling a new lit source
Love’s rest propels a goodly course
The free wild of the Beloved
 Smith, James K.A. On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019), 88.