In the first few weeks of starting in my current role as student minister, I wracked my brain about how to reach the students I had just inherited. I wondered how I could teach in such a way to reach their hearts and how I could connect them to the church in such a way that they see it as a place for them to belong.
During those early days, I had a significant lunch with the parent of one of our students. This dad took time to help me to understand his child and their family, and he spoke into the direction of our youth ministry. As we parted that day, he had one more word for me. He noted that although I spoke a lot about ministry to students, I was missing getting into the lives of these students and bringing them into mine. I realized I had been thinking of sharing the gospel with students, but failing to see that I must also share myself.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul defends his ministry from those seeking to slander him writing, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
Notice the balance here: gospel speaking and gospel living together. Throughout chapter 2, we can see how Paul gave the Thessalonians himself in his ministry to them. By seeing how Paul gave himself, we can see how we should give ourselves to our students.
1.) He came to them in the face of suffering (v. 2).
Paul tells the Thessalonians that he suffered greatly while in Philippi, and he knew that coming to Thessalonica presented its own personal dangers to him. Yet despite great risk to himself, Paul comes to bring them the hope he has in Christ. He cares for them so deeply that no threat is too great.
Although youth ministers don’t typically face physical danger in opening our lives to our students, sharing ourselves with them means we open ourselves up to hurt. As we listen to them, laugh with them, weep with them, invest in them, pursue them, fight for them in prayer, and sacrifice for them it will feel like a burden—and at times, it will be a burden! But the fear of pain or discomfort must not dictate our sharing. Rather, we must see our students as God sees them, “Loved by God (1 Thess. 1:4),” and therefore worth offering ourselves.
2.) He came neither to please man nor to flatter them (v. 4-5).
Seeking to please people is superficial giving. In people-pleasing, we are creating an image of ourselves that will make them like us so that we may gain something from them. Paul’s is saying that he did not need to manipulate or flatter or worry for himself or assert his power because he had all he needed in God. And unless we can look to God for our acceptance, strength, and glory, we won’t truly give ourselves.
Sharing ourselves means students will see the messiness of our lives, and we will see theirs. In seeing our brokenness they can know they do not have it all figured out. To be sure, self-disclosure with students must be undertaken in wisdom after being processed with other adults in our lives. However, in seeing the real joy and grace we have in Christ despite the messiness, we trust they will begin to long for that same joy and grace. This sharing must always be fortified by remembering that we are there to support and care for our students. Sharing ourselves is never about ourselves. Sharing yourself is not simply a means to an end but seeing our students as those to be loved for the glory of God.
3.) He came and humbled himself (v. 6-7).
No one has a resume like Paul. If anyone has any reason to boast, it is Paul (Phil 3:4). However, Paul explicitly says that they “could have made demands as apostles,” but instead, he says he came to the Thessalonians gently, “like a nursing mother” (v. 7). He traded in a relationship of leadership for one of affection.
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes serving our students can become a goal to accomplish. We are the ones with a job; they are the ones to we are paid to reach. We are the ones in the light; they are the ones loving the darkness. However, we must see everything we have is a gift of God’s grace. We aren’t beckoning them to be great like us; we are imploring them to deny themselves with us. Humility is our only approach aside from hypocrisy.
4.) He came not to be a burden (v. 9).
Paul tells the Thessalonians that he labored and toiled not to be a burden. By this, he likely means he financially supported himself through tent making (Acts 18:3). Paul is highlighting that he truly came to serve and not to be served. He fully offered himself as well as the gospel, and he removed every barrier between him and the people for that purpose.
While Paul is calling us to allow students into our lives, he is also calling us to be sure not lay on them unnecessary burdens. This can look so many different ways, but I just want to highlight one example as a caution. Allowing students to see pain and real life is part of discipleship. But if we do not have boundaries in doing so, the second half of verse 9 fails. Burdens are removed so the gospel can go forth. We must be mindful of what students are ready to bear with us, so we might not hamper the gospel in their lives. So show students how you serve your spouse without bringing them into marital disagreements. Talk to students about your fights with sin without bringing them into the complexities of your struggle that should be confided in other adults. We must not place burdens on our students, but free the hearts of our students to see the beauty of the gospel.
Paul provides a wonderful example of how to share our lives—but the ultimate example of sharing oneself is found in Christ Jesus. In loving the world, he came to us despite the great harm that would befall him. He did not attempt to please or flatter people, or to tell them what they wanted to hear. He humbled himself in becoming a man, and he came so that we might have rest in his light burden (Matt. 11:28-30). In offering himself, Christ rendered us the greatest service ever through taking the full wrath of God for our sin.
Following in the way of Jesus means we “share the gospel and ourselves as well.” As we do this, we pray that our students may trust in the God who calls them “into his own kingdom of glory” (v. 12).