At the 2012 Rooted Conference I met a man named Kyle for the first time, and he made a bold statement that afforded me a moment of brilliant clarity. I asked him about the story of his life in ministry, and he said, “I am committed to doing youth ministry with integrity.”
Kyle already had my respect. He had made major sacrifices to attend the conference. He was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment thirty minutes away from the host church, operating on a shoestring budget. And there was no complaining.
He went on to explain to me what he meant by doing youth ministry with integrity. Kyle came to know Jesus at the same church where he now worked with youth. The people in his congregation loved him and invested in his life. They discipled him and focused on seeing him grow as a follower of Christ. There was nothing fancy: just genuine Christian love, interest in his life, a healthy diet of scriptural truth, and a commitment to seeing the Gospel translate into his life. The relationship with Christ that he found through his church had raised him to new life that he never knew before. So now, as the youth pastor, Kyle intended to lead his ministry in the same way he was ministered to as a teenager.
To label one way of ministry as “having integrity” and another as “lacking integrity” superficially can sound utterly arrogant. What I learned from Kyle, and agree with, is that youth ministry with integrity means operating in such a way that our approach rigidly places the long-term spiritual future of the student above all things, especially short-term appearances.
There is so much temptation in ministry to simply do what it takes to “get ‘em through the doors.” There is further temptation to back down from unpopular biblical doctrines, or to simply satisfy “itching ears” with law and behavior modification. There is temptation to compete with another youth ministry across the street, even if you think there approach has little lasting substance for students’ long-term spiritual welfare. There is temptation to offer meaningless programs without any relation to Kingdom outcomes, simply in order to keep kids busy and appear as if your ministry is growing.
But, ultimately, if we give in to those temptations, we know deep down inside that it’s all about our ego. It’s not about the kids and their futures in Christ. And let’s be honest: we all have these wars of selfish pride raging in our flesh. The most pure-hearted of youth pastors constantly has to examine his or her heart and return to the Lord for forgiveness and grace. The long-term patience and self-sacrifice that Christ has demonstrated in his love for us compels us, though, to lay down our needs for perceived gratification in exchange for the best interest of our students.
When I started in youth ministry, my old pastor, (who first introduced me to the Gospel) Mark Upton of Hope Community Church in Charlotte, NC, told me this: “if anyone asks you about how your youth ministry is doing, tell them that you’ll let them know in ten years.” He impressed on me an importance of viewing youth ministry as an investment for the long haul. My focus should be on building a deep, firm foundation in students that lasts beyond high school and into their adulthood.
I recently received an email from a youth pastor in Oklahoma, talking about his commitment to Gospel-centered discipleship in a city where youth ministries tend to try to “out-attract” one another. He struggles at times because his approach of substance over style does not instantly draw huge crowds, and he is only a year into rebuilding a youth program. He wrote:
This approach can make it difficult for growth. Right now I am really trying to help students see and understand the importance of living a missional lifestyle. Trying to create a missional culture in our youth ministry is a challenge and will take years to do but I am in it for the long haul. I am pretty excited to see what God has planned for these students.
That takes courage. That demonstrates integrity.