When we think of words in ministry like “joy,” “crown,” and “glory,” we tend to think of joy in Christ, the crown of righteousness, or the glory of God. Some may say that the greatest joy, crown, and glory of ministry is the eternal hope we have in heaven; others may say it’s Christ himself who will welcome us into that eternal hope. Though all of these may be true of ministry, Paul seems to have something else in mind when he spoke of the “joy” and “glory” of ministry:
“For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20
The church at Thessalonica is considered one of Paul’s quickest church plants, spending as little as three weeks in the city evangelizing in the synagogue before being driven out of town by the Jews (Acts 17:2,5,10). In response to this abrupt end to his ministry, Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians as one of his first epistles. The result is a letter filled with Paul’s pastoral heart for his “children,” communicating his “affectionate desire” to share “not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (2:7-8).
Paul declares that all the labor, toil, burden, and persecution he received for his ministry to the Thessalonians was not in vain (2:1,9) because they had received the word of God gladly (2:13). He concludes by saying the Thessalonians had become his glory, joy, and crown of boasting before the Lord (2:19-20). Paul does not seek glory for himself while in the town of Thessalonica, although he is an Apostle with authority and clout (2:6); he proudly states that his glory is the faith and maturity of these spiritual children at Thessalonica, walking steadfastly through suffering and persecution.
Youth Ministry is rarely a job people think of as bringing glory. Though we might never say it, most people avoid Youth Ministry because it is not as glamorous as other ministries in the church. Those of us serving in Youth are often overworked and underappreciated. We rarely receive verbal appreciation from our students for serving them week in and week out, and we’re lucky if we get to see the immediate fruit of our labor. One of the hardest parts of Youth Ministry is knowing that much of our work will not produce fruit until much later in a student’s life, and rarely are we the ones given credit or thanked for the hard work that brought about that fruit. Youth Ministers are forced to send off their students and say goodbye just when fruit begins to sprout, leaving all the glory of the harvest to the College and Young Adult Pastors. No wonder finding Youth Volunteers always feels like pulling teeth…
Despite my suffering, hardship, and endless toil these last nine years in Youth Ministry, I’ve come to see the joy and glory the Apostle Paul writes of in 1 Thessalonians. This past month, I graduated my final class of High Schoolers as I closed the door on Youth Ministry and transitioned into Worship and College (yes, I know, I am a glory chaser). During this time of goodbyes and transition, Paul’s words have resonated with me more than ever.
When I think about the students I have graduated – especially those I have most recently graduated and spent the last 6 years with – the fruit of their faith is evident. I’ve seen them go from hard hearted pagans or Pharisees, to receiving the word of God with joy and becoming soft-hearted disciples. I’ve seen them struggle in the faith, only to come out on the other side stronger and better for it. I’ve seen them grow in grace and maturity as they’ve dealt with hardship and persecution. Now that we are sending them out as adults into the world of college, I am confident in their faith in Christ to sustain them through whatever challenges and trials that may arise in the years to come.
Our desire is not to replace their parents’ role in their discipleship (for the Christian ones); it’s important for us to strive to highlight the parent and partner with them as the primary discipler of their child. But I believe parents, pastors, and staff alike can look upon Youth students as their literal and spiritual “children,” of whom they can say with Paul, they are our joy, our glory, our crown of boasting.
They are our joy because there is nothing quite like watching a student grow up, “get” the gospel, and begin living it out actively in their lives. They are our glory because they are a reminder that giving glory to God through faithful disciple-making far outweighs the vain pursuit of chasing glory for ourselves from man. They are our crown of boasting because they will be a sign at Christ’s return that we labored faithfully, that we used our lives for the mission of making disciples, and that we cared more about the eternal than our own temporal kingdoms.
Fruit in Youth Ministry is sometimes a rare thing to see; but when we do eventually see it, it is a reminder that all of our labor and toil is not in vain. Every student saved by grace is a reminder that Youth Ministry – and parenting – is worth it. Every student maturing in faith is a reminder that God still works powerfully, and he does so through imperfect, broken leaders as ourselves.
Throughout my nine years in Youth Ministry, there were plenty of times I wanted to quit and have a “normal,” quiet life. By God’s grace, he sustained me through nearly a decade of what often felt like endless hardship and vain toiling. When I think of the Lord’s return, however, and that many of these students will be in heaven both because of and in spite of my leadership, I am reminded why I began Youth Ministry in the first place. Youth Ministry may not seem glamorous or rewarding; but when we remember that our greatest glory is not received at the hands of man, but from God when he declares to us “Well done, good and faithful servant” for the faithful labor and long-term fruit we have borne, nothing seems quite as special as Youth Ministry. The joy and crown of Youth Ministry is certainly the joy we have in Christ and the crown of his righteousness; but with Paul, we can also point to the students who have faithfully walked with Jesus and not walked away from the church, and declare that they are our joy, our glory, our “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming.”