Tell me if you’ve ever been this situation: One of your small group leaders pulls you aside after youth activities because he wants to talk.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to lead this group next year,” he says.
“Oh really, I’m so sorry to hear that,” I say in response. “What’s going on?”
“I’m just not seeing any progress in this group. I try and try to get them to respond to the discussion questions, and all I get in return are crickets. The only way I can get them to talk about anything is if we talk about [insert some video game, sport, movie, TV show, or Marvel character]. It just doesn’t feel like anything is happening.”
Working with students can be very frustrating at times. A whole year can go by with such a small amount of progress, leaders can become very disheartened, believing that they are ineffective; they may want to throw in the towel. But I think that this attitude displays a misunderstanding about how growth works. If we look at the idea of growth more closely, we might find ourselves able to go about the business of youth ministry with confidence and freedom.
Growth is a Process
When reading 1 Corinthians, I can sometimes identify with Paul’s frustration. He had spent so much time with them, and yet they continued to mess up, ask questions, and fall into sin.
The people within the church had begun to identify themselves in factions, some saying they were following Paul, some Apollos, and some Jesus. Paul’s answer to them was,
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).
This small sentence holds a concept that is key to the way we approach youth ministry.
We live in a culture of instant gratification. Put the food in the microwave, it’s ready in seconds. Click “buy,” it’s in the mail and will be on your doorstep within the day. We don’t have a concept of a slow process.
But the life of a believer is just that, a process. In theological terms, we call it sanctification. We come to Christ sinful, full of imperfection, needing a savior. When we begin a new life with Christ, we walk down a road of lifelong growth and progress. And while it truly is a new life, we are still very much sinful and in need of a Savior. Walking with Jesus will mean a life of finding sin, repenting of it, and further growth.
Along this road, God uses tools to help us grow to become more like Christ. Sometimes He uses circumstances and opportunities, but often He uses people. That’s where we come in. When we volunteer to work with students, we are hoping to be a part of the process, a tool that God uses to help these students grow in their faith.
But, while there are tools, Paul identifies the real agent of change in the life of a believer, the work of God – ultimately accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I planted, Apollos watered (the tools of the process) but God gave the growth (the real agent of change.)
Paul shows the Corinthians that the only person they should truly identify themselves with is the one who is actually working efficaciously in their lives.
For the youth worker, this news can give great freedom. We are not the end-all-be-all of the faith of our students. We are planting or watering, a part of the process. But it is God who truly works in their lives to effect change and growth.
Growth is a Slow Process
“But I don’t see any change at all!” says the frustrated small group leader.
It’s often difficult for us to have the proper perspective on the process. The Corinthian church is a testament to the sometimes painstakingly slow process that is sanctification. Paul had planted this church 4-5 years previous to his letters, and I think it’s safe to say that many of the things they were still dealing with are not things that you are worrying about with your 7th grade boys’ small group. The Corinthians were still fighting against their backgrounds of idolatry and sexual immorality.
And yet, look at the way Paul speaks to them in the opening of his letter to this church body riddled with theological confusion, sexual immorality, and division.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:4-9)
Paul is able to have a tender, patient attitude towards this church because he understands that growth takes time. He knows that this church is just a few years old, and that growth is happening, even in the midst of confusion.
Construction for the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris took 200 years. 200 years! Generations of people worked on Notre Dame. Many of them never saw its completion. Many of their great-great-great grandchildren never saw its completion. And while it took two centuries to build, we can appreciate the love and labor that went into its creation. It has lasted.
Growth is a Promise
Seeds do a lot of growing before they spring out of the ground. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. With watering, grace, and faith, spring will come. In another letter, Paul comforts a fledgling congregation with these words:
He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
That same growth that God is giving to your students, He’s giving to you. The same Holy Spirit that will allow your students to grow in the faith is using your own ministry to them as a means to mold and shape you more into the image of Jesus. Take comfort in that.
What God has begun in the lives of our students, He will carry all the way to the end. Whether we are their leader, and we see the growth or not.
So keep planting. Keep watering. Don’t lose hope. Don’t give up. We are a part of the process, and though it is sometimes slow, we can rely on God to give growth to our students.