One of my volunteers, who had not been around in quite some time, recently asked me, “What value do I bring to the youth ministry?” It was difficult to put into words at first. Was there some sort of tangible result from this person’s presence in the youth ministry that I could point to? Could I put the impact into a bar graph or pie chart? No. Neither of these things could be done, not because this person didn’t add value, but because his value was deeper than tangible or quantifiable results. His value was in his presence itself.
Mark Yaconelli cites in his book “Contemplative Youth Ministry,” that “study after study in the field of youth development makes it clear that the single most important thing that can make a positive difference in the life of a young person is the presence of a caring adult.” One look at the Jesus of the Gospels helps us to see the difference presence alone makes.
Jesus wasn’t a distant god who spoke to a people He didn’t understand or even care to understand. He didn’t stand outside of the world in which we live and speak into it. He became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), being tempted in all ways as we are (Hebrews 4:15), and even experiencing many of the physical and emotional limitations we do (Philippians 2:5-7). Jesus also wasn’t just a teacher who pontificated to people with a lack of regard for their circumstances. He spoke to the people out of a compassion for their situation (Matthew 9:36) and with grace and mercy toward their failings (John 4:7-25, 8:1-11).
Our value in youth ministry is not found in how many messages we teach, how many students we lead to Christ, or how many students ask us spiritual questions. Our value is found in our presence. It is from that presence that real ministry takes place. As we make ourselves available and listen to our students, entering into their world to gain a better understanding of who they are and where they’re coming from, we become valuable. As we share our own struggles and weaknesses that are similar to theirs (appropriately, of course), we become valuable. And as we speak to them out of a genuine compassion for their situation, with grace and mercy as we recognize our own failings, we become valuable.
As I was talking to my volunteer I asked him, “What is it I do most of the night on our youth nights?” After thinking for a moment he said, “The same as the rest of us.” I could see the light turn on through his eyes. Everyone assumes youth pastors and leaders are the most valuable players because they stand up front and teach. Yet, the truth is, that is only 25 to 30 minutes of the evening (in my case). The rest of the time I am simply present, like everyone else.
Our students aren’t in need of more adults to talk at them; they need more adults to be present with them. They need caring adults who want to enter into their world and understand where they are and what they are struggling with — not so they can teach them because of it, but rather so that they can walk with them in light of it. Though they may never say it out loud, and though we will probably never be able to quantify it, our value in youth ministry is right there, in our presence.