Unexpected Joy: God’s Grace in Pioneering a Student Ministry

A year ago, I was offered the opportunity to start our church’s youth ministry. Before then, we had only a few scattered teens. However, as the church grew in size and as the congregation matured in age, so did our population of teenagers. Eventually, it became apparent that enough teens were attending each week that we needed to begin intentionally shepherding them. Insert me — a young minister fresh out of seminary with a desire to serve the local church. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right?

The only problem was that I had no experience in student ministry. I had never had to communicate the scriptures to young people, I had no practice in counseling a teenager through a crisis, and dont even get me started on what games to play. I was excited about the opportunity but at the same time, intimidated that I would fail.

It wasnt long into the endeavor when it became apparent that pioneering a new ministry was bigger than me and my natural abilities. I learned quickly that despite my presupposed deficiencies, the Lord was sovereign and He would grow this youth ministry as He saw fit.

As I reflect on this past year and its challenges, the main thing that strikes me is Gods immense kindness and grace. When I talk about grace, I mean God’s free gift of salvation. God drew me to Himself and chose me for this task, not because of anything I had done or not done, but only by his unmerited grace.

He has been at work from the very beginning, in me and the students, slowly building our small but faithful youth group. This isn’t a novel idea; however, the result was unexpected joy. It has become obvious that the Lord was up to something when He called me into youth ministry.

Gods grace at work in me.

I have always struggled with performance anxiety. Throughout my teenage years, I crumbled under the pressure of academics, sports, and peer expectations. My story of faith is one of God breaking me of my pride and then healing me through the finished work of Jesus. The gospel confronted my desire for approval and clothed me in Jesus’ perfection. But God’s grace shown to me through Jesus means I no longer need to seek approval from family, friends, or success in ministry. All the approval I need, I already have because of Jesus.

Student ministry has uniquely taught me that if you derive your worth from quick-success or the perception and affirmation of others, you will often feel empty and disappointed. I had to realize that building this ministry was going to be a slow work where, ironically, I would be the student. I needed to learn how to communicate the gospel contextually and establish trust with students to speak into their lives. There was no cutting corners. There were no quick fixes. As much as I wanted to work in the lives of our students, God had to first humble and remind me that this ministry was about exalting His name and not my own. And that the task at hand was too large for me to bear; but God in his grace could carry the burden for me.

Each week I have the joy of reminding both myself and my students that the good news of Jesus means our sins have been paid for, not because of anything they or I have done, but because of Jesus’ victory on the cross. That we are weak, yet He is our certain strength. We are safe as sons and daughters of the King. My heart needs these reminders just as much as my students do. Perhaps, my particular struggles are the precise reason God brought me into youth ministry.

Gods grace at work in my students.

Im not sure what I expected as far as results, but I do know that I was not ready for the lack of evident fruit in our first year as a ministry. When we first began there was a buzz and excitement among our teenagers because they finally had something specific for them. Students came and kept coming. Then, some students stopped coming. Over time, the excitement subsided and our numbers dwindled. Everyone who has led a ministry, particularly a student ministry, has had that moment where they ask [or scream] to themselves: Why is nobody showing up?!”

Once again, I had fallen to the temptation of making this about myself. Fixated on what wasnt happening, I was in danger of missing what God was doing.

Looking back on this past year, I can see that God continues to build our students into a close community. One of my greatest joys as a new youth minister is watching our students become friends, loving one another with grace and truth. I have become so grateful for the opportunity to lead our students through the difficulties of life toward a God who loves them as adopted sons and daughters. Through weekly meetings, bible studies, retreats, and camps, our students are being transformed by the grace of God as they encounter the real Jesus who loves them and died to rescue them from the grips of sin. This past year has taught me that faithfulness is a better gauge for success than numbers. Faith trusts in Another, and that He will always come through on His promises.

God is working, even in my weaknesses, to draw students to Himself. Of course, I still strive for excellence in my ministry. The difference is that now I leave the results up to Him and, by his grace, He is always at work.

Result: Unexpected Joy

Gods grace is often quiet, at work in the shadows.

I have found this especially true in my life and the lives of my students. Pioneering a ministry has revealed sin in my life that can only be dealt with by God Himself. Daily, I need to turn from myself and return to God who has saved me through the victorious work of Jesus. This turning from self and returning to God” is a work that’s essential for my soul if I am going to faithfully do all God has placed before me. The past year has not been easy, but it has filled me with joy. If there is any greater privilege than watching God work in the lives of His people, it is perhaps that He allows us to participate in this work. I never envisioned myself as a youth minister, but I thank God that He had other plans as it has allowed me to experience His kindness and grace in ways I will forever cherish.

Connor serves as the Youth Minister at Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, AL, where he lives with his wife, Shelley, and two sons. He is passionate about seeing students grow to know, love, and follow Jesus in the local church. He holds an M.Div from Beeson Divinity School. In his free time, you can find him enjoying a good book or baking a fresh loaf of bread.

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