I haven’t felt very useful these past few months. Sure, I’ve been as busy as ever. Zoom meetings. YouTube bible studies. Clever Instagram posts. Phone calls with parents. Phone calls with students. All of these have filled my weeks. But not much has made me feel particularly useful. I suspect I’m not the only one feeling this way. As Youth Pastors, many of the tasks we typically focus on week after week have been cut off. As a result, the fruit we often see from our ministries has also been cut off. While disheartening and uncomfortable, seasons of feeling useless as a minister can help us do ministry in a way that is actually more in line with the gospel message we proclaim. Let me explain.
Remember December? It was only six months ago, but it feels like six years ago. Back in December I was feeling one of those adult pressures that kids are oblivious to: To whom do I to give Christmas presents? Should I make banana bread for my next-door neighbors? What about the house across the street? What about two houses down? Do I give one to my boss? What about my co-workers? In our culture, when we give gifts, we express a relationship with the recipient. This is why it is embarrassing when there is an imbalance. You gave them a cheap inspirational bookmark. They gave you a beautiful piece of art they made themselves. Whoops. This gift-giving and gift-receiving dance can be stressful.
It is a lot easier to be one of my kids at Christmas. Sure. I hope they learn how to give and think about others. But right now, my wife and I delight to give them presents. These are presents they will never pay us back for, and that’s how it should be.
Gift exchanges are stressful between adults because we like to prove our worth; kids, however, are happy to just receive.
“Like a child.” This is how Jesus says we are to receive the kingdom. Mark tells a story about children coming to Jesus. The disciples tried to turn these kids away. Jesus was indignant with his disciples. “Let the children come to me,” he said, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” In fact, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:13-15).
Mark goes on to illustrate what it looks like to receive like a child in the two stories that follow this exchange. First, Jesus encounters a rich man who wonders what he must do to inherit eternal life. Initially, this wealthy man is confident that he can do whatever needs to be done. But he walks away sorrowful because he cannot let go of his riches. After he leaves, Peter speaks up on behalf of the disciples. He points out to Jesus just how much they, unlike the rich man, have given up to follow him: “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus is not impressed. He simply reminds them of how much they receive in following him.
The Kingdom does not need us to prove ourselves. The Kingdom is for those who will receive it like a child, as a gift they can never possibly pay back. This is a truth I have known for quite some time. It is a lesson I could get up in front of other people and teach. It is not something I am particularly good at living out. You can find evidence of this any time I think ministry is an opportunity to prove my worth as a disciple.
Let me give you an example. My first summer as a Youth Pastor was a blow to my ego. My predecessor had warned me that summers are different around here. He said it would be worth switching things up and getting creative for June, July, and August. Make the weekly gatherings less formal. Apparently lacking even an ounce of humility, I totally ignored his advice. Maybe he needed to switch it up. But the bible studies I had planned were too good to just put on hold. I had invested so much prep and study time on the Lord’s Prayer, surely these students would be lining up around the block to glean wisdom from me!
That is not what happened.
During the school year we typically have about 50 students on a Wednesday night — on our first week of summer, we had five. And things only went downhill from there. I was miffed. Small attendance and indifference from my students were a personal insult (you can probably guess what sort of boastful pride I felt about having those fifty students during the school year). We survived that summer, barely. On more than one occasion we completely abandoned my brilliant Bible Study lesson and enjoyed a three-person game of bocce ball followed by a walk to go get ice cream. No one left amazed by the vast biblical knowledge I felt I had to offer. I never got a chance to prove to God how lucky he was to have me as a teacher.
I didn’t think I had such a shallow mentality towards ministry, but I did. That summer it got exposed. Clearly I had forgotten the gospel. I had forgotten that the Kingdom only requires me to receive it like a child. I am not called so that I can pay God back. Ministry is about serving like Christ, not using a position as a pedestal. While I could teach others that lesson, it was a truth that had yet to sink in personally.
Thankfully, God’s gift of salvation is also abundant. There’s enough forgiveness for someone like me who has used ministry to put a spotlight on himself. God forgives through the blood of Jesus “according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (Eph. 1:7-8). I continue to learn and to grow. My job in this role is to point my students to Christ, showing them the goodness of God in the gospel. My calling is not to make sure they appreciate me as a shepherd and teacher.
That humbling summer is in the past now, but this season of separation and uncertainty has many of us in a similar place. There is no opportunity for a spotlight. There is no opportunity to prove ourselves. Many of our best plans have been set aside. When our ministry mindset is self-seeking, spoiled plans turn into bitterness. Yet when we minister like children, happily passing along what we ourselves receive from our heavenly father, we are not devastated by every disruption.
The way COVID-19 has changed our youth ministry plans is not a problem for God. It is not a problem for us. It is an opportunity to become more and more like the child who receives the Kingdom, never needing to prove that we deserve it. We must minister, in this season and every season, in the same way Paul told Timothy to minister: strengthened, not by a confidence in our own skills or wisdom or anything we have to offer, but by the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:1).