Who Do You Work For? Playing the Long Game in Youth Ministry

Albert Einstein once said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

If we’re honest, this is how youth workers can feel about youth ministry.  We are given a wonderful charge by the Savior: to care for the souls of young people and help form them into the image of Christ.

But we have to release them before our labor comes to fruition, so we often feel that our work is going nowhere. We invest precious time meeting students, but they seem uninterested.  We teach what we believe is a powerful lesson, but it appears to fall on deaf ears. We admonish students for misbehavior, and even though we communicate that our motives are based in love, the misbehavior continues.

“Why should we keep going?” we may ask. “Are we insane to be doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?”

The apostle Paul felt the same way with the Corinthian church when he wrote to them: “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Paul uses this verse to end a long discourse about the reality of the afterlife. He emphasizes that our faith is useless if there is no resurrection of the dead. Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead, and that resurrection is what gives us assurance that we too will be resurrected one day.

He shifts gears in 15:35 to discuss the nature of our bodies in the afterlife; believers will inherit heavenly bodies even though we currently have a natural body. Within that framework, he encourages his audience to always give themselves to the work of the Lord. There will be an afterlife. And all will have to give account for what we have done in the body on earth.

With an eternal perspective, 1 Corinthians 15 offers two tips to persevere when ministry seems pointless: to know who you work for and to play the long game.

Know Who You Work For

An eternal perspective can dramatically change how youth workers view their ministry. Instead of seeing the goal as “how do I get kids interested in church?” The objective becomes “how will this affect the account that I give to God?”

Trying to force a shallow or counterfeit change in teenagers to impress church stakeholders should no longer be the modus operandi. Instead, the youth worker should heed the words of Ephesians 6:7-8: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”

How sad is it when youth workers trade in the approval of the Father for the admiration of church elders or desperate parents! I will admit, I can struggle with this as well. But as youth workers, we have to ultimately remember who we work for and who has the power to reward us.

While we are called to submit to the authority of our senior pastor, we must remember that they are not our ultimate boss. It is the Lord we work for, and no promotion or disciplinary action can compare to the account we must give to the Father.

Play the Long Game

My son plays in a competitive basketball league and there is an interesting phenomenon I notice among little league parents: some parents have expectations that are clearly incongruent with the current skill or potential of their kids. I sadly watch some of them publicly berate their kids for turnovers or other mistakes on the court. But what kid at nine years old is going to command the court like LeBron James?  While we all want our kids to develop in athletics, there is a long learning curve involved. Even LeBron James and Michael Jordan were not overnight products!

I have spent the last seven years in my current youth ministry position and it wasn’t until about year four or five that I started to feel like I was beginning to see consistent returns on labor. Many students didn’t open up to me until after months of knowing them, sometimes years. For others, I wouldn’t hear any remarks about my impact on their lives until they were well into college.

The average tenure for youth ministers is 18-24 months. With such short tenures, youth ministry sadly becomes a microwave business. The goal is quick growth, so ministries can often devolve into a series of carefully constructed events to generate the most attendance. The numbers inflate while discipleship gets lost in the process. When the buzz of the events burns out, the youth minister takes off for greener pastures. Students then leave, the new hire inherits a mess, the desperate church tries to speed the recovery process, and the cycle continues.

Discipleship, on the other hand, is a messy process that is labor intensive and involves many twists and turns that don’t show up on a stat sheet. If a youth minister invests in a family of a child with special needs, a student from a dysfunctional home, or just someone who is depressed or anxious, the turnaround process is not quick and smooth. Often, when the youth worker thinks the student has turned the corner, another problem surfaces. The path to maturity is not linear.

But isn’t this the work we are ultimately called to? Didn’t Jesus spend three years with people that many of us would consider “problem cases” or “time drains?”  The disciples themselves were such “problem cases.” They were slow to understand his teachings, had glaring personal flaws, and were always jockeying for the “top” position. Peter even denied he knew Jesus three times. But Jesus loved them, prayed for them, and was patient with them. And they ended up turning the world upside down.

How patient are we as youth workers with students who ask hard questions, have behavior issues, or with parents who can be a “thorn in our side?” Do we more often show love or irritation? Do we spend more time praying for them or venting about their problems to peers and co-workers? Youth ministers can get trapped into spending their time on the hamster wheel of planning the next big event, but the long game of discipleship is where lives really change and true growth happens.

We will have to give account to God the Father for how we handled our call to ministry and we must work every day with that perspective in mind. Let God’s Word encourage us to work as unto the Lord, to play the long game, and to faithfully stay the course even when it appears as if Einstein was right about our level of insanity. Jesus lived his entire life on earth with one goal: to do his Father’s business, regardless of what people thought or how long it took. Let us have the same singular focus as well.

Steve Eatmon has over 12 years of experience in youth ministry and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Currently, he serves as the pastor to high school and middle school students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland. He is married to Heather and they have two children, Ryan and Rachael.  

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