This is the second article in our series, “The Hard Questions.” Being a student minister is tough. You’re often the person approached with some of life’s most challenging questions. Sometimes you know what to say right away. Other times, you need to take a step back and consult with the Word, your piers, or your mentors. We’ve asked some very wise people about the hardest question they’ve been asked these days, and how they responded. The first article in this series can be found here.
I remember the exact spot in the hallway where a parent stopped me some years ago. It was a day and season in my ministry when I thought things were going fairly well. I was a pretty great youth minister! In that time of my life, I really did believe I knew just about everything – not necessarily all of life’s answers, but surely I knew all that there was to know about ministry. I leaned heavily on my education, my knowledge of the Scriptures, my mentors, and my experience in giving students great confidence at this stage of their lives. However, I was about to learn the difference between “theology in the classroom versus theology in the hallway.”
As I walked down the church hallway that Sunday morning, I was stopped by a parent who looked me right in eyes, said good morning, and then burst into tears and asked me why her child wasn’t a Christian. In that moment I felt broken, fearful, hesitant, and even responsible. This despairing mom was looking straight down into my soul, desperate for an answer, right there in the middle of the hallway with people passing by. This was not the time to say “Let me get back to you on that…”
I totally believe that the Lord heard and answered my quick but panicked and desperate prayer for help. He spoke through me a sense of compassion and trust in Him alone, and kept me safely away from shallow explanations. Since that conversation, there are three basic principles I keep in my mind as I answer similar questions.
1. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Pride would tell us to jump in and provide control by giving quick answers and looking like the hero. The truth is that even the greatest missionary there ever was (the apostle Paul) said, “who is sufficient for these eternal things?” Our first response needs to be genuine compassion by putting ourselves in the parent’s place. Allowing ourselves to be broken alongside the parent, understanding the pain of knowing that their child’s heart has no pulse for the things of God – these are powerful responses.
As I spoke with this particular mom, I asked questions and gathered more information. The mystery was that her child was always at church, and not really a bad kid, so why hadn’t he responded to God?
2. Encourage perseverance. I think there is more to be said to a grieving parent than simply, “just keep on keeping on.” On that day, this mother needed to be reminded of what she already knew – that “The Lord will fulfill His purposes for me” (Psalm 138:8). Grieving has a habit of creating chaos and a loss of our bearings. With a compassionate heart, I talked about how her child’s feelings about God now were not the last word, and that she and I needed to partner together in prayer and trust in the Lord. Trusting the Lord also meant that we would encourage each other to continue to “gather the firewood” and make sure that the child was surrounded by things and people that the Holy Spirit could use to set off his affections for God. We cannot make the wind of the Holy Spirit blow, but we can always raise the sail as high as we can.
3. Promise a partnership in prayer. I know that I have had moments in my ministry when I told someone that I would pray for them and I did not. However, in this instance my heart hurt for this parent. Promising her that I would commit to serious prayer for her, her husband, and her child was not hard to do. If God is the one who saves, and if we are dead in our sins without His power (Eph. 2:1), then prayer is not just a last ditch effort – it is our only hope. What greater treasure can anyone offer us than to linger before the Almighty in prayer on behalf of our lost loved ones.
As two Christians standing in the hallway of a church that morning, we reminded ourselves that depending on the Lord is who saved us, and the Lord continues to save others. Hope for the grieving parent may look like a silly crutch to our godless culture, but we have seen His mighty acts, and we continue to place our eternal hope in Him.