Sometimes I Just Want To Do Bad Youth Ministry
group magazine: September-October, 2011
Sometimes the temptation to do bad ministry is overpowering—I'm too tired and too frustrated and too (gulp) lazy to do the right thing. So here's what I tell myself when the temptation seems too strong to resist.
by Darren Sutton
Most days, I'm tempted to do bad youth ministry. You know what I mean—throw in a Veggie Tales DVD and call it a "Back to the Basics" week. Or scrap the lesson altogether and replace it with a "All-Time Best Games" week, with kids playing all of the games you've done for the past five weeks. Or, even more brazen, cancelling Sunday school for four weeks and calling it "Family Worship Month."
There are days when I just get plain tired of the "doing" I have to do in ministry.
• I don't want to answer any more questions.
• I don't want to cast any more visions.
• I don't want to save any more days.
• I don't want to answer my phone, open my email, or go to the office.
• I don't want to be anyone's youth pastor.
To sum up, there are seasons in my life when I'm sorely tempted to give in to laziness. I want to offer up a second-rate ministry. I want to belie my own experience and shoot for the easy win. I want to do a little "lipstick on a pig" ministry—take the wide road of mediocrity instead of the narrow way of Jesus. It's easier. It's often more fun. And it's always less exhausting.
THE ROAD HARD-LY TRAVELED
I'm sitting here at my desk wondering if I can really get people to buy into my groundbreaking ministry innovation—I call it Virtual Facebook Youth Pastor. If I were holier-than-thou (and by that I mean holier-than-you), I might justify my innovative approach to ministry by citing the time kids spend on social networking sites. It's sort of like eating lunch at the school cafeteria with them, right? And it's a whole lot easier to chat via instant-message than to summon the courage to face down the awkwardness I feel (and they feel) when I walk into that cafeteria. I don't have to beg for permission or downplay my ministry role in order to "dupe" the school administrators into letting me in. I just show up at my keyboard and put in a few hours chatting and updating statuses. And if I'm really living on the edge, I'll send some game notifications.
But then these cascading (and annoying) thoughts about my teenagers burst my bubble…
• Would I encourage Jack to take the wide road as he struggles with his call to full-time ministry and his parents' objections to it? In a status update, how do I convey to Jack the tightrope truth that obedience to his parents is intertwined with following God? Jack needs a youth worker willing to pray with him in "real-time." And he needs someone to help him talk to his parents about the future.
• Would I ask Meredith to take the wide road as she cuts herself, yet again, and weeps over the loss of her mother? The wide road of mediocrity offers her a temporary escape, but it's not true healing. I can't help her see that through a headset and a properly placed landmine on my gaming screen. I need to walk alongside her in her tragedy.
• Or what would I say to Greg as he grapples with giving up pot, or Rob as he tries to stand for Jesus with his football teammates, or Suzanne who has piled way more on her plate than any freshman can possibly swallow, or even Jonah, my own son, as he tries to discern if God is calling him to ministry or releasing him into his dream job as a zoologist? Wide-road ministry won't cut it for them, will it?
Easy Christian platitudes silk-screened on a camp T-shirt won't teach Greg that he can walk away from what has quickly become an addiction for him. A quick "Prayin' for ya" won't convey to Rob how connected he can be to people who love him, with or without football. And I have little hope of reaching Suzanne's heart by texting a challenge like this: "Maybe it's time to cut out some things." Even more, her parents would hit the roof if I sent her a message like that. And Jonah? Well, in my heart of hearts, I really don't want him to go into ministry. It's hard, thankless, low-paying, and thin on respect. Please, PLEASE, Jonah—just study to be a zoologist. Or is that the wide road taking over?
Can I really look these kids in the face and say: "Sure, go ahead, make it easy. Cop out; sell out; get out. Take the wide road—you won't regret it, and you'll be so much less stressed." Can I reduce ministry to a simple answer, a quickie Bible verse, and a lame promise of prayer that I'll quickly forget to make good on?
Nope. Can't do it.
I can't take the wide road—not today, not ever. In a moment of whimsy, God had a hare-brained idea, deciding to entrust his passionate pursuit of these kids to me—with all my faults and imperfections and wide-road passivity. I know what I need to do, I'm just weary of doing it some days. Today is one of those days. But I know that my teenagers need me to steer them down the more difficult narrow road—it's more challenging, more work, more tears, and more sweat.
THE ROAD NARROW-LY TRAVELED
If I'm going to ask them to walk that narrow path, I can't ask them to do it alone. I must walk this road with them—when I'm tired, sweaty, crabby, burned out, insecure, and unsure. I must walk this road with them when they're rude, unruly, disrespectful, hormonal, and confused. I must walk this road with them when the church is political, their family is disintegrating, my bank account is dwindling, and the future is shaky.
Surely, I must walk the narrow road with them.
The narrow road? It's rocky, pot-holey, and runs over rough terrain. There are days when my car completely bottoms out. There are pits and craters and canyons to avoid. The curvy, winding road will demand my full attention most of the time. I'll want to be well-prepared for the journey—plenty of sleep, caffeine, and rock music. Getting lazy on this drive could lead to my demise or, worse yet, the demise of my passengers. I can't afford to lose focus or get distracted.
So I gulp down a 5-Hour Energy drink and swear off VeggieTales videos—no wide road for me. Jesus had his chance to do some wide-road ministry. Remember? In the garden he prayed that "this cup could pass" if it was possible. I'm pretty sure he could've made this happen if he'd wanted to, summoning (as the Roman guards taunted him to do) the angels of heaven to save him. He could've created a kind of VeggieTales salvation—a faith that is recreational, a resurrection that is virtual, and an abundant life that's more like a status update. But he didn't.
Jesus led by example. He didn't let exhaustion or ridicule derail him. He didn't let persecution or betrayal dissuade him from the mission. He was content to walk a narrow, harrowing road and lead by example. When Jesus had the opportunity to walk the wide road in his ministry, he declined—and I'm so glad. Even when he was tired, he made God's call on his life his first priority. When the road got hard and sweaty and steep and bloody and narrow, he stood fast.
I must follow in his footsteps and offer my teenagers a similar example…
• When it would be easier to show a DVD, I need to work on my Bible study plan.
• When delegating seems simpler than equipping people to do ministry, I need to invest in developing leaders.
• When games are all I have left to give, I need to find a fresh new reservoir of ministry ideas.
• When a Christian catchphrase or empty prayer promise is all I have to offer, I need to change course.
My teenagers deserve a leader who's willing to walk a long, narrow, and winding road with them. Are you and I willing to walk it? Will we forsake the wide "I could do this with my eyes closed" road that looks so inviting?
God, give me the same narrow-road passion for my teenagers that you have for me.
Darren is a longtime youth pastor in Texas and a member of our SYMC "Inside Track" team. His new column in GROUP is all about tough love, but just look at his picture—he's a huggy bear.
SLACKER NO MORE
By Joe Marinich
I'm a Gen Xer, part of the group notoriously labeled the "slacker" cohort. And for most of my life I've backed up that label by cruising through life. I've never really been pushed to succeed because, as you know, the world doesn't expect much from me. Somehow I cobbled together a pretty great life—I'm a youth pastor, father, and husband. But like everyone in my generation, my "successes" in life did not negate the major issues I've had to face. My whole life I've been in a battle to maintain self-control over my weight.
I've been overweight and unhealthy for many years. My doctor has constantly told me to drop pounds, but I've been secure with who I've become and haven't been motivated to do anything about it. But the more I've sought God in my life, the more I've realized that I've never really surrendered all of my life to him. God wants to be the God of my self-control—he gave me a body and called it his "temple," and my temple has been a wreck. And I'm not alone—when I look around me at the community of pastors I'm a part of, I see a lot of men and women attacking theological hot-button issues, but most of them are out of shape and overweight.
Some friends from high school asked me to play in a big flag football game this coming Thanksgiving, but because I'm 5'9" and weighed 290 pounds at the time of the invitation, I wasn't sure how that was going to work. All these issues converged into a logjam in my soul. And then it finally hit me—I found my motivation. In January I started on a journey to become a healthier person. My goal was not merely to lose weight—I wanted to be healthy.
But I knew I couldn't accomplish this goal on my own, so…
• I surrounded myself with a winning support system. First I went to my wife and told her my ambitions, and she agreed to help me 100 percent. Then I reached out to my youth ministry peers and started a Facebook group for people who were struggling with this same issue.
• I launched a video blog about my journey.
• I downloaded every free app I could find that deals with exercise and diet.
• I reached out to a healthy friend who has already walked this journey and asked him for advice.
• Most important, I realized this was not a self-control issue, but a spiritual issue.
If you're reading this and feel like you're a "fellow traveler," the only way we can beat this problem is by reaching out to friends, seeking help from God, and having the support of a spouse or close friend. Remember, God is bigger than any of our issues, and is capable of helping us.
I'm happy to say that I've lost almost 40 pounds since January, and I exercise every day. If a Gen X slacker can do it, so can you...
Joe is a longtime youth pastor in Ohio, and he's a member of our Inside Track team for the Simply Youth Ministry Conference (youthministry.com/conference).