My second year of full-time youth ministry ended on a mountaintop.
God was doing incredible things and I was able to be there to witness all of it. Our parish’s youth ministry had doubled and tripled over the past year which included two amazing retreats, many conversions, and an epic final Mass that included the Sacrament of Confirmation and was followed by an XLT led by the bishop of our diocese.
Two days later I received a scathing letter from a grandparent that indicted everything about how I did programming to how I led rehearsal for Confirmation Mass, even the clothing that I wore on Sunday nights. In it, she indicated that her grandson was so “turned off from Church because of [me]” he didn’t want to come back.
All of those good things went out the window. The two blessed retreats, the epic final XLT, and all those teens who came to know Christ in a deeper way were all forgotten. I was upset by the realization that I couldn’t satisfy everyone. I couldn’t get that one lost sheep.
The Flipside of the Parable
There are many great parables that are motivators for ministry – the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the woman caught in adultery, the parable of the mustard seed, and many more. All illustrate ways that we care for people and help them know Christ through the gift of faith. One stands out when it comes to outreach: The Parable of the Lost Sheep. We all know it – the good shepherd leaves the flock of 99 to go get the one lost sheep. He returns and there is much rejoicing.
This is great motivation for outreach. We can never be satisfied with how many teens we have at our Life Nights or at our retreats, we always need to be reaching out to and sharing the Gospel with more. We always need to go after that one.
But what happens if that one decides they aren’t interested? Or what happens if that one is a teen that was really involved, but suddenly disappears and you start hearing about all of their unholy exploits? What happens when that really involved senior goes to college and becomes an atheist?
In my case I forgot the 99. I became so distraught over the angry letter that I disregarded all the blessings God had given the youth ministry at my parish that year. This happens all the time, and will continue to happen until the Second Coming.
Everyone’s walk of faith is different. For the teen who was “turned off from Church,” his family situation was difficult and his parents didn’t attend Church; that’s why his grandmother was such a strong advocate. He was going to despise preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation even if it was the greatest ministry on the face of the planet.
Some teens are going to slide into sinful behavior, even after all of our relational ministry, retreats, awesome Life Nights, and funny jokes. They are going to disappoint us, they are going to let us down. We are going to get angry parent emails that make us feel like complete failures.
That is the shadow side of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. We think that because we didn’t get that one sheep we failed. When we start feeling that way, we missed the point completely.
Front Row Seats
As I said above, that second year I got to watch the great things God was doing in our parish and participate in them. But I wasn’t making them happen – the Holy Spirit was moving and I was trying to be obedient. I wasn’t going out to get those sheep – Christ was.
My downfall was thinking that because I hadn’t been able to reach that particular teen, that I had failed. But Christ was just beginning to work in that teen’s heart. Christ is the Good Shepherd, not me. And Christ is still going after that teen.
And that teen that disappointed you.
And the one that stopped coming because Life Nights got “boring.”
And the one who went to college and became an atheist.
Christ is still chasing after them, and rather than being discouraged we need to look back and realize that the 99 standing by us, those are blessings that prove Christ is working and the Holy Spirit is creating fruit in our ministry. Then, we need to realize that sometimes the best thing we can do for the “one” is to pray for their hearts and continued conversion (as well as our own), and let Christ do His thing.
It’s a tall order – in youth ministry we are called to reach out to everyone and our goal is to lead every teen closer to Jesus, but we know that is impossible for us. We are human and limited. We are going to fail and be disappointed, but what is impossible for us is possible for Christ.