In the fall, when school is starting again and the leaves are beginning to turn (and all the tourists go home and leave us our beaches), I am excited about starting the youth ministry year. There is something about the start of the New Year that brings hope and energy.
By the time I get to January, my excitement has tapered off; I tend to only see the long months ahead. This is more than just the time of year; it always corresponds with the annual drop in numbers during these winter months. I find myself reevaluating what I am doing within the youth ministry, why am I doing youth ministry, and if the ministry is having any impact.
Although evaluation definitely has its place and is valuable, I have been encouraged over the last month with some reminders of what I really should be evaluating.
Discouragement: Teens aren’t coming; the numbers are dropping.
Encouragement: The numbers game can quickly drive me into questioning—what can I do better? Should I have advertised more? Should I have had better snacks? In truth, I may have just forgotten that it was exam week. Large numbers can look good, but I should be more concerned with faithful disciples. How many on that bus to that retreat, conference or theme park trip will still be following Christ in a next month, next season, next year? Jesus himself had a lot of followers, but only twelve apostles. See, it’s not about numbers. I hope my true goal is not in growing the size of the group, but in growing disciples.
Discouragement: Teens don’t seem to be very good disciples; they keep backtracking and don’t do what I think they should be doing.
Encouragement: A couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering made up of youth ministers/pastors from all denominations. The group meets monthly and is led by a veteran youth pastor who posed the question: What does a disciple look like? He challenged us to remember that the goal of cookie cutter teenage Christians is rather ridiculous. We were reminded that all adult disciples do not look the same. Teen disciples are not all going to act, look, or be the same either. The question should not be are the teens doing my disciple checklist, but are they growing closer to Christ in some way? Am I helping them to see what God is doing in their lives and helping them grow according to the gifts God has given them?
Discouragement: I put in a ton of time and effort, and I still don’t see any conversion in the teens.
Encouragement: As our diocesan director recently mentioned, each of us had our own conversion at different ages precipitated by various experiences. How can we expect that all our high school students will have their conversion in a particular year? It’s not bad to hope for that, but it’s unrealistic to expect it. I so desire that the teens start to follow the Lord faithfully that sometimes I try to make them grow on my schedule. Of course, I can never do that. The Holy Spirit causes the growth. “Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:7) I can only scatter seeds and water.
This scripture for me is so encouraging. It silences the many evaluative questions and brings it back to one simple one. Am I being faithful to what Christ has called me? As a youth ministry team, are we being faithful to what God has called us? If I can answer that question with a yes, than the discouragements–whether realistic or not–can take a back burner. Winter is no longer the long barren months of ministry, but a season that brings forth new life in quiet and unexpected ways.