The battle for the hearts of our students is a relentless one. Often, I’m left wondering what it looks like to win the battle for their hearts amidst a culture where I see so many losses – rising depression and anxiety rates, rising suicide attempts and successes, more sexual brokenness than ever before, gender identity crises that permeate to the core of who students’ were created to be, and confusion about what the point of this thing called life even is. Many of our students think that “God is unconcerned with my day-to-day decisions,” even if they do believe everything in the Bible to be true.
That’s why I’ll spend my life loving teenagers – that’s why I’ll spend my life reminding and teaching them who they are and WHOSE they are. That’s why I’ll give everything I have to raise my own children to be rooted in their identity in Jesus. I’ll move Heaven and Earth for their hearts. As long as it takes.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:1–3
According to Paul, every Christian has a special part to play in the Kingdom of God. Yours may be serving and providing for your family. Yours may be homeschooling your children, or caring for aging parents, or caring for those less fortunate in your community. Yours may be housing a college student who needs a place to stay over the summer, it may be fostering children, or it may be serving in the corporate world and bringing the light of Jesus there.
Mine is youth ministry. I feel like it is for real in my blood, and I’m never going to get over it. Like, I’m already apologizing to my future children for the fact that I will be the cool mom (okay, hopefully my cool factor will still be there) dancing like a maniac in their youth group when they are teenagers.
If you’re a volunteer, and you’re in it for the long haul, my guess it that you get it. You get the power of doing life with students and loving them through the tough stuff and celebrating with them in the good stuff. These students are the people who will either be for God or against Him. We play an astronomical part in raising them up to love the Lord when everything else around them is telling them that He is insignificant. We get the privilege of speaking Truth over their lives – and that is a special gift that I for one am privileged to be a part of.
For the church, the adult leader is partnering with other parents and the wider congregation as they disciple teenagers, invest in their lives, and love them sacrificially. For students, adults are the hands and feet of Jesus as they bring truth in love. As they speak, they share the greatest and most firm truth students could ever hope in and believe. Their relationships with one another can model and echo His design for creation, the importance of community, and a raw example of love and vulnerability. They can be a safe place to students who feel like they have nowhere else to go. They can bring meaning to their suffering through alleviating a confused and traumatized teenager who feels like they are the only one who has ever been through this.
Now, let me just say that investing in teenagers each week is no easy task. Students will be distracted in group discussion by their phones, they’ll veer off topic with what happened at school that week, oh, and some of them might even cuss you out and think you are the dumbest person to ever walk the planet (yeah, speaking from experience). Students will ask for advice, genuinely listen to what you have to say, really desire to make a change in their lives, but a week later they’ll turn around and do the exact opposite of what they said they’d do. Students will fall back into old sin habits, despite the blood, sweat, and tears (also speaking from experience) that you put into loving them. It may take you years to form meaningful relationships. You may say the wrong thing, damage a relationship, and have to repair it. You may feel inadequate more than you feel adequate. You may feel defeated more than you feel encouraged. At points, you may feel like the work being done could be done better without you being there. I don’t write this on the other side of this struggle, I’m writing this in the midst of it with you.
I’ve been working on writing the words of Paul’s teachings on my heart, and I’d encourage you to do the same. You are being used. You are part of a bigger story. You are sowing seeds, that quite possibly, you may never see the fruit of. But you are needed. You are appreciated, and you are vital in the life of the teenagers that you’re doing life with. The beauty is that you don’t have to “dig deep” and push through the challenges by yourself… all you need to do is look to Jesus. The gift of grace is in accordance to Jesus, and has nothing to do with even your best efforts.
“But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Ephesians 4:7
I also write not from a “high place” of doing everything perfectly – not at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m consistently learning, being humbled that I don’t know it all, and being reminded about how broken I really am, that my flesh quickly wants to respond and lash out. I feel the weight of my brokenness as I look back throughout the years knowing that I could have done so many things differently (or better) in my leadership. If I would have kept my eyes focused on Jesus and not on myself or other idols, I could have done so many things better. There were so many moments where I felt unappreciated, unthanked, and unworthy. I focused, and at times fixated, on those moments – as if seeking the approval of man instead of God. There were other moments where I responded harshly, lacking compassion, or moments where I did what I thought was best in the moment, and then reflected and realized that I had some work to do in fixing what I’d sown. Yet, in the midst of my own failure, I’ve still seen reconciliation, fruit, and joy come from the work that I put in… the cool part? That today, as I type this, I realize that it isn’t me at all. It’s all God.
Y’all, can I just say for a second that the woman who serves unnoticed and unthanked is a woman who loves God more than she desires the praise of others. I want to be a woman like that, not just sometimes, but ALL the time. This morning, I was once again reminded that Paul’s words hold a heavy weight when it comes to why we are able to lead students resting in our own weaknesses. Since our penalty was fully and completely paid by Jesus on the cross, it needn’t be paid by us ever again! It is only when you understand the completeness of your justification (that your penalty has been paid and you have been made eternally right with God by the life and death of Jesus) that you are able to rest in the ongoing discipline of your sanctification. You can expect his discipline, but you do not need to fear his anger. You will experience His correction in how you lead, but you’ll never face His rejection. Our sanctification is the goal – to make us more and more like Jesus – and many times, that takes pruning and then more pruning. The Lord desires to do a work within us as much as he does through us.
When we speak the truth in love, we are promised that we will grow – speaking the truth in love goes deep against our flesh, and when we rely more on His strength and less on our own weakness, we’re fighting our own sinful nature for the glory of His name – THAT is where our words have the ability to impact hearts and cut through barriers of pride, fear, rejection, and pain. That’s where seeds will be planted in rich soil. That’s where we see fruit.
Being a youth leader – and fully investing – has sanctified me greater than any endeavor I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve learned to be mentored + to listen more than I speak. I’ve learned what it looks like to stay when I’ve desperately wanted to leave. I’ve learned what sacrificial love really looks like. I’ve learned that nothing I do in the name of Jesus is ever in vain. I’ve learned that when I admit my own weakness, that’s when God really shows up and uses me because I get the heck out of His way. If you know anything about Jesus, you should know that He can do it better than I ever could.
Youth ministry can be made complicated, but the reality is this: youth ministry is where we create space for students to meet Jesus.
We do not change the world with might and power and creative strategies and showy events. We watch God change the world when we pray and abide and believe that He will change hearts. Once a student encounters Jesus for themselves, the image they have of who He is, is often transformed drastically. Leading students to meet Jesus leads to life transformation. Once they meet Him, they’re hardly ever the same as they were before. Our God is deeply personal, tender, and real. That’s what makes those encounters so special. God dives into their mess and meets them there, transforming their lives. I live for seeing those moments.
Youth ministry is simply showing up.
It’s constantly being reminded that there is so much that I could do better, but showing up anyway. We take the gospel to our teenage friends – not as independent adult who has it all figured out, but as sinners in need of a Savior helping other sinners find their Savior. We don’t cry, “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you just make the right decision and listen to me? Why aren’t you getting it?” We ask a question: “Are you tired, hungry, cold, homeless, broke, or thirsty? Me too! Come and see where I found rest, food, and warmth. Let me show you where I found belonging, freedom, and the place where my thirst was finally quenched. Let me introduce you to the One who is rest, the One who is the Bread of Life, the One who is the Light of the World, the One who is the Prince of Heaven, and the One who is the Living Water- His name is Jesus and He is everything you’re searching for.”
It isn’t at all about you.
If you make influence your goal, your heart will become consumed with what the world thinks. You’ll miss the Holy Spirit’s incredible work right in front of you, your soul will get so sick because it will never be satisfied and rather than give God away through your gifts, you will use Him to get somewhere. May we desire to be helpful rather than important. May we notice when internally we are making it all about us, and therefore externally striving to prove that our intentions are true and good, when in reality, they are self-centered and broken. May we seek to make God’s name great and not our own. I don’t want to set my eyes on impact; I want to set my eyes on Jesus and knowing Him more.
And lastly, why does any of this even matter?
Because if we don’t give them something to live for, someone else will.
As long as it takes. That’s what we have to remember when we’re in the middle of the battle and it looks like there is no hope of us winning. We’ll stay in it, as long as it takes, because His love is worth us doing anything so that they would know it.
Written by Abundant Life author and AFL Ministry Coordinator Sammie Franks