I Samuel 1:27-28; 2:26; 3:19
I love rollercoasters! I love the high climbs and the fast descents. I love the feeling of the speed of the track as well as that feeling of nearly coming out of the seat! I could go over and over again. I love the loops and the corkscrews. The more wild the ride, the better!
However, I have never enjoyed the “roller coaster” of youth ministry. I know there are the up times and the down times. It is easy to enjoy the up times when summer camp has been great and teens seem to be doing right. However, there are also those lean years when you wonder if you are making a difference for Christ in anyone’s life. The truth is, there are lean years and there are fruitful years. There are far too many youth pastors that have made the decision to quit or move during those lean years. How can we make it through those lean years to enjoy the fruitful years? I have had to learn the hard way how to prepare for those times of trial.
During one of those lean times I was facing, my pastor advised me to contact some of the youth pastors that I know who have been at the job for a number of years and seem to be successful. I was surprised to find out that each youth pastor I talked with had faced the same discouragement and trials of lean years as I was facing. That taught me a very valuable lesson–the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. No matter where you serve–large church or small, old church or new, rich church or poor–they all have the same thing in common, they work with people. People are sinners and fail. Ministry will always have ups and downs due to sin. Don’t leave your place of service simply because things get a little rough! It is in those rough times that God is growing you more.
Let me encourage you the same way that I was advised. I was told to start concentrating on the younger kids, not on the juniors and seniors in the youth ministry. I have made it my practice to be in front of the elementary kids as often as I can. I want to start reaching the teens long before they become teenagers! I want every kid to long to be in the youth ministry! I also meet with the sixth graders a number of times during the sixth grade year to tell them about the exciting things of the youth ministry. I have the entire group of sixth graders over to our home about one month before the promotion Sunday into the youth ministry just to love on them a little more. I want to instruct them on the things they have to look forward to by being involved as well as answer some of their questions and calm some of their fears. It is building for the future.
If Pastor Norris were to tell me tomorrow that he feels we need to split the youth ministry into junior high and senior high and that he needs to bring in a second youth pastor to cover one of the groups, I would honestly request to be the Junior High youth pastor. I value the importance of reaching them in those seventh and eighth grade years. If you reach a kid in those early years, you will have him all the way through; however, most youth pastors spend all their time with the older, “cooler” teens–after all, they are easier to talk with and interact with. They are much more mature. Truthfully, if you reach them when they are younger, you can have them help you continue reaching the younger ones when they are older. I want to encourage you to reach them when they are young!
The flip side to that thought is not to neglect the older teens. Challenge the older teens greatly. Separate the older and younger in teaching times and activities as often as you can. Motivate the older teens to lead the younger teens in the right way. Challenge the older teens to create an atmosphere of positive peer pressure. They are the leaders naturally. If they choose not to lead in the right manner, teach the young people to learn from their example of what not to do.
You can accomplish this without calling out those older teens and embarrassing them. As mentioned earlier, encourage your older teens to reach out to the younger teens and teach them by example like Paul did for Timothy. Honestly, the teens will not remember any of your messages in 10 years (you will not either!), but they will be greatly influenced by those teens who invest in their lives. This process will not happen overnight. You will face some lean years in preparation for the fruitful years. If you continue to reach the younger ones, it will perpetuate year after year–but that means you have to stay around! Don’t quit!
Lastly, your personal consistency is vital! I cannot encourage you enough to be real and genuine in your personal life. Our teens have seen far too many preachers and leaders fail. People they looked up to as role models who totally blew it. Our teens are also greatly hurt by those who are so critical of everyone else that they generate a critical, judgmental spirit in their teens. We must set a godly example all the time for our teens! Lead with love! (I Corinthians 13:13) It is easy to preach that a teen ought to have personal devotions, but then not have them ourselves; same with soulwinning and separation. Be real! Lead your teens in humility and service! We are building for the future, not for our recognition!
In conclusion, let me remind you that you will not win the hearts of the teens overnight; it is a long process, but it is very rewarding. Let me encourage you to honor the spiritual teens, not just the athletic or popular. You get what you honor! Stay planted long enough in your church to grow your own crew of godly young people! The future IS bright if we start reaching them at a younger age!