I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had high schoolers lay into me about how youth group doesn’t do it for them anymore, or about how they need something with more depth. Sometimes I lie awake at night, imagining all the ways I would love to give it right back to them; to actually be a straight shooter and tell them how it really is. But just when I’m about to explode and completely blow away some unsuspecting, verbally processing mid-adolescent, God gives me a gracious reminder of my unique role and purpose in the body of Christ.
I recently had lunch with a former student who was the thorn in my side during her time in my student ministry. Everything I did wasn’t good enough, every lesson wasn’t deep enough, and every other adult in her life was smarter and wiser then I ever could be. Now, while most of my students probably already believe this, this young woman decided to make it very clear to me how dissatisfied she was with my leadership of our group.
I distinctly remember a conversation we had at the end of her sophomore year, when she tried to let me down easy that she would no longer be joining us for sunday school because it was baby food, and she would be going to big church instead. She then proceeded to invite any other students who wanted real spiritual food to join her.
Their Self-Righteous and Rebellion is Right and Normal:
Part of the developmental process of adolescence is defining their own faith by separating themselves from the faith of their families, and sometimes even their church, or me. While I totally get that students need to stretch their wings and learn to fly spiritually, it still crushes my spirit. I know I should be mature enough to handle the ridicule of my faith, my job and my calling by someone who wasn’t even born when I started doing student ministry. And I should be gracious enough to absorb the observation of the shallowness of my faith and lack of biblical depth, even though I aced seminary and they are getting a D in Algebra. But I am not. At least not at first.
It would be great if the job of the youth worker was to take these teachable moments and drive home the truth of the situation with a sledgehammer; to clarify their hypocrisy, fickleness, and self-righteousness, combined with self-absorption. But I firmly believe that being the arbiters of truth is not our calling; rather we are to be fountains of grace.
Jesus Christ was the perfect completion and balance of truth and grace. Many times we lie to ourselves and think that we can be balanced in doling out these attributes as well. But I have found that in student ministry, grace is far more what is needed than truth. For a teenager, the emotion surrounding an idea or place carries much more weight than logical truth. And because of this, it is imperative for youth workers to graciously walk through the emotional ups and downs in the faith development of students rather than lay down the law and hold their feet to the fire. I wrote more about this here:
Ok, back to my lunch . . .
As we sat down to eat, I had no idea what to expect from her since we, obviously, hadn’t been that close during the end of her high school career or throughout college. But what came out of her mouth was totally unexpected. She began the conversation with, “Ben, I wanted to apologize for the way I treated you and our church during my time in the youth group.” I was blown away and almost cried. (Almost crying is crying for normal people.) I had forgiven this young woman years ago, and to hear the apology brought instant restoration in our relationship.
The rest of our time together was her telling of the way that God had been graciously drawing her back to Jesus. She is a part of an amazing Christian community that she picked on her own, while away at college. As she's worked out her own faith, she has been able to reflect back and own the places where her self-righteousness caused harm. Apologizing to me is part of her moving forward in her own journey, and a great byproduct reopened the door for me to be her biggest cheerleader.
If I am honest, this isn’t a unique story. There are countless students who have done this to us. And, the truth is that all of us, at one point or another have also gotten a little too excited in the area of self-righteousness. I remember when I first really started developing my own, distinct faith and how i blew up the adults, church leaders, and friends as I worked out my own junk.
We Must Make Bigger Onramps not Harsher Billboards:
Being wrong, being self-righteous, totally missing God’s voice or direction is part of working it out. Even total rebellion and walking away from the faith is often part of process of adolescence. Because the emotional memory of an encounter and relationship will always trump the truth of the content of an encounter, we must ooze grace and give space for students to work it out.
This is vital to our calling because, at some point in the future, the Holy Spirit will actually knock loud enough on the hearts of our old students to call them back to Jesus and to the Church. The work we do in these moments of potential confrontation can either shut down that process completely or, instead, make giant, easy onramps back into Christian community.
It is a fine line we walk as youth workers. After this lunch, I am once again reminded that my job is to be the adult in the relationship. I am to be emotionally stable, kind, gracious, and gentle. I am not the one who convicts of sin or leads to repentance. That is the job of the Holy Spirit. The more I remember that, the longer my view gets, the better I can do my true job of providing opportunities and onramps for students to know Jesus and be involved in the Church. The how and when they choose to take advantage of those opportunities is up to God.