We are continuing our discussion (or my rant) about what our youth ministry looks like with regard to the kingdom of God. And in keeping with the theme of the kingdom of God being like a mustard tree, today I’d like to talk about the trunk. (If you haven’t yet read the last post about the roots, you should do that first). The trunk is the backbone, the spine, the core of the tree. Everything, all of the branches and leaves, find their starting place on the trunk. And the trunk of youth ministry is (drumroll, please) … relationships!
It’s all about relationships, because it’s all about love, and love is inherently relational. Take a look at what Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Corinth.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
(1 Cor 13:1-3)
Did you catch that? It’s all about love, and love is a relationship. If we have a youth group large enough to fill a football stadium but don’t have loving relationships, all we are is a crowd of disconnected individuals. If our students can understand and articulate the deepest, most complex theologies but don’t have loving relationships, then we are simply a cold and unfeeling database. And if our youth ministry has the best food, the coolest videos, the most rocking praise band, and the most fun games but we haven’t built relationships with one another, then we might as well just stop.
Now, here’s the hard part, the part that frustrates me the most – I cannot (try as I might) build deep, loving, meaningful, discipleship-oriented relationships with more than a few students. I wish I could. I wish that I had endless amounts of time on my hands. I wish that I could memorize everyone’s birthdays, what grade they’re in, their parents’ and siblings’ names, their hopes, dreams, and fears, and which boy or girl they have a crush on. I wish that I had an overflow of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy that could easily cover all of the joys and tragedies of every student’s life. Sadly, however, I don’t. As much as I wish I were this Rock Star youth pastor who could do it all (and as much as some people might expect me to be), I simply am not that guy. And the difficult part about it when it comes to our students is that in order to disciple them all, in order to build them up into fully mature believers, I need the help of others.
“Wait a minute!” you might say. “Hold on! I pay my tithe. I approved your résumé. I’m already doing my part to make our youth program great. I shouldn’t have to volunteer as an adult leader. That’s what we hired you for, right?” Be honest. Some of you have actually thought that (or something similar). Truth be told, it’s one of those things that crosses my mind from time to time. My role as the youth pastor is full-time. The parents and people in our church are busy. They have full-time jobs. They have other obligations. They already do so much for our church. I really shouldn’t bother them by asking them to volunteer.
And I want to be completely open about this – when it comes to food, money, resources, and support for our youth program, I have never found myself lacking. And for that I want to say a big thank you!!!
But (okay, I’m gonna say it), it is not enough. Why? Because youth ministry, true discipleship, is about relationships. And no matter how much pizza I put in our teens’ stomachs, no matter how awesome our youth conferences and missions trips are, it will never be able to replace authentic relationships. What I need is not more money. I can do youth ministry without it. What I need is more people willing to invest in the lives of our teenagers. I’m not talking about people willing to fill a role until someone else more qualified or with more interest shows up. I’m looking for people who want to be part of the life-change that teens need, in relationship, for the long haul, no matter how inadequate you feel.
So this is me asking you to consider whether or not God might want you to pour into our students. It’s going to be messy. You will be inconvenienced and uncomfortable at times. But I promise you it’s worth it. If we want to see our youth program grow, if we want this tree trunk to grow beyond what it is, then I need adult Christians to get involved. Otherwise, we probably won’t get past a dozen teens or so … because that’s about all I can handle on my own.