The temptation in youth ministry is to produce results. They are legitimate results. We want to see students plugged into youth ministry and find faith in Jesus Christ. The problem is how we package it. What promises are we making to students about salvation? Will we be able to keep those promises? In other words, will students see what we have promised about salvation come true? Sure, they will go to heaven one day. But what have we promised about life on earth. Have we portrayed it to be rosier than reality?
When I was growing up and starting youth ministry, I would hear the phrase “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” We would say something similar to students to help encourage them to give their lives to Christ and follow his wonderful plan.
There is some truth to that statement. Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV) or Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, ESV) It sounds like good things are coming on earth to those that choose to follow God. However, context suggests two things. In Jeremiah, the Israelites (Judah, specifically) are about to be destroyed and spend 70 years in exile under the Babylonians. In Romans and Jeremiah, it is not our perspective that determines good things but God fulfilling his purposes determines what is good.
So the student buys into the idea that good things are going to happen by becoming a Christian. Then real life hits hard: Bad grades, sick family members, world crises. Did we just lie to them that God has a wonderful plan for their life?
So far we’ve talked about the importance of faith being the first step in their walk and that walk needs to be lived out. The next foundational piece in youth ministry is teaching students a proper perspective of life and Christian endurance.
What are a student’s expectations of a wonderful life? Academics pursuits, extra-curricular activities, youth group, being a “good boy or girl,” pursuing status and popularity, or “likes” on social media. All of these are grabbing for our students attention. In a recent New Times article, “Why Are More Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety,” it stated that fear of failure is a common reason for anxiety. But what if failure was biblical? Are we missing an opportunity to free our students of pressure by telling them perfection is not possible? It is okay to be okay. Adults have worked so hard to make life easier for students. With that comes the expectation “Now that it is easier, you should have no problems.” It may not be verbalized. As the article states, it has now become an unwritten, internalized expectation.
Scripture tells us that this isn’t reality. John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (NIV) Instead of avoiding trouble, there is an expectation that trouble is part of life especially the Christian life. Romans 5:2-4,”through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (NIV)
The correct response is not to avoid trouble but overcome and grow from trouble. So here are four practical things youth ministries can do to guide students through the expected hardships of life.
Students need to know what to expect. I have a missionary friend in another country. When the baptize, their baptism question is, “When they take you away, will you still profess Jesus as Lord.” Imagine if we asked that question in the United States what the response would be? Students need to know the truth about what they are signing up for. Persecution is a reality and is discussed throughout Scripture.
Adults need to be honest about their own lives in front of teenagers. I’m not asking to share all your private sins and family secrets, but I’m asking you to be honest about life being hard and how you are working to navigate through it. No, teenagers will not relate to parenting preschoolers. They will appreciate however, adversity and knowing life is hard everywhere not only in their small world.
Students need to be exposed to life outside their world. They believe they are the only ones going through their circumstance. They need the opportunity to connect to others who have been through a similar or more difficult journey.
Voice of the Martyrs is a great resource to hear about people in other parts of the world suffering for the cause of Christ.
Students also need to hear about other teens who have relatable stories of hardship and adversity. I’m a member of a few youth minister Facebook groups. They are full of stories of youth ministers asking questions about how to deal with students in difficult circumstances. Another option is to join a youth ministry network that meets regularly for prayer, support, and fellowship.
Another option is to allow students to share their own stories with each other. Students can learn how to emotionally support each other and realize that they do not have to go it alone. I suggest small group ministry for this to take place.
We challenge our students to go win their friends for Christ. We get them excited about living boldly for Christ but can we honestly say we have worked with students to prepare them for the daily grind of life. My day probably should be filled with evangelism opportunities and boldly defending my faith to an agnostic. The truth is its usually filled with managing anxiety, not losing passion for priorities, and not being too distracted by social media and the world’s events. Those basic life issues need a sustainable faith that helps me endure the monotony of life. For students this would include homework, cleaning their room, working through conflict with their parents, and discerning how to perceive things on the internet. We need to incorporate basic life principles in our discipleship strategies so that what we are teaching students connects with their present circumstances.
Missions gives students the opportunity to serve others in the name of Christ. While Jesus known to all nations is the primary purpose of missions, a secondary purpose could be giving students a fresh perspective about life. Most of our missions opportunities are not in affluent areas. We typically serve those less fortunate. This helps students see the hardships others face. They recognize that lack of cell service or a dead battery is a minor problem compared to poor living arrangements and hunger. They learn that what they think is hard is minor compared to the hardship of others.
They also learn to help others overcome hardships. In helping others, they discover strategies and determination to overcome. They learn contentment in difficult circumstances by the example of those who are suffering. When I was in college, the fraternity I was a member of had the opportunity to serve a meal at a local shelter. The most profound impact on me was not the meal but playing with the children after the meal. There were no electronic gaming devices. There was only creative. They would find new ways to use the same toys to play games. The resiliency they showed not to focus on what they didn’t have but to focus on what they did have and to make the most of it was inspiring to me.
If given time to debrief, our students can reflect on their own difficulties. The next time they are facing their own crisis, they can remember the hardships and example of others.
Keeping faith is an endurance race. It is tempting to quit when life gets hard. Is it really worth it? Yes, but students need to understand the value of walking with God by being prepared to walk through joys and pains. If they are not, then when hardship arrives they won’t know how their faith can help them or why they have a faith at all.