The heart of youth ministry: Listening, hope, scripture, and love
I was recently asked to reflect on what guidance I would give to someone who was starting out in youth ministry. In no order, these are the four things that came to mind after some prayer and thought.
What are you listening for?
I went to a youth pastor conference back in 2011 in Manchester. It was during the first time I lived in the UK. There was an author as one of the guest speakers - Mark Yaconelli. Accompanied in the gift bag for all the attendees was a little extract from Mark’s book. One chapter entitled, Listening to Crickets:
“A friend of mine attended a Christian pastors’ conference in downtown Atlanta. The participants, who gathered from across North America, included one Native American pastor who was on his first trip to a major metropolitan city. During a lunch break the Native American pastor took a walk outside with one of his colleagues. As they stretched their legs along the busy sidewalk, the pastor suddenly stopped, turned to his companion, and said, “Do you hear that?” The friend paused and considered the bustling noise of the city. “Hear what?” he replied.
Planted along the downtown sidewalk was a small row of trees. At the base of each tree was a circle of flowers. The pastor walked over to one of the trees, knelt down, reached beneath one of the floral clusters, then stood and opened his hand, revealing a small black bug. “It’s a cricket.”
Dumbfounded, his friend replied, “How could you possibly hear that?”
The Native American pastor reached into his pants pocket, took out a handful of coins, and threw them into the air. As the coins hit the cement, people from all directions stopped and looked down.
The pastor turned to his companion and said, “It depends on what you’re listening for.”
Seriously, how beautiful and inspiring is that story! That has stayed with me over all my years in ministry. What are we tuned into? What are we listening for? In the “noise of life” are we hearing our Saviour?
The atmosphere at funerals
The second thing I want to share may seem odd, however, it too has stayed with me, over the last few years. Back in 2012 and 2013, I helped do the sound and data projector for funerals at the one church I was working for. I loved how the preacher I was working with would bring such an inspiring message. I always thought to myself: If there is an unbeliever in this building, surely that message would want them to explore a relationship with Jesus.
Another thing about doing those funerals, you could tell a big difference between a Christian service and one full of nonbelievers. There was a tangible difference.
One could either feel hope or despair in the church.
The Christian funerals were full of hope and celebration of the life of the one who had passed on. Of course, there were tears and mourning but there was a definite sense of life after this.
Death did not have the final say. To this day, as I write this, I think back about the different atmospheres of those different funerals.
Why would I share this with you though?
I guess its because of the sacredness or holiness of those moments. Something other worldly was happening there. It just made a profound impression on me.
There are lots of scripture passages I would want to share with you. I guess, all pastors will carry the ones that are most dear to them, close to them in their years of ministry. I would advise you to do the same. Lean on them. Sit with them. Let Jesus encourage and remind you as you serve Him.
The one verse that I have shared often with my different youth groups and churches is John 10: 1-10. The passage about the Good Shepherd. Take a break from this article and go read it.
I love the intimacy of this passage. The Shepherd calls His sheep by name. And the sheep recognise and respond to His voice. I love that. We can hear God in our lives. We can recognise Him. And then of course, that inspiring verse 10
“He has come that we may have life and life to the full.”
Grab that invitation to a full life, with both hands, heart and soul. So often, people around us, seem to be merely existing and not full living. What a pity!
The attractive watering hole of love
Lastly, I want to share one of my favourite stories I heard in a sermon over 10 years ago. Funny, the things that stay with you. The story goes like this:
A cattle ranch owner had such a large ranch (property) that it would be too costly to fence the whole area off. A fellow cattle ranch owner (farmer) asked him, ‘Aren’t you worried about your cattle wandering off? How do you keep them on your land?’
The man replied, ‘I make attractive watering holes. So why would they want to leave?’
Brilliant hey! Reminds me of the profound line that Peter said to Jesus:
“Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life'” (John 6:68).
There is something about Jesus. His love, His grace, His life that draws us in. Why would I want to leave that?
I’ve never wanted to follow Jesus or live out a Christianity that “fenced me in”. It’s the attractive watering hole that has kept me.
Jesus, Himself, has kept me near.
In conclusion, these stories aren’t “ideas” or “programs” about making youth ministry fun. But rather, what I found important along the way.
Simply, young people need a deeper relationship with Jesus. They need to learn how to hear from the Shepherd themselves in this busy and noisy world.
If we can teach them to hear and listen to Jesus for themselves, then I think we would be onto something.
They haven’t come into a relationship with Jesus “full of rules” but rather to the fountain of life. Hear it in His words:
“But whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4: 14).
In a world with a lot of frequencies, tune into the right frequency (like Listening for Crickets). As youth pastors, we have the privilege of modeling that for our young people.
But EVEN BETTER – do it with them. Listen to and for Jesus together.
And finally, I land with this: Without love, you are just a resounding gong.