I’ve always wanted to open a candy store at a local mall. It would be a specialty candy store since we would only sell wax lips. I love those wax lips. Always have. I would sell wax lips from around the globe, of different flavors and colors. I could sell wax lips in the shape of famous celebrity lips. The Mick Jagger and Angelina Jolie would be the most popular. Of course, the lips could only be made from wax. No chocolate lips or licorice lips, only wax lips. I imagine the phone would ring and the voice on the opposite end of the line would ask, “Hi, do you have Gummi Worms?”
“Nope. Only wax lips.”
“But aren’t you a candy store?”
“Yes. But we only sell wax lips.”
Clearly they don’t share the same passion for wax lips that I do. The same is true for potential investors I’ve approached. Not a single investor thinks a store dedicated to only wax lips will thrive, or even survive, in today’s business world. To them I say, “Close minded!”
In reality, that kind of store probably wouldn’t thrive or survive in today’s culture…and neither would that kind of youth ministry.
A youth ministry that only caters or advertises to only one kind of person is as one dimensional as a straight line. If you and I look at the respective youth ministries God allows us to be involved in, we can probably label a vast majority of the youth into one, maybe two categories. For example, in the congregation where I serve, the youth ministry is predominantly Caucasian and middle class. We only experience a healthy balance where males and females are concerned.
If I look out of my office window towards the south, I can visibly see a junior high public school about 200 yards away and a senior high public school about a quarter mile away. These schools are widely known in our city as “ghetto schools,” meaning the assumption of our average citizen is that these students regularly experience fights, shootings, drugs, and gangs. Furthermore, the guess is that if any of the schools in our city have metal detectors at their entrances, it would be the two schools I can plainly see outside my office window. The truth is that these schools do not have metal detectors and that most schools in our city, if not nation, have experienced fighting, shootings, drugs and/or gangs.
In light of the proximity of these two schools to our church, guess how many students from those schools are involved in our youth ministry? One. Becky. That’s it. One. Why?
Oh, we’ve had a couple of kids wander over here from the schools. I can remember two kids, brothers, who were at our church completing their community service hours for stealing a couple of MP3 players. I began by hanging out with them while asking every question I could imagine in an attempt to know them more. I encouraged them to “stop by any time.” Furthermore, I invited them to attend our Wednesday night small group meeting where we discuss relevant topics from the week, combined with God’s Word. I’ll admit that I was shocked when they wandered in a week later, dressed in black, wearing long trench coats on a beautiful September day. I walked straight towards them, welcomed them back and took them to a small group and introduced them to a few youth at the same table. I explained that I had invited them to join us and asked our youth to make them feel as “at home” as possible. After leading the 10-minute introduction, I scurried off to teach confirmation in another part of the building. An hour later, I rushed back to the youth room, hoping to connect with the brothers before they left. When I turned the corner, they were nowhere in sight. I asked the small group leader, “Where are the brothers?”
“Did I just miss them?” I thought I could run after them.
“No. They left about 20 minutes into the discussion.”
“No one was willing to talk to them. Of course, they didn’t want to talk, either. I asked them several questions, trying to get them involved,” explained the small group leader, “but they just didn’t fit in.”
They just didn’t fit in. Those words hung in the room for several minutes. They just didn’t fit in. They didn’t belong. They weren’t supposed to be here. They should go somewhere else.
I was disappointed. I was even somewhat angry. But I wasn’t surprised.
I have no doubt that our church is the closest church to the place where they live, but they don’t belong, they don’t fit in. My guess is that they live in the lower-income apartment complex to the southeast of our church, less than a half mile away. They mustered up the courage to step out of their comfort zone and walk to our church. The moment they walked into the youth room, maybe even the building, they felt the cold stares and colder shoulders because they violated our holy space with their unholy presence. They were gummi worms in a store full of wax lips. They just didn’t belong.
Jesus was no stranger to events like these.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)
It would be easy to label the teens who attend the church where I serve. It would be easy to say that they are like the Pharisees and the two brothers are like the tax collectors or “sinners.” You can just imagine the conversations of the youth in our church when the “wrong place, wrong time” brothers wandered in.
“What are they doing here?”
“Don’t they go to ‘ghetto school’?”
“Hide your MP3 player.”
So I ask you, in our story, who is the sick patient in need of a doctor.
Every character in our story is in need of a doctor, a great physician and a holy healer: the brothers, the teens whom I serve, the small group leader and most of all…me. You and I daily belong in a waiting room, reading a month-old magazine, longing for a nurse to open the door, call our name and hear her say, “The Doctor will see you now.” That Doctor is Jesus, and He will see anyone. Anyone. Regardless of your age, race, hair color, amount of money in your pocket or wallet, He will see you. Whether you are blind, deaf, mute or lame, He will see you. Even if you are a widow, repentant Pharisee, a Samaritan woman at the well or a prostitute surrounded by religious rulers with a rock in each hand, He will see you. He will heal you. That’s why He came, to heal the sick. And the prescription He offers to every patient who sees Him is the same: complete forgiveness and a merciful heart.
As leaders of youth ministry, it is time that we develop the same heart that Jesus has for sinners. My hope, too, is that the teens we serve develop a heart for students who “don’t belong.”
My guess is that in the next ten years, we’ll live in a world where malls, department stores, libraries, schools and churches will all be equipped with metal detectors and security guards. Yes, that will keep a lot of people with evil intentions out. That’s good. But where churches are concerned, it will keep many sick people and sinners out, too. For those youth workers who hear God’s call to the sick and the sinners of the world, if those who need a physician can’t get in, we’ll need to go out by clothing ourselves with the shoes to spread the Gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15) and step into their neighborhoods. I suppose it will be a Physician’s house call to them through us.