I’ve definitely screwed up in youth ministry.
Every leader knows exactly what I’m talking about: those deep, dark mistakes you don’t want to dredge up because they reveal how wrong things went in a moment of poor judgment. We try to ignore these memories, and instead dwell on the positives in our ministry.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t made any colossal mistakes. I’ve never punched a student in the face, accidentally set the youth building on fire, or forced an anchovy down the throat of a kid with seafood allergies.
Since I’m an optimist, I try to look at my mistakes as learning experiences, not failures. So, technically, I’ve had a heck of a lot of educational opportunities in the last two years I’ve been doing middle school ministry.
For instance, I learned that it’s never a good idea to invite kids to do an activity called “Gingerbread Head”. To the pragmatic youth worker who buys rolls and rolls of thick plastic wrap and carefully plans to instruct the kids on how to put this over their head before building a gingerbread house on their face: IT WILL NOT WORK. Those kids will smear vanilla frosting all over the poor victim’s face, shove gummy bears up their noses, stab them with licorice strands, and explode several bottles of sprinkles all over their heads. You will spend close to an hour cleaning up this simple, fifteen-minute activity, and parents will simply shake their heads in disbelief as they pick up their sugar-coated child.
I’ve learned that middle school boys have the most disgusting, filthy, foul-smelling things in their gym bags. And, they don’t hesitate to throw them on you if you get too close to them. So, if you’re ever on a mission trip with thirty kids, don’t go near the boys. If you do, don’t come crying to me about the unidentifiable fungus they leave smeared in your hair–you’ve been duly warned.
I discovered the reality that mashed potatoes will always be flung if you have them out when kids are around. And that it’s impossible to peel an orange with your toes–you’ll just end up with itchy feet that, frankly, smell incredible.
You should never host a youth event titled “Play With Your Food Night” unless you want to spend the rest of the evening removing all of the furniture from the youth center and hosing it down. Your fellow volunteers really don’t appreciate hauling furniture out in the freezing cold and mopping the floor at ten o’clock at night, as much as they put on a brave face and plaster on a false smile.
I learned that, in a Bigger and Better Scavenger Hunt, kids will wheedle just about anything out of poor, unsuspecting people. And then they’ll hoof it back to the church with these incredibly strange things–everything from full sandboxes and giant clocks to baby swings, whole sections of fence, and ping pong tables. I also found out that a group of seven kids wheeling a full-sized ping pong table down a main road at 8:30 pm doesn’t even raise the eyebrow of the police officer sitting in his car, clocking speeders.
I figured out that, if you try four times to host a “movie under the stars” outside on a beautiful summer night, it’s guaranteed to rain. And it will only start to rain about twenty minutes before the event starts, so you don’t have time to make other plans.
I discovered that you should never give glow sticks to people under the age of twenty-five (forty-five, if they’re men). And you should really never play a game that involves calmly sliding the aforesaid glow sticks across a gym floor. Somehow, the translation to a middle schooler becomes: “Collect as many glow sticks as I can get my hands on, whale them at my friend’s head with as much strength as I have in my arms, and pray that one of the sticks breaks open on his face”.
I’ve also learned that somehow, when children pray for a snow day, God answers their prayers. He never answered mine when I was in school. He also did not answer mine this year, when I was hoping for an extra day off of work. Apparently, God listens to this generation of youngsters more than anyone else. (Really? Do I have to insert a disclaimer here that I don’t actually believe what I just wrote?)
I’ve (somewhat painfully) learned that you can’t tell your football-playing students that you’re still stronger than them–and I’ve discovered that those aforesaid athletes have no problem putting their youth leader in a headlock for saying things like that. Also, students will kick your booty in a game of basketball and boast about it for months, even if you yourself had golden skills in high school.
At the same time, however, I’ve learned that patience is indeed an incredible virtue. Those leaders and volunteers who truly possess patience are worth their weight in gold. And the adults who can look past the sheer insanity of student ministry and see the deeper truth–that they’re doing God’s incredible work–are invaluable altogether.
I’ve discovered that kids are vastly more interested in relationships than the perfect event, and that it doesn’t really matter how many fun prizes or goofy competitions you have if you don’t passionately love the kids you’re working with–even that kid who glues his hands together for the ninth time at your service project. Or that kid who wanders off on your mission trip and falls asleep next to a ninety-five-year-old at the nursing home while you hyperventilate and spend twenty frantic minutes trying to find him.
Through personal experience, I’ve found out that sometimes the truly best days of your life can be the days you spend driving in a van full of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, listening to them croon nonsensical songs, hang candy from the ceiling, and tape each other up with rolls of duct tape.
I’ve learned to always triple-check my files after an event, because that’s always where that missing check will be found. And that when you misplace that perfect Bible study you wrote and have to wing your devotion on the fly at your youth event, you’ll always find that piece of paper sitting in the most obvious place in your office.
I’ve discovered that a hug from a kid is better than an hour of reading a book on youth ministry, that parents should never be undervalued, and that coffee is not necessary when eighth grade girls are anywhere within earshot.
I’ve learned that God works through the most imperfect vessels, that no feeling on earth can compare to watching the kids in your youth program pick up a Bible unprompted and read it to their peers, and that sometimes the most meaningful conversations occur in the strangest places.
Through these last few years of youth ministry, it’s been revealed that I can hang in there with a job that sometimes seems impossible and overwhelming, because God’s running the show. And I’ve learned that the Holy Spirit is working and will continue to work, despite the daily frustrations I have with the copier, my computer, and myself.
Somewhere, in the midst of my biggest failures and mistakes, there are plenty of valuable lessons. As a sinful human being, I’m bound to mess up on occasion–no matter how carefully I plan, pray, and prepare. My mistakes reveal my utter depravity, and remind me that I don’t have all the answers–I’m nowhere close to perfect. Every day, I’m reminded by my own folly to “Look to the Lord and His strength, seek His face always” (Psalm 105:4). But, the depths of my error serve to show the incredible power of our Creator God–a God who can work through an imperfect vessel like me and still positively affect the lives of the kids I’ve been entrusted with.
And if it takes getting caked with gym-bag fungus and put into a headlock by my students to learn the reality of that powerful truth, I guess it’s worth it after all.