On a regular basis, I deal with students who are cancelling plans at the last minute, forgetting to show up for scheduled events, and leaving their Bibles or sweatshirts in my car. I sometimes have way too many supplies for any given project, and sometimes I’m drastically short. Often, I plan events and then deviate from the entire written agenda. I have parents who forget deadlines, give me the wrong forms, and forget to sign checks they hand in for deposits. I choose lessons or plan things, and then end up abandoning them at the last minute.
In short, my job is wholly unpredictable and ever-changing. I can’t ever count on anything being the same, day in and day out.
Well, unless you count the stress of the job. That always seems to stick around, doesn’t it?
As unpredictable and ever-changing as our jobs are, that’s the reality we have to live with as youth leaders. It’s the nature of our ministry. And how well you adapt to that change is a mark of how seriously you take your calling. If you care about how the Holy Spirit is using you to accomplish God’s work here on earth, you’ll be open to His promptings–even if it means heading in a new and unknown direction as you walk through your ministry.
After all, Abraham doubtlessly had his life pretty well figured out. And look what God called him to do–to uproot from everything he spent his life working on and venture forth into the wilderness, relying exclusively on God’s hand to provide for him.
I’ve seen myself come a long way in a few years of church work, working with teens and parents. I like to think of it as my own “personal evolution”–the process in which God has formed and shaped me as a youth leader.
As a college student, doing hours of fieldwork each week in a local church in Southern California, I was given my own class of seventh and eighth grade students to teach every Sunday morning–and my evolution as a youth leader began in earnest. I discovered that the kids were shutting down when they tried to grapple with a curriculum that wasn’t suited to their particular personalities. After some research, I decided to start revamping the lessons. Filling out worksheets wasn’t working; these kids needed to talk about and wrestle with the complexities of their faith aloud. I scrapped the worksheets completely and dove into structuring classroom debates and discussions.
The result was a classroom full of kids eager to show up to Sunday school every week and nearly jumping out of their seats to talk. The previously catatonic classroom of zombies was gone.
That realization of the problem and my reaction to it marked one of the first of many steps in my personal evolution as a youth leader.
As I settled into a new church in St. Louis, I felt the squeeze to change, adapt, and rethink immediately–and the feeling has persisted throughout my time here.
When I first started running youth events, I was detailed beyond belief. I had nearly every minute of every event scripted out and planned meticulously. I had supplies labeled and organized in neat little packages. I did everything by the book.
Quickly, I realized that doing it by the book isn’t necessarily the answer. Books can impart a lot of wisdom and advice, but they can’t provide every answer you ever need. Sometimes, you need to listen exclusively to the Holy Spirit instead of anyone or anything else–and sometimes the Holy Spirit is calling you to adapt and evolve.
In youth ministry, and especially in middle school ministry, when the kids are practically morphing overnight, you have to adapt constantly in order to meet the needs of kids who are struggling with an ever-changing world. If you fail to pay attention to your kids, or the world they’re living in, or the struggles they’re facing, you fail to be relevant and meaningful. And that’s a dire situation to land yourself in, when you’re holding out the Word of Life that is always relevant and meaningful to these kids.
To be honest, it’s sometimes a challenge to go through this personal evolution. Our human nature likes to be in control. We want to pride ourselves on doing everything right. We don’t like to admit when we’re wrong…or when what we’re doing isn’t working…or when we don’t really understand the situation.
For instance, I recently planned out an elaborate youth night and spent hours getting supplies together, setting the room up, and briefing my adult leaders on what we’d be doing. Once the kids got to the church, I realized quickly that they were in no mood for structured activities. Instead, I scrapped the entire plan for the evening and blasted some music. That night ended up being one of the most memorable nights we’ve ever had–the kids had a spontaneous line dancing party, our leaders were free to roam and connect with kids, and we all bonded in an incredible way. These kids came back hungry for more the next week, and our ministry has continued to blossom.
Was it hard to throw away my carefully written notes and plans for the evening? Yes.
Was what God had in store better for everyone than my plan would have been? Yes.
As Hebrews 13:8 reminds me, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
In short, God’s grace is changeless, even when everything in our lives–and our ministries–are not. And that’s something that I definitely can count on being the same, day in and day out.