Growing up in St. Louis, I had the opportunity to experience one of the prime examples of our continuous need for convenience as a society: the escalator. Instead of walking up a whole flight or two of steps at the mall, the escalator does the walking for you. You get on the step at the bottom, and then stand there and ride the steps up to the top. My favorite characteristic of the escalator is whenever it breaks down and stops working, it isn’t totally out of order. A stopped escalator simply becomes stairs. When one breaks down, instead of an “Out of Order” sign, they should just put up a sign that says “Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the Inconvenience.” There’s a poignant video out there of a couple people whowere riding an escalator that breaks down halfway through. Instead of just walking the steps the rest of the way, they stay put crying out for help and for someone to come fix the escalator. Isn’t that how we tend to be oftentimes? We want to wait until something is fixed so we can keep on coasting along rather than taking the steps ourselves.
But here’s the problem with that mentality: sometimes life is hard. In fact, sometimes is not the optimal word there. As Jesus put it, “In this world, you will have trouble” (John 16:33). “You will” is promise-language, just like “I will be with you always” (Matthew 28:20) and other promises of Christ that we love to hold onto. But for some reason I don’t see any bumper stickers or posters that proclaim this part of that verse of promise. Perhaps this is because it flies in the face of the contemporary heresy that if you believe hard enough, God will give you everything you want in this life and you will be comfortable and worry-free. We want to think that the Christian life is some divine escalator that takes us to heaven without any effort, sweat or toil for the rest of our life (because apparently “take up your cross and follow me” is not a strenuous activity). But then the escalator breaks down and if I’ve bought into the lie that I shouldn’t have any trouble in this life because I’m a Christian, I’m stuck yelling at God asking Him to fix the escalator so I can get moving again. Instead of pretending that we’re stuck, we just have to work, which is actually glorious news. God has a job for us, gifts for us to use and an amazing mission for us to be a part of!
Church workers and volunteers understand this on a holistic level, but we may miss out when it comes to the ministry application. When we start out fresh into a congregation, there is the hope that everything’s going to be great, easy, and there won’t be any problems. But then there are moments that break our rose-colored glasses. In youth ministry, oftentimes that is the first event that we plan that is total no-show. For me, that was my wake-up call that there is no cruise control option in ministry. The problem comes in how we respond to these challenges. In our despair and frustration, we can sometimes stay on the same step, yelling at God for letting this happen and asking why working in His church should be so difficult. But more often than not, we just try to find something that will turn the escalator back on so we can continue to ride our way to the finish line. Examples abound of those fixes we put our trust in. Once our new building program is done, then everything will be so much easier. Once we start this new program, that’ll be the end to all our troubles. Once we get this new staff member, we’ll be free and clear. Not to say that any of these examples aren’t good ideas for a congregation to pursue, but we need to see them as another step up that we’re taking instead of the one solution that will allow us to simply stop moving or working. We get frustrated when change, fixes or resolution don’t occur right away instead of celebrating the steps, however small, that have been taken. We can find joy in being faithful to the task that God has given us, even if we’re not seeing the instant results that we would like to see.
Youth ministry is not a smooth-running escalator. We can never get it to a point where everything is working well enough that we can just coast the rest of the way. If that is the goal, we will forever be disappointed. There will always be something that breaks down, one area that needs specific focus or relationships that need more investment. In those moments, we faithfully serve with the gifts that God has given us and take those steps one at a time. Our ultimate hope and peace is in the second part of the passage we started with from John 16:33, “In this world, you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world!” In my sinfulness, I try to end that sentence “take heart, our new building is almost done, our program is being rebuilt or we’re bringing in better people.” But that isn’t any hope at all, because all those solutions will inevitably slow down or break over time as well. As broken people serving alongside other broken people, it’s not surprising that our work and ministry is often broken too. So our hope and joy can’t be in our ministry running perfectly, but in our God who has been perfect for us in Jesus Christ. In youth ministry, you will have trouble. There will be events that don’t work, students that choose to get unplugged, parents that get upset, budgets that get overspent, windows that get broken, and carpet that gets stained. But take heart, Christ has overcome the world! In youth ministry, you will have trouble. He will use even our broken, meager offerings for eternal good. What a miracle that is!