Sitting over their coffee and Bibles, my high school girls recently released a tide of frustration over a topic that I think many of our youth can easily relate to.
In the words of one of the girls, “It’s like no one thinks about ministering to your average ‘good kid,’ who doesn’t smoke or drink or do drugs or skip class. Everyone focuses on the rebellious teenagers, but we’re the forgotten students, in the eyes of all the adults around us.”
I can relate. Can you?
Growing up, I struggled with this same feeling of being forgotten by my teachers and youth leaders. I did my homework, played sports, went to church and hung out with a great group of friends—and all the while, I didn’t dabble in anything illegal. Sure, I tee-peed a few houses and pulled a lot of pranks, but I never did anything serious enough to get me in any big trouble.
Do I say this to paint a portrait of myself as a “goody-goody”? Not at all—I was far from perfect.
Rather, I admit this because I’ve discovered that my story parallels a heck of a lot of stories from other kids I’ve worked with. While no two students are alike, I’ve found that a lot of our kids do relate to the label of “good kids” and feel quite lost in the shuffle, in terms of youth ministry.
As one of my high schoolers explained, “I grew up going to Lutheran school, and I’ve been going to church and youth group my whole life. I don’t have some dramatic ‘conversion story’ that I can tell people. How can I ever talk to anybody about that kind of story?”
So often, we do focus on the powerful stories of redemption. We listen to testimonials of people who have been locked in darkly sinful lives, battling drug and dependency addictions. We read stories of individuals struggling with perversion of all sorts. We watch movies of those who have come back from the brink of suicide and depression, death and disease, disfigurement and disorders and bondage.
I think it’s natural that we’re drawn to these powerful portrayals of God’s triumphant grace. Many people can relate to these stories, which demonstrate God’s goodness in undeniable unforgettable terms.
Sometimes deepest depravity can serve as the most powerful contrast for God’s powerful goodness. And certainly, God works miracles in the lives of His people. Romans 5:8 reminds us, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
But that haunting shadow of my conversation with my students plays through in my mind, prompting me to ask myself: what’s my ministry to the “good kids” looking like?
Though I use a stereotypical term like “good kids,” I think everyone who works with teens knows exactly who I mean. I suspect a lot of these “good kids”—the kids who aren’t out sneaking around or buying drugs or sleeping with classmates under the bleachers—might be quietly mired in frustration.
We need to make an effort to be a presence in the lives of these teenagers, as well. They need to know that they aren’t alone, and that there are adults and leaders who have walked in their same shoes and survived the humdrum teenage years without spending time in lock-up or coming out covered with tattoos.
The bottom line is this: our “good kids” are still human. They screw up, feel alone, worry, and give in to temptation. Even the “good kids” are just as lost in sin—and face the same consequences of sin—as the kids whose mistakes and sinfulness are more obvious. Often, we don’t see the depths of the struggles of the “good kids” because they’re reticent to share their inner feelings—whether they feel that their stories don’t matter or that they feel deep shame over not living up to the expectations they’ve had put on them.
As one of my teens confided recently to me, “How can I talk to people about my faith when all I’ve ever done is go to a Christian school and go to church every single week of my life?”
Funny enough, this is probably an exact phrase I uttered at one point as a teenager, too.
These teens desperately need to hear from us that their stories matter and that God still has a purpose for them. It’s imperative that we share with them how deeply they matter to God, and that they don’t have to have a dramatic “conversion story” in order to share Christ with people who need to hear the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This is the truth these teens need to hear: Even though their sins and mistakes may seem fairly innocuous in the eyes of the world, those sins still separate them from God just as much as the not-so-good kids’ sins separate them from God. The penalty for our sins is just as dire no matter what the sin. We all—good and not-so-good alike—need Jesus.
In reality, all conversion stories are dramatic. Through Baptism we are rescued from death, our sinful self is drowned and dies and we are given new life in Christ. In the Lord’s Supper and in Absolution, Jesus absolves of sin and feeds us so that we receive forgiveness of sin and are spiritually nourished. The good news that all youth need to hear is that we are justified by grace through faith. Jesus’ death and resurrection is just as saving and just as necessary for the “good kids” as it is for those with what the world would consider dramatic stories.
In Matthew 28:20, Jesus calls us to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
That charge to go and share Christ with people applies to each one of us Christians, whether our story is the narrative of great loss, triumph, or pain, or simply the story of a faithful, temperate and ordinary life.
In my life, I’ve found that the Holy Spirit has guided me to work closely with a lot of students who have spent their entire lives at a Lutheran school, just like I did as I grew up. I understand that culture and its inherent challenges in a unique way, and since I lived it myself, I’m able to reach the students within that world in ways others may not be able to do.
In spite of me asking that same question over a decade ago—“How on earth can my story possibly matter to anyone?”—my life has struck a chord with the “good kids” who have always felt otherwise overlooked and abandoned. It’s given them someone to relate to, when they can’t perhaps connect with other adults who have walked through different struggles.
In short, God’s been using me—even though I was “just a good kid”.
As we lead our ministries, it’s imperative that we speak the truth in love and confidently proclaim God’s Holy Word. But let’s all be mindful of the many types of students we have within our respective ministries—because, let’s face it, the “good kids” need Jesus just as much as anyone else.