I vividly remember the scene. I was sitting in a little diner across from two guys in the youth group. I’d invited them to breakfast with me for one reason. I had to apologize … big time. I had blown it and they were dealing with the consequences.
I started in youth ministry as a 19 year old. That should tell you two things. First, I didn’t know what I was doing. Second, I felt really insecure and inadequate in my role but really wanted to prove myself. Not a great combination.
Youth ministry became the venue for me to prove my personal worth. I needed to prove myself to me, God, and others. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to feel success. Who doesn’t? …The problem is that the teens entrusted to my care soon got in the way of me feeling successful. Maybe you’ve been there.
Success in my mind became “leading the most passionate, on fire for God youth group ever.” (Whatever that looks like…) I was pretty sure I’d never lead the largest youth group around but I figured I could feel successful if the teens in our church were passionate, fiery, holy, world changers who were turning the world upside down for Jesus. …Now it was my job to get them there … or so I thought.
Honestly, my reason for leading teens in “passionate pursuit of Jesus” was more about proving my ability to lead than it was actually about wanting the best for teens. That’s hard to admit, and I certainly didn’t see it at the time, but I was more motivated by personal achievement than by love for those God loves. When teens stopped coming to youth group or began to live in a way that didn’t promote my vision for the ideal youth group, I ended up feeling like a failure. I ended up feeling like a failure a lot.
A young man feeling like a failure, and desperately wanting to escape that feeling can do some stupid things. I resorted to trying to control teen’s behavior. Again, I thought it was love. But really I just wanted them to conform to my vision of a successful youth group. “Oh no, Johnny is headed in the wrong direction, I’ve got to stop him and get him back on the right track! I can’t let him influence others negatively. I have to control this situation.” My pastoral relationship with teens was controlling, toxic, and self serving. All this was subtle. Most teens didn’t know that this wasn’t Christ’s love for them. They didn’t know I wasn’t modeling Christ or the freedom he gives us. They just knew that something wasn’t quite right. So they left. Thank Jesus, they left.
When God showed me that my personal insecurity was causing me to use and mistreat His church it broke me. I saw how I had used my position of influence in an attempt to heal my own insecurities. It didn’t work. I had to repent before God and ask him to begin showing me my worth in his eyes. I also had to take a lot of teens out to breakfast so I could apologize.
In Philippians 2:19-24 Paul highlights two different kinds of ministers.
“19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. 21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me.”
Paul, advanced in years and late in his ministry career says there are those who are self focused and those who are really Christ focused. From Paul’s perspective, it seems that there were a lot more self focused than Christ focused ministers. So many it would seem were looking out for their own interests, pursuing their own agendas, and using the church rather than serving it. I was one of them.
Thankfully God has given me another chance. He’s given me a chance to be a Timothy, one who will show “genuine care and concern” for the welfare of those God’s entrusted to me. God’s given me another chance to receive His love and affirmation because of what He has done for me, not what I can do for Him. He’s given me a chance to actually love teens with a real love that comes from Jesus. He’s given me a chance to model for teens Christ’s patient endurance with us and His unyielding commitment to let us choose. Maybe you need another chance today. Ask God for it and he’ll give it to you.
Some Points to Consider:
- Jesus alone is the answer for your inward longing for value and significance. At the cross He bestowed on each one of us an irrevocable statement of personal worth and extravagant love. No ministry success can add anything valuable to the value God has proclaimed over us.
- Seeking to find significance and a sense of accomplishment from youth ministry will cause you to treat teens like a commodity. (The more you have the more value you feel. Or, the “holier” your youth group is the more value you might feel.) Let’s settle the fact that teens can’t give you the feeling of worth and significance God created you to know.
- Finding your worth in Jesus will free you up to show teens their personal worth in Jesus instead of using them to help you find yours outside of Jesus.
Josiah is a lover of Jesus, husband, and father. He and his wife Laura serve as the youth pastors at Zion Fellowship in Canandaigua, NY. They strive to love and serve teenagers in the same way Jesus does. Josiah has a passion for preaching God's Word and calling young people to authentic Christian living. Josiah has ministry credentials through Elim Fellowship and serves on the Elim Fellowship Youth Committee.