A Youth Pastor’s Day in Court – Part 1

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This was my first visit to the Superior Court in Clark County. I entered into a large room with marble floors, high ceilings, full of uncomfortable wooden pew-like benches. The whispering groups around me made it difficult to hear the judge as she spoke. As the morning drug on, it became clear that she only cared about the facts. She showed no empathy for either party, nor any emotion as she spoke. Her icy demeanor could be explained by the large words engraved in the marble high above her seat: “The impartial administration of justice is the foundation of liberty.”  

A courtroom exerts a unique pressure and intensity. The judge has binding authority to be lenient or strict, merciful or forceful. At the conclusion of a hearing, decisions are final. 

While I waited, my knees felt weak as I watched case after case called forward. I was so thankful my own name wouldn’t be called that day.

Unfortunately, a student in my Youth Group (I’ll call him Rick) got into some legal trouble a few months earlier, and today marked his first appearance in court. Rick had informed me about his hearing and I eagerly accompanied him. While he waited, he held his head in his hands and asked childlike questions to his parents and me: “What should I say? What am I supposed to do? How is this going to work?”

My hope was to encourage and comfort Rick with my presence as his friend and pastor. But what should I say? What could I do? How was this going to work? 

I couldn’t affect the judge’s decision. I couldn’t convince the prosecuting attorney to reduce the severity of the charge. 

What hope can we offer our students when they make bad choices that have legal consequences? How can parents bring redemptive fruit out of legally devastating circumstances? 

This was the first time one of my students was in court; on that day (and throughout Rick’s many court appearances afterwards), I often felt pastorally speechless. But I continually to reminded myself of this: even when we feel pastorally helpless or directionless, God is faithful to give us just what we need when we need it. 

One passage the Lord brought to mind was 1 John 2:1, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Those summoned to court have the opportunity to more vividly understand the depth and meaning of Christ as our advocate.

Over the coming months, Rick’s court-appointed defense attorney guided him through the proceedings and pleaded his cause. He relieved Rick’s anxiety of not knowing what to say or what to do. While his DA “did a great job,” that was it… he was doing his job. He didn’t know Rick. He didn’t have a personal investment in his case. He knew the legal system thoroughly, but his clients superficially. Yet I don’t blame him. Every day I was in court, I witnessed at least five more defendants added to this man’s case load. Countless assistants were needed to manage it all.

In stark yet beautiful contrast, Jesus Christ is an altogether different advocate. He is not simply performing his court-appointed duty or job. He is personally interested in our acquittal, in our being found innocent, and yet never in a way which perverts the cause of justice or reduces the penalty due. He knew us before we were made, and loves us more than we understand. Here’s the real head-scratcher: Jesus knows all we have done – he has found us guilty – but instead of doling out our penalty, he takes our charge, dies in our place, and the Father declares we are free to go. 

Jesus is not too busy with all the other cases to personally take time for ours.

We desperately need him to advocate for us! The Heavenly judge is unapproachable in his honor and holiness. The charges against us are unimaginably severe. In fact, the minimum sentencing guidelines call for the death! There is no plea-bargaining on the last day. Yet Jesus has an infinite capacity for knowing and pleading our cause. He not only took up my case, he took on the totality of my punishment as well. He received the sentence I deserved.  

How can I not love this savior?

One of the greatest ways we can serve and shepherd teens in legal trouble is by helping them understand the earthly process of the law as an imperfect shadow of and pointer towards what is to come. May they appreciate their earthly defense attorney, but also see him as an incomplete indicator to the complete role Jesus takes for all who turn and trust in him. In so doing, God just might be so kind as to take a law-breaking student, and use their crime as a means to increase their affections for our heavenly advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous.

Return for the second piece of this two-part article next Monday, March 7th. 

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

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