Confessions of a Struggling Youth Minister: When Students Walk Away

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This is the fourth piece in our ongoing series, “Confessions of a Struggling Youth Minister.” While student ministry is often extremely edifying and even a barrel of laughs, it can also be extremely isolating, discouraging, and totally exhausting. Our hope in this series is to offer comfort to those of us deep in the trenches of ministry, through personal stories of God’s goodness and grace in the midst of struggle. The third article in this series can be found here.

When I made the decision to work with students, I was well aware of the high percentage that were leaving the church immediately following high school graduation. My seminary professors warned us of the shock of seeing individuals – people who seemed so faithful – walk away from it all in exchange for a completely different set of beliefs. Furthermore, I knew the clear teachings of Scripture reminding us that the righteous road is indeed narrow, and that faithful disciples of Christ are not necessarily found in abundance.

Yet, upon exiting seminary, I maintained a lingering (and prideful) assumption that I would never experience these sad truths in my own ministry.

I was confident that if I simply stuck to my calling as a pastor, and communicated assurance in my beliefs, that I would see consistent growth in my students. And even if a student did “walk away,” their decision would surely either be a brief hiatus from the faith, or it would be made by someone who wasn’t all that engaged in my ministry. In other words, I assumed that this event would be exceptionally rare and would offer no serious challenge to my own confidence as a youth pastor.

To my surprise, it did not take long to realize how mistaken I was in this assumption. Despite my best intentions and efforts, I quickly discovered that I was bound to witness students turn away. I also discovered that those students could be individuals I cared very much about, and had spent many hours praying for and meeting with.

My first experience began with a conversation experienced by so many youth pastors. The discussion went (and goes) something like this:

Me: “So, how has your faith been challenged in your first semester of college?”

Student: “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t really thought much about it.”

Me: “Have you found a church to plug into yet?”

Student: “Not really. I know I should probably look for one. But I’ve just been so busy.”

Me: “Oh. Ok. Well…”

From there the conversation went down a path familiar to so many of us. Oftentimes, those conversations reveal nothing more than the fairly common first semester struggles of any believer. In this particular instance, however, the student revealed that they were not suffering from a crisis of faith; they had simply come to the realization that they never truly had faith in Christ and they had no desire to change that.

I was totally shocked. I was surprised by the student’s decision and (even more) by the discouragement I felt in response. In the midst of this discouragement, I remained confident that this student would come around. This was someone I cared about; a student I had met with so many times; a student I believed would grow into the disciple God was calling them to be. Unfortunately, this initial conversation was repeated time and time again in the following years. And even as I write this post, I have been given no evidence of a changed heart or even a renewed interest in searching for truth.

Throughout this experience, it was easy to begin to question my own ministry. What did I do wrong? Has my teaching failed to clearly exegete Scripture? Ultimately, every question I raised could be boiled down to “How can I ensure that this will never happen again?” These questions were painful to ask as they each represented, in my mind, my own failures as a pastor.

The way I saw it, I had failed to disciple my students and I had failed to remain confident in the power of God’s Word to change hearts.

As I searched for answers, my immediate solution was to simply remind myself of the cold, hard facts of Scripture regarding the salvation of students. This meant, first of all, remembering that the Bible clearly teaches that Man’s depraved heart will cause him to naturally remain blind to the truth. This means that the salvation of my students was outside of my control and entirely fell under the sovereign reign of God. Simply put, there would inevitably be students who reject the faith.

All of these lessons were clearly true. Even today, I must continually remind myself of them so as not to become overwhelmed by the instance of a student rejecting the faith. Thankfully, however, God’s Word does not stop with those particular theological truths. In the early years, my greatest comfort was not found in those reminders. Instead, it was most often found in the pastoral heart of biblical authors such as Paul.

Throughout his letters, Paul speaks of God’s absolute sovereignty (Romans 9:6-24), sin’s inexcusable presence in the Church (I Cor. 5), Man’s depravity (Rom. 3), etc. In Paul himself, I also found a man who was writing as a father to his readers (I Thess. 2:1-12), a dear friend who desired relationships to be restored (Gal. 4:12-20), and someone who (even in the face of readers who rejected both he and Christ) willingly embraced himself as weak while continually presenting the love of Christ. As a pastor, Paul was all too familiar with facing the disappointment of a professed believer leaving the flock. And yet his heart for those people, and the message he preached to them, never changed. 

While that early experience remains a disappointment, it was necessary in order to understand the heart of someone like Paul. I needed that experience to show how a pastor is to truly love his flock. It is essential that I not respond to the unbelief of those under my pastoral care with a sense of prideful indifference or with a sense of hopeless depression. Seeing a student walk away from the faith is never easy. But it is also neither a new experience nor something that changes our calling. In reading (and re-reading) Paul’s words, I find tremendous comfort in remembering that it is not only common but proper to have that “great sorrow and unceasing grief” for those who remain lost. And yet it is imperative to maintain an unshakeable confidence and joy in our Almighty Savior, knowing that the Word of God has not and never will fail, and that “He who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”

As a youth pastor, there is no greater comfort and encouragement in my ministry than the reminder that the salvation of our students is always ultimately in the hands of our sovereign and good Creator.

Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness. 

Also to learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check more articles from Rooted’s youth ministry blog. 

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