Confessions of a Small Town Student Pastor
Every now and then we take our regular worship service and change things up. I give our band a night off to thank them for their hard work and to create an environment that doesn’t become dependent on something else besides the Word taught. Typically we do a time of prayer that involve several stations to engage them in repentance, thanksgiving, service, and supplication. I usually ask them to write out their prayers. I think writing prayer helps to process what you’re praying for rather than a series of ‘dear Lord’-s. This past time I had them write out their sin they wanted to confess on black paper with a dark pencil and tape it to the cross, after they had read 1 Peter 2:21-25.
Now confession time: I read the pieces of paper. This is as old a youth minister trick as the caramel covered onion or the camp roommate assignment list. It provides an immediate and anonymous look into the lives of students, to give a window into what prayer needs are there in our student ministry. It’s beautiful, but it’s heartbreaking.
We serve in a typical American small town. Most of the businesses are locally-owned, it’s impossible to find a good cup of coffee (I miss Starbucks), the school systems are the predominant social group, and when an accident happens on the main road it can tie up the entire town. Our town hosts a regionally known Division I university, and is the primary education seat of our region. We were also voted last year as the “Friendliest Small Town in America” by Randy-McNally. The summer focused on a special election about making our town wet, which prompted the opposing side to declare our town a good old-fashioned American town, the one that loves family values and is a good, morally sound community.
But that image of Mayberry is not what I read on those slips of paper. Most of them were your standard teenage angst: rude to parents, talking about other people, dating one guy and being interested in another, struggling with siblings, and not focusing on school as much. But there were some that hurt to read. A girl who cuts and covers it by bullying. Several guys who admitted to pornography. One who admitted to repeated inappropriate text messages to different girls. Still others who admitted to pot, alcohol, and other substance issues. Broken relationships. Sexual promiscuity. Dysfunctional family situations. Same-sex attraction. You name it, it’s sitting on my dining room table, the tears and shame visibly evident.
The veneer of our community, and even our church and student ministry, is one where everything is ok. But behind that good face is an indescribable hurt. One that is being masked by a fig leaf of religiosity – or worse yet, the false promise of an insecure salvation. None of the self-help, guidance counseling, crisis intervention, or anything like that can solve this pain. Only Jesus can.
So what to do? What follows is at attempt to process all this and offer some prescription for us in smaller communities.
Pray – Intercede for these students, pray for wisdom for parents, pray for repentance, pray for God to increase grace.
Don’t be naive – We cannot pretend that these kinds of problems belong ‘over there,’ and miss out on reality. These problems aren’t city problems or poor problems or ethnic problems. They’re problems that come from a Deceiver who wants teenagers to believe something else besides Jesus will satisfy them.
Address the heart of the issue – The issue isn’t drugs or alcohol or peer pressure. The issue is the heart, one that is bent against God. Make sure to not lose sight of this and try to fix addiction, self-harm, etc. The first need is Jesus. Then work on everything else in light of that.
Be honest – I plan on sharing that I read the cards, and begin by offering myself and my wife as resources. Knowledge isn’t power, only knowledge that is used has any value. I could choose to overlook these findings, or choose to respond to them. These issues are very real and painful – to ignore them is a shameful act.
Involve parents – Small town ministries may find themselves fighting against a cultural Christianity, rather than an emphasis on the work of Christ. Many times my thought is that parents assume their kids are safe/fine/good. But meet with your parents and begin to bring them on board. Take time to pray for students. Maybe they’re even hiding knowledge of their teen’s problems because of shame. Remove that, and every other barrier that prevents the Spirit from working.
Refocus – Take a minute and assess if you’re teaching accurately about the power of the Gospel. Make every message, teaching time, devotion, etc. about the Gospel. Teach the all-inclusive and all-encompassing power of the Gospel to not only save the soul but provide the answer to the deepest conditions of the human heart.
Pray – Worth repeating.
Seek wisdom – Student ministers, remember: we’re not Superman. Bring in other godly leaders who have likely dealt with similar issues. Get yourself in a network, get in contact with older student ministers. Involve your pastor in the conversation. Whatever you do, do not do it alone!
This article was originally published on Rooted in January 2013.