Contact Work, Teens, and the Expectation of Condemnation

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How many times have you done contact work in the community, you see a student, and his or her first, nervous response involves a pledge of future attendance. Now, you had no intention of asking this student about his or her recent lapse in attendance. In fact, you probably have not noticed it. However, you’re greeted with the expectation of shame.

Recently, I visited a school and saw a fantastic young man. This kid is a delight and a pleasure to see any time. He has a relationship with Jesus, and like all of us, probably has his ups and downs in his walk with God. In spite of my genuine enthusiasm, when I approached him, his first statement was, “I’m coming to Sunday school this week, I promise.”

I think this common reaction to youth ministers reflects the expectation of judgment all people naturally carry as a product of original sin. After eating from the tree in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve run from God when they hear Him coming. They hide and lie when He asks questions.

Does God immediately drop the hammer on these two new sinners when He approaches them? No, the Lord asks Adam and Eve about why they are hiding. He asks them neutral questions, and, in essence, is offering them an undeserved opportunity for mercy.

How does the recognition of the reality that people expect judgment from God and the church inform youth pastors? First, it helps us to understand how our students naturally may interpret invitations or teasing. At times, well-meaning invitations from the youth pastor may be experienced as judgment and unmet expectation from students. To say, “I haven’t seen you in a while” may be a descriptive statement to the youth pastor, but may be heard as condemnation by a student. We can’t live in fear worrying about how students will interpret our every statement, but we should operate with wisdom and gentleness in how we approach kids. A student once told me that she left her youth ministry because her youth pastor “jokingly” called her “stranger” for a month after she had lapsed on attendance one semester. He thought it was light teasing; to her it was crushing judgment.

Secondly, this reality reinforces the need to repeated teach and live the same old story: Christ died for sinners; there is no condemnation for those in Christ. God approaches us from a standpoint of grace. As the Anglican Prayer of Humble Access states, we serve the God “whose property it is always to have mercy.” In addition to our words, our actions also must demonstrate that we have no agenda. Beyond Bible study and Sunday school, student pastors need to embody the message of grace in contact work, in a manner that reflects the same message we teach: you measure up through Jesus, and have nothing to live up to any longer.

Only through the message of grace will grace will this expectation of condemnation be undone.

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