Diving into the New School Year and Busted from the Start
The beginning of the school year is a stressful season for youth workers. It’s exciting, but full of transitions for all of us. Maybe you’re new to youth ministry and are terrified that you aren’t the right person for the job. Maybe you’re making some huge changes in your ministry this year. Or maybe it’s just another year, and you’re thinking you should be doing something different; you’re feeling guilty about being stuck in a rut. There’s a huge amount of pressure to start the school year with a bang. You’ve got to “get the momentum going” and all. Great idea. But what happens when your launch into the new year is a major bust?
It was my first youth group meeting as a youth pastor and I was pumped. My education was going to be put to action and I would change the world, one student at a time. Finally, the dream was coming to life.
I arrived at the home where youth group would be held and waited to meet the students who were suddenly “mine.” As an introvert, I was utterly terrified. After making small talk with the parents who were hosting that night, students began to arrive. We played a game one of the other youth leaders had organized and then I led a cliché “get to know you” exercise (something like, “share your name, your grade, your school, and what type of toothpaste you used this morning”).
Then it was time for the magic to happen. I busted out my sunburst orange acoustic guitar for worship, but nobody sang along with me. Weird.
Next, I opened up my Bible. I wanted to set the stage for what these students could expect from their new youth group and so I read from Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” They finally seemed to be tracking with me.
Lastly, I took out my guitar again and presented a new song that I just knew would blow their socks off (I was sure it would become our youth group theme song). I explained to the students sitting before me that I actually learned Psalm 133:1 in Hebrew as a song from one of my college professors, and I thought it would be a good way for us all to embrace this passage as our motto.
As I began to sing the song and encourage these teenagers to sing along with me (yes, once again, in Hebrew), I started to wonder if my wife was right when she suggested this might not be such a great idea… Nah! This will be brilliant! It’s different. Unique. Memorable. It’ll be great.
Except it wasn’t.
It was terrible.
One student in particular stood out among the small crowd; we’ll call him Brian. During the “normal” songs, Brian was uncomfortable. Then when I taught the Hebrew song, he looked like he wanted to stand up and leave. He pulled his long, greasy hair over his eyes, trying to escape. But he had come with his friend, Dave, and so reluctantly stayed. I knew by the look on Brian’s face I would never see this kid again. Lesson learned: no singing in Hebrew at youth group!
Four years later, as a then-experienced youth pastor, I greeted students as they entered the youth room and Dave arrived with his friend Brian! Brian’s hair was shorter now and he had gained some weight, but I recognized him immediately and was embarrassed (thinking back on my first night as a youth pastor), but also relieved and excited to see him again. We laughed about how there would be no Hebrew songs tonight, but it was that kind of mutually-agreed-upon nervous laughter because you’re both uncomfortable. Thankfully, we saw Brian off-and-on throughout that year and he even came on our winter camp retreat, where he prayed to receive Christ. He disappeared again after that school year, and Dave shared how there were some family problems getting in the way of his attendance at youth group.
The last time I saw Brian was seven years ago. That is, until this past Sunday.
During the time in our church’s service when we’re encouraged to “stand up and greet one another,” I introduced myself to a young man sitting in the row behind me. He said, “We’ve met. I’m Brian. I used to come to youth group, but I’ve lost a lot of weight since then so you probably don’t recognize me.”
I was shocked. I had to excuse myself from the conversation in order to share the weekly announcements to the congregation and offer a prayer, but my mind was spinning.
After the service was over we talked for almost half an hour. Of course, we both laughed again about the Hebrew song, and he admitted that he had pretty much written us off after that. But his friend kept after him, encouraging him that he really would like youth group, that the new youth pastor’s first week was a total anomaly.
Brian also told me how influential I had been in his life (a sometimes rare event in the life of a youth pastor). “I know you wouldn’t think so,” he said, “but coming to camp and standing in front of the youth group, telling them that I was giving my life to Christ was huge for me. I’ve never done anything like that before. Thanks.” We went on to have a heart-wrenching conversation about what he’s endured in the past few years.
It was the kind of conversation you can only jump right into with someone you’ve known since junior high. Thankfully, I was still there eleven years later to encourage him to remember that God doesn’t give up on people, and neither do we. It gave him hope to be assured that he didn’t need to endure the recent struggles alone. God sees and knows what he’s been through, and His grace endures. We exchanged contact information and prayed before agreeing to get together again in the next few weeks.
Especially as the school year gears up, I’d like to offer some reminders and encouragement: First, don’t sing songs in Hebrew at youth group (unless you’re in a Messianic Christian church or in a heavily Jewish community, but even then… be careful). Second, encourage your students to stick with their friends (what if Dave had given up on Brian?). Third, stick around your church long enough to follow up with kids way after they’ve graduated and grown out of high school youth group (you’ll be surprised by how many of them find their way back).
Most importantly, remember that you are being used by God, even if the evidence isn’t all that clear. I’ve thought about Brian many times in the eleven years since that first youth group meeting. It’s an experience you don’t easily forget! I’ve thought about how I failed him. How I had let him down and scared him away. But God blew up my self-critical spirit by reminding me that our ministries are truly HIS work, not ours.
God is faithful. He chases down His people. You won’t get in God’s way, even when you’re tripping all over yourself and singing Psalms in Hebrew. God will use you. Proclaim the gospel confidently. Love teenagers well (even those junior highers who don’t realize they need to shower more than once a week). Encourage parents – even the ones who feel like they’re messing up their kids and that it’s your job to fix them. And don’t give up on the kids you think you’ve failed and let down. Because you never know. God might just be using your Hebrew songs as one piece of their bigger story.