New to Youth Ministry: Patience with Teenagers

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My Incredible Lack of Patience
Early on in my ministry, about twelve years ago, I was doing student ministry in a small rural church. I had one student, we will call him Jim, who wanted to sing with me during the music portion of our Wednesday night program. Jim was not a particularly mature student, but I reluctantly let him join. Students seemed somewhat excited to see him up there, which I found encouraging. But somewhere during that time, Jim enjoyed the attention he was getting, and started acting goofy while he was singing, dancing around, trying to get the rest of the group to laugh or clap for him.

I looked over, saw what he was doing, and stopped dead in the middle of the song, I asked him to get off the stage. “We are worshipping God right now, I said, “Don’t turn this into a joke.” Jim was clearly embarrassed and it was an awkward moment. This, and moments like it, were regular occurrences in my early years of youth ministry. I had little room for immaturity. If anything, I had a huge lack of patience in general with students who didn’t live up to my expectations.

The Incredible Patience of Jesus
Fast forward a year or two. Like any good seminary student, I picked up a copy of The Bruised Reed by the Puritan author, Richard Sibbes. This book changed the way I think about ministering to students.

Sibbes’ short tract highlights Isaiah 42:1-3

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (ESV)

Matthew, in the 12th chapter of his Gospel, confirms that this passage is talking directly about Jesus. Sibbes spends the majority of his book talking about how Jesus interacts with “bruised reeds” and “faintly burning wicks.”

The faintly burning wick is the image that struck me the most. According to Sibbes, the smoldering wick is a young Christian who still has a lot of growth ahead. “… in God’s children, especially in their first conversion, there is but a little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption, which, as smoke, is offensive; but that Christ will not quench this smoking flax.”

When I read that, it screamed youth ministry to me. Students are young in their faith (the spark), yet we often see a lot of deficiencies (the smoke). Sometimes we see so much of this that it’s easy to believe all we are seeing is their deficiencies. It makes us want to be severe with them. It makes us impatient and harsh.

But friends, we are all smoldering wicks.

In all of my “maturity” is a world of corruption that I simply haven’t grown enough to see. But Jesus sees it perfectly, and all the time. How does he deal with me? Not harshly, not with severity. He doesn’t call me down from the stage because my motives are not wholly pure. Instead, he fans the flame to help me grow. The greater the flame, the less smoke there will be.

Creating a Ministry of Patience
This is the ministry of Jesus, to take bruised reeds and to bind them up, and to take smoldering wicks and turn them into raging bonfires. This is his ministry, and this is our ministry. So how can we create student ministries that reflect this attribute of Jesus?

1. Celebration: If we are to fan the flame of a student’s heart, we need to celebrate progress. Your student went from reading their Bible once a month to once a week. What do you do? Do you jump down their throat for not reading every day, or do you put a huge smile on your face and tell them how exciting that is? They are growing! They’ve never talked about their faith before and they invited a friend to come to a youth activity? Don’t chide them for not having a full-on evangelistic conversation, encourage them.

2. Some degree of overlooking: “It is not amiss to conceal their defects, to excuse some failings…to bring them to the love of God and his service, lest they acquire a distaste for it before they know it” (pg. 22).

Consider the 7th grade boy for a moment. There is a lot going on with 7th grade boys. I have had to calm down many a small group leader after a rough night with talkative, silly, ADD, 7th grade boys groups over the years. The truth is that we don’t need to have a sit-down with them to discuss their shortcomings every time they have trouble listening. We can overlook and show some mercy so that they don’t hate the faith before they have a chance to really embrace it as their own.

3. The right kind of correction: This doesn’t mean that we need to overlook everything. A part of discipleship is teaching students to observe everything that Jesus commands. But when we do these things, we can approach students with a spirit of love, letting them see that the reason for the correction is a love for them and a hope for their growth.

4. A lot of grace: Jesus doesn’t write us off when we mess up. He doesn’t snuff us out and walk away. That means we must stick it out with students, and be gracious.

5. A long game view: Christian discipleship is a Marathon, not a 5k. We cannot expect students to be fully sanctified by the end of the semester. Jesus will continue to be gracious to us in our shortcomings until his return. That’s a long game, and we need to be prepared to be very patient.

I still struggle with severity and impatience towards my students. I still have moments where I don’t give students the grace that I myself receive from Jesus every day. But I hope that my love for students, and willingness to walk alongside them through it all, is very apparent to them. May the love we show students be marked with the same gracious patience that we see from Christ.

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