Pomp, Circumstance, and Regret
It’s your fourth graduation party so far, and May’s not even half-over. You chat with parents, have a short talk with the student about his college plans over a slice of cake and some mixed nuts. As you walk by the table (you know, the table with all of the pictures of the student when they were younger) you feel a twinge of regret.
Although many of your students have grown by leaps and bounds, you’re not really sure where this particular student stands. You don’t know him terribly well. Maybe you just didn’t connect, or perhaps you fear you came across as less than approachable.
His attendance has dwindled since his sophomore year, and you’re pretty sure that you were invited just because you’re the youth pastor. Some of his choices and the things he posts on Instagram make you wonder whether he has a personal relationship with Jesus.
If you’ve been in youth ministry long, you’ve probably been here. It can be emotionally draining to see students leave your area this way. This scenario can cause us to question ourselves: “What did I do wrong? Was my explanation of the gospel lacking? Did I fail to spend enough time with this student?” When students who don’t seem to be walking with Christ graduate from our youth ministries, it’s easy to blame ourselves.
But this self-blame fails to acknowledge some important truth from Scripture that we would do well to lean on near graduation. Here are three words of encouragement if you are experiencing regret during graduation season.
1.) God is the one who saves.
A solid youth ministry with a deep-rooted, gospel-centered environment does not mean every student who participates will come to saving faith in Christ. That’s because youth ministries don’t cause students to be born again, God does.
We can create an environment that is conducive to growth. We can put the gospel before them: the Good News that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We can teach them the Word. We can love them unconditionally, but unless the Holy Spirit enlivens their heart, they will not respond to the gospel.
The apostle Paul reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
We refer to this passage to remind students that God is the only one who can be credited with their salvation; it’s not by works. We can often forget, however, that Paul’s words also mean no one can boast in their role in someone else’s salvation. If we have to trust in Christ alone for our own salvation, we also must trust in Christ alone for the salvation of our students.
As we commission graduates, we entrust them to God, the only one who can save.
2.) You are not the only influence God will put in your student’s life.
Think about your own life. Who were your spiritual influences? Your parents? Your youth minister? A teacher? Chances are there were several along the way.
When Paul writes to Timothy, he notes that Timothy first heard the gospel from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5). They were the first in line to be influencers for the gospel in Timothy’s life—and then came Paul.
In God’s plan, you are one in a long line of people that will know this student. As your students graduate from high school and from youth ministry, you can pray they will encounter someone else who will share Christ with them.
I remember one student who was not particularly engaged in our youth ministry. After leaving home, he encountered a gospel-centered campus ministry, and God radically transformed his life. My role was just one part in his story, and God used me along with many others to share the gospel with him.
When we send graduates onward, we entrust them to God as He places other people in their lives to point them to Jesus.
3.) Graduation is not the end.
Summer is often hectic in youth ministry; however, when your students graduate, it’s a gradual goodbye. Students typically don’t move away to college or other ventures for a couple months at least.
So if you are feeling the twinge of remorse for missed conversations, take the opportunity this summer. Have a cup of coffee with a student to talk about where he stands in his relationship with the Lord. Look for ways to help a student connect with the church and other believers in her new location. Offer an invitation to talk while he is away, or when she comes back for Thanksgiving break.
We see this kind of ongoing relationship modeled in the New Testament. Think about Paul’s ministry. He would plant a church and then move on. But his relationships with believers continued even when he was not in close proximity to them, demonstrated through his many letters. We read in Paul’s letters how he longed to see these brothers and sisters from whom he was separated (Romans 1:8-13, 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18, and 2 Timothy 1:4).
As we say goodbye to graduates, we continue to love and serve them in any way we can from afar.
You may have regrets. You may wish that you had more time. But remember, God’s Word doesn’t return to Him void; it accomplishes exactly what He intends (Isaiah 55:10-11). You can’t know what God has in store for each student, but be confident that if his Word has been proclaimed in your church, it won’t return to Him void. So listen to Pomp and Circumstance, have cake and ice cream, watch the hats fly, and pray that God will continue to pursue each of your students by His grace.