In Praise of the Useless Conversation

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I blame John Piper. Well, John Piper and a natural proclivity towards idolizing productivity. You see, when I was in college, I read “Don’t Waste Your Life” and was immediately hooked.

Piper writes, “One short life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” I agree! I thought, Sign me up! And with that, my type-A self was off towards ministry, ready to impact my students with the message that would save their souls.

As a Bible teacher in a Christian school, on the front lines of youth ministry, I can testify that Jesus was right when He said the fields are white with harvest. When I first began teaching, I found students eager to bare their souls with a trusted and trustworthy adult. I found teenagers who were hungering for the gospel and ready to talk about how dissatisfying sin is. In my ministry now, seven years later, I see incredible fruit as a result of the Spirit’s work…but even at the beginning of this year, I found myself deeply frustrated, but wasn’t sure why.

I like to examine the roots of things in my life, so I started looking around to evaluate what the issue was. Why was I finding myself discouraged, even despondent some days? Why were some of my relationships with students – relationships that were so fruitful last year – struggling this year?

Then it came to me. Many of my conversations with students this year seemed absolutely and utterly useless, and it was driving me crazy. Let me give you an example:

I have a student, we’ll call him Trent, who comes into my classroom every single day after the final bell, eyes glued to his phone. He says “hello” and I respond with an enthusiastic “hey!” eagerly anticipating the great conversation that I’m certain will follow. I put aside my work and ask him how his day was.

“Good,” he responds, still looking down at his phone.

Well that’s clearly not working. Let’s try another approach, I think to myself. I close my computer, smile, and try a joke:

“Oh come on, good?!? You’re good at English. Use more descriptive words!”

“It was really pretty great,” he finally looks up, giving me a shrug and a smile before turning his attention again to Snapchat.

“How’s school? Sports?” I am pulling at straws.

“They’re going well.”

You have got to be kidding me. Come on buddy! We’ve been more honest than this.

“Are you ready for the game? Feeling nervous at all?” I ask.

“Nah. I’m ready. Their team is good. But so are we.”

I try a few more questions, always in vain, and then he says a friendly goodbye and leaves.
Every. Single. Day. (This isn’t hyperbole for the sake of an interesting article. This happens daily).

I found myself increasingly irritated at myself and feeling like a failure. Trent and I have had more authentic conversations in the past. Why couldn’t I ask the right questions this year to get him to open up? Why did I feel like we talked about the same things – nothing – every day? Whether I asked about his girlfriend, his team, his family, his schoolwork, his leadership, his friends – the answer was the same every single day. Why wasn’t I able to get any deeper? I was looking for Niagara Falls.

Then one day, as I prayed for Trent, the Lord gently reminded me that I was looking for the wrong thing.

Instead of looking at loving my students well, I was looking past them to the results. I was getting frustrated at Trent’s lack of openness, rather than rejoicing in the fact that he feels safe enough to come and see me every single day. And instead of trying to squeeze and manipulate some good insight or deep emotion out of every conversation, I need to just meet my students where they are.

When souls are at stake, it’s easy to be convinced that only the conversations when you clearly proclaim the gospel are useful. It’s easy to believe the lie that once you’ve known a student for years, only deeply profound talks are impactful.

And it’s easy to forget that God isn’t in a hurry.

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul talks about how our planting and watering aren’t the essential elements, but it is God who gives growth. He’s a gracious God who is, as Luke 10:2 says, “Lord of the harvest.” My stressed-out anxiety finally betrayed my idolatrous heart. I was worshipping at the ground of results and paying homage to “effective ministry,” rather than bending my knee to a God who is far more sovereign than I.

It might sound strange, but I realize now that it’s a good thing that Trent comes into my classroom every day (and doesn’t open up) because it makes me feel weak, finite, and unable – exactly the sort of dependence I need. Our small and useless conversations remind me that He is the vine and I am merely a branch; He is the potter and I am just clay. They remind me that God – not me – is the author of all my students’ stories. And He who loved them enough to die for them is not going to leave them – or me – hanging. He is faithful to the end.

Trent still comes and lingers on his phone in my classroom. Although we’ve had a few glimmers of moments where he has opened up, I don’t sweat the days when he doesn’t. And while I still find Dr. Piper’s quotes to be helpful, I think I need to focus more on Psalm 127:1-2: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”

Sleep. Rest. Trust, that even in the midst of useless conversations, He is still good and still at work. Faithful to the end.

 

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