Spiritual Broccoli and Spiritual Pizza Parties
God’s word is food. What God gives us to eat is pleasant to the sight and good for eating. If this is true about God’s word, what does it say about Bible teachers? I supposed it makes us kind of like cooks. But what kind of cook? When I first started in Youth Ministry, I was prepared to serve broccoli. I was prepared to be the long-suffering mother presenting a healthy dinner to a less than excited audience. Now, I am learning how to be the restaurant cook, helping diners explore and enjoy new foods of their own choosing.
If you don’t believe that I was willing to serve veggies, let me prove it to you. I entered my current role as Youth Pastor in the middle of the School Year. The students were excited to have a new Youth Pastor. We connected extremely well on the weekend I visited to candidate for the position. We both had high hopes of this being a joyful, inspiring, and invigorating relationship. Lives would be changed. Disciples would be formed. The world would be turned upside down.
Wanting to maintain some semblance of continuity, I agreed to keep up the same Sunday School series the volunteer fill-in had started before I arrived. It was a book-by-book overview of the Old Testament. The lessons before I arrived were certainly great. A one-week intro to Leviticus was just what High Schoolers needed in order to get a taste of that book which is so important to our faith, yet often treated as a punching bag. The conquests of Joshua surely made for a stirring narrative over the course of a single morning.
I showed up just in time for a two-week series on 1stand 2nd Chronicles.
Do you understand the situation? On our first Sunday together, with students getting a first taste of their new Youth Pastor, we were looking at 1st Chronicles chapters 1 through 9. Remember how Chronicles starts? If you can’t remember, don’t bother referring to any nearby inspirational throw pillows or picture frames. I doubt any passage from that morning has ever been embroidered anywhere. Those nine chapters are an endless string of genealogy. It begins with Adam, runs up through the returned Babylonian exiles, and then cycles back through Saul’s genealogy a second time just for good measure. The students, when they first met me, thought I was a fun guy. But this Chronicles study almost certainly had them rethinking those initial impressions. With earnestness and vigor, I attempted to convince these sleepy students of the gigantic genealogy’s value in helping us know, love, and trust God.
I do not recommend using 1st Chronicles as the starting point for your ministry. But I don’t regret teaching through it (even on my first Sunday). If God’s word is food, then some passages will be as unappealing to teenagers as broccoli is to my five-year-old son. This is where we, as Bible teachers, are like the mom of a picky toddler. As I began my ministry, I understood this. I was fully convinced of the nutritious spiritual benefits of each tree the Lord has given us to eat. What I have learned along the way is that you also need to help students learn to enjoy trying new foods. This is when we become more like restaurant cooks, preparing whatever order comes back to us from the front of the house.
The spiritual desires and curiosities of teenagers are legitimate. They are not to be bowled over by my supposed expertise. Certain passages, themes, and topics in Scripture speak into their experience more directly than others. As a restaurant cook-in-training slowly learns how to prepare each item on the menu, she will quickly pick up on what dishes are most popular. This is where I am at as a Youth Pastor. I am slowly learning how to listen to and understand the spiritual lives of my students. I am sympathetic to their curiosities. There are deep questions burning inside them about who God is, who they are, and what life is all about. Even when they cannot put words to these questions, they are trying to find answers. I am learning to help guide them towards thoseanswers.
When our students are allowed and encouraged to explore their curiosities, they begin to taste and see the goodness and trustworthiness of God. Inevitably, they will taste and see the bitter truth that they are sinners living among a bunch of fellow sinners. But they will also taste and see our Creator’s sweet response to our sin; that he came into the world to save sinners. Jesus died and rose again to forgive us, cleanse us, and make us new. God is redeeming his world. They will taste and see that God is good and that God can be trusted. This moves students to open themselves up to everything his word has to say; the feast of the full garden he has given us. They will eventually grow to realize that the God who loves them is the God who speaks through even seemingly irrelevant passages like a long chronology in Chronicles.
So, am I a restaurant cook or the mom of a toddler? A little of both, I suppose. Or maybe there is a reason our Bible doesn’t describe pastors as chefs. Pastoral work takes place in the pasture. That is to say, we are shepherds. And like the good Shepherd, we are more aware of our flock’s needs than they are. We are more aware of danger than they are. Yet, we are gently, tenderly, and self-sacrificially leading them and defending them. This is what I pray God continues to form me into as a Youth Pastor. I’m not there yet, but that is the direction he is leading me.