From Tears to Joy: Youth Ministry Through the Hard Times
I went to college intending to major in music, but because of a number of challenges in my first semester, I lost my music scholarship as well as my place in the music program. I’ll never forget standing in the back of the chapel one afternoon boldly stating, “I will never touch a piano again.”
I didn’t touch a piano for a long time, but I imagine God might have chuckled at my childish temper tantrum because he knew what my future held. Years later when my husband was called to be a lead pastor at a church plant, they needed a pianist. And now? I’m a music director, playing piano week in and week out.
A few years into oiling up my rusty piano fingers, a dear woman and professional violinist, suggested we put on a concert together. Her suggestion seemed absurd – impossible! I couldn’t imagine learning a Bach Concerto after so many years of neglecting my instrument. When I sat on the piano bench for the evening’s concert and momentarily reminisced about my youthful intransigence, my heart overflowed with joy; it was wondrous; it was dreamlike.
I imagine this kind of dreamlike joy when I read Psalm 126:
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
After 70 years in exile, after the complete destruction of their homeland, the Israelites were given permission to come back home and rebuild. Can you imagine it? It was dreamlike. Their mouths were filled with joy, their tongues with laughter. They could not contain their happiness because of the great things God had done.
Frankly, it’s hard to picture this kind of overwhelming joy right now. The challenges we’ve all faced in this last year have been perhaps especially difficult for those who faithfully labor in youth ministry. Many of our regular meetings have dwindled, lost the energy they once had, or halted altogether. Beyond the group meetings, teens are showing signs of depression now more than ever before. While there have been moments of encouragement in this last year, we are all desperately longing for normalcy.
Friends, this longing for normalcy is, in many ways, a longing for a return of that sense of abundant joy and refreshment that so often accompanies the difficult but good kingdom work to which you have been called.
Psalm 126 reminds us in a beautiful way that God will restore our joy, and we will again be filled with happiness in the ministry work He has called us to. God provides this joy for His beloved by causing us to remember His goodness and look forward to His restoration.
Joy in Remembering
The nations remark that “the Lord has done great things for [the Israelites].” How did pagan nations know this? Because God’s people were singing about it; they were so abundantly grateful for how God had carried them through exile. Now they were going home, and their mouths were overflowing with praise. The other nations heard their words and were captivated by the Israelites’ testimony to their good, good God.
As we lead the students in our care, it’s important that we are continually sharing the great things God has done in our own lives. It’s good to reflect on the ways in which God has provided and shown Himself not only in this past year of trials, but in other, darker times. Remembering His goodness renews our trust in God’s sovereignty and telling others about it spreads encouragement.
One of the youth leaders who had a great impact on me in high school often shared the ways God was working in her life. Sometimes she shared a new understanding of a Scripture passage that helped her through a challenge, and other times she openly shared how God tangibly provided in the midst of her anxieties. I always felt refreshed by her words, especially in the midst of my teenage questions and doubts.
I will never forget when she told us her testimony, how God saved her when she didn’t deserve it. The story in itself was not particularly remarkable, but her sincere love for Jesus was contagious as she explained how her eyes were opened to the truth of the gospel. It was compelling. I wanted to know more. I wanted to experience this goodness of Jesus.
Sharing about that goodness causes joy to grow in our own lives. Remember the great things God has done and share them with gladness. Your stories may even cause a listener to stand in wonder of this God who provides such love and care in the midst of trials.
Joy in Restoration
God, in His graciousness, provides renewal after seasons of hardship. In this Psalm, the Israelites prayed boldly for complete restoration because they know God could and would restore them.
When they returned home with praise dripping from their mouths, what their eyes beheld was not a beautifully restored city but a burned down, abandoned mess. Yes, they were home, but there was so much work to do. The image of the streams in the Negeb (v.4) gives us a better idea of the kind of restoration the Israelites were praying for. The Negeb is a very dry, barren area, but after a big rain further north, the water comes rushing down the mountains and almost overnight, this desert becomes lush and lively.
Are you praying with boldness for this kind of God-enabled renewal in your youth ministry? Our God is able to not only restore these ministries to what they once were, but to cause them to flourish in ways we can’t even imagine, ways that are wondrous, even dreamlike.
There is hard work ahead. Like the harvest mentioned, the seeds sown are often sown in tears. But His grace is sufficient, and His power is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12). Lift your drooping hands, strengthen your weak knees (Hebrews 12:12), and trust in His power at work within you as you labor in Jesus’ name.
When you feel like you’re merely trudging through, God is working in growing the seeds you’re planting in this desert. And when the Lord in His sovereign timing brings restoration, what you reap will bring joy.