That Kid, Peter: Lessons on Youth Ministry from the Life of Peter

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What would it have been like if the Twelve Disciples were in my youth group? Certainly James and John would always want to ride shotgun in the van and be first in line at Chick-Fil-A.  Judas would always volunteer to work the snack bar and represent the youth ministry at church business meetings.  The other John would text me at all hours of the day and night.  Thomas would always have questions for me right after Bible study.

And then there is Peter.  Peter is a perplexing figure, sometimes brilliant and other times, well, not so brilliant. Maybe one of the reasons why Peter fascinates me is that I can see “little Peter’s” in so many of the students in my youth group.  These students have, at the same time, delighted me, frustrated me, made me proud, embarrassed me, caused me to question my calling, driven me to a deeper love of God, and otherwise contributed to my graying hair. But I love them for all that complexity.  As we survey the Gospels and see different episodes from Peter’s life, we can actually learn a good bit about youth ministry today.

Q. In Matthew 16:13-20 we see Peter get it so right and so wrong. From your youth ministry experience can you share with us an example of how you shepherded a student through a time when they got it so right and so wrong?

A. I recall a time when a high school student gave me such a great explanation of the Trinity that I wrote it down; it really was a tremendous insight. Just like Peter, he had a tendency to be eager and excitable, but without the maturity to back it up. That same guy then would admit to some deviant activity with friends, his computer, pyrotechnics, or a girl, and I’d drop my head in disbelief. But the encouragement was that he wants to love and serve God, and I am called to walk alongside him.

Q. Peter is famous for his three denials of Christ. How did you help to restore a student who, like Peter, denied Christ in a moment of weakness?

A. The great news here is that I was that student. I showed up, was involved, made claims that I loved Jesus, but when the pressure came I buckled. I could figure out some way to weasel out of what I knew to be right, give into temptation, and then figure out a way to make myself feel better. I remember the pain on my youth minister’s face when I told him I lost my Bible and didn’t care. But he never gave up on me, and kept encouraging me towards repentance. As a pastor now, my heart breaks so much for the students whose words and lives do not line up. Please, student pastors: don’t give up on them.

Q. What are some lessons that youth pastors can learn from Peter’s restoration in John 21?

A. I have been let down many times as a youth pastor. I’ve had students back out on leadership, stab me in the back, misrepresent me, get rumors and emails circulating in the church to discredit or remove me, fail in accountability, post troubling things on Facebook, and in many ways fall short of the call in their life. It hurts. But, Jesus forgave Peter, and Jesus has forgiven me. In the same way, students need forgiveness, and if they are repentant they need restoration. Not because they deserve it, but because Jesus loved them enough to die for them.

Q. As youth pastors, how might the rest of Peter’s life in the book of Acts encourage us as we shepherd kids who are like Peter?

A. Let’s remember this: our legacy is not seen until years, perhaps decades, after our students graduate. The ever-energetic middle schooler may well board a plane and become a missionary in a closed country. The girl who cannot stay away from unhealthy relationships may serve as a small group leader. The skeptic who smirks during your lessons may end up as a pastor.  The work we do as student ministers is important, not for the immediate results, but for the long-term fruit that can happen as a result of our faithfulness to Christ.

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