Youth Ministry and the Tyranny of the Urgent

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In this series, “What Acts Teaches Us About Youth Ministry,” we are considering the way the apostles did ministry as described in the Book of Acts. Of course, the apostles were not doing youth ministry per say, but we can take a look at their approaches and apply them to our endeavors in ministry to young people. The previous article in the series can be read here.

A few weeks ago as Advent was approaching, I was talking with some high school students about waiting. I asked a group of high school boys what the hardest part about waiting was, and without skipping a beat one of them quickly answered, “Three to five business days.” In an existence where everything appears to be just a click away, this fifteen year old felt that waiting 3-5 business days for whatever he had just purchased online was an almost unbearable amount of time to wait.

Before I am quick to point the finger at this teenager, I must also admit that I do not enjoy waiting. When the line at my favorite coffee shop is long, I struggle to be patient with the barista in getting me my chemical fix fast enough. I think that somewhere in Leviticus, there is bound to be a verse that speaks against driving too slow in the left-hand lane on the freeway. And when my internet connection is running slow for some reason, surely it is a sign that the apocalypse is nearly upon us.

I hate waiting. But if I’m completely honest, I mostly hate waiting because it means I am not in control. And when I’m in control I feel safe. This is also true for how I engage in the kingdom action of youth ministry. I am well-educated, well-read, and have more than 20 years of experience; so, I am ready to respond instinctually and with the reflexes of Neo from The Matrix to any crisis or problem that might arise in the youth ministry I am charged with leading. However, in approaching the practice of youth ministry this way, I am not serving: I am making myself the center.

First, Wait.

When reading the books of Acts, I can have a tendency to glide right through the first chapter to the “good stuff” in chapter two. Yet, the entire book is punctuated by Acts 1:4-5 where Jesus tells his disciples to not leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father which he had spoken about, a baptism of the Holy Spirit that would come ‘not many days from now.’ The kingdom action that makes up the majority of the book of Acts is preceded by a period of waiting by the disciples. Here, they waited for something they did not fully understand; they knew only that it was promised by the Father and talked about by Jesus.

Given the history of the disciples, I often wonder what kind of conversations they had amongst themselves those days while they waited for who-knows-what to happen. What kinds of ideas and suggestions did they come up with that seemed more effective than waiting? At the very least, we know one of the things they did to occupy their waiting time was fill the disciple vacancy with Matthais. But, put twelve guys in a room for an undefined period of time with no clear objective other than waiting, and I’m pretty certain some mighty interesting conversations and hair-brained ideas were hatched.

But Luke 1:4-5 has caused me to ask myself as of late, “Is the reason why I do not see more fruit in my ministry to adolescents due to my inability to wait on God to see where he is already working, and to see where and how he wants me to work with him?” Because as Oswald Chambers writes, “Waiting is not sitting with folded hands doing nothing, but is learning to do what we are told.”

But waiting is hard! Especially when working with young people. We must respond quickly and decisively to their needs and perceived crises. Or we convince ourselves that we must. In responding this way to the needs of adolescents, we inadvertently communicate the message that adolescence is a time period that is predominantly about limiting damage and helping them to just survive. This opposes the truth that adolescence is a time of beautiful transformation and growth. It is where a person is learning who they have been created to be, how God is leading them, and how he is actively working in and through them for the good of his kingdom in the present.

In waiting, we open ourselves and our ministries to God’s preferred way of working. Who of us, if we had to design Pentecost, would have designed it the way it happened – where the response was two-fold: of thousands hearing the gospel proclaimed in their own language and of the disciples being accused of being drunk by noon? Pentecost was wonderfully weird and it was the way God wanted it: after ten days of waiting.

Jesus left and the disciples waited. And God worked. Am I willing to wait for God to work in my life and in the lives of the teenagers I serve? My actions often say I am not. I want to remember what J.I. Packer reminds me – that “God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.”

Waiting in youth ministry is not only important because it then allows God to work. It is important because in waiting, we also get to know the One who works. “Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting (Henri Nouwen).” Those ten days huddled in a room must have been a challenging time for the disciples – full of the temptation to get out there and do something, to assert themselves, to change lives. The waiting that the disciples did those ten days did not just facilitate the work of God on that first Pentecost. It also served to draw them to the Father, to cause deeper dependence on him, and to create intimacy with him.

Waiting in an instant world

Three things stand out about the disciples’ ten-day wait that I want to practice more regularly and faithfully.

First, they did not wait alone. They waited together, in community. When facing a decision for my ministry with teenagers, am I not only seeking the counsel of others, but am I involved them in the waiting and seeking as the body of Christ?

Second, while waiting together, they prayed. In Acts 1:14, Luke writes that they devoted themselves to prayer. This should be a no-brainer, but prayer is an act of submission, a physical act of taking time to give control away. Prayer itself is an act of waiting and asking God to act.

Third, the disciples held onto the promise that had been made to them. When they grew tired of waiting and praying, they waited and prayed some more, until the Holy Spirit was given to them. When we wait, God’s kingdom comes in place of ours. 

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