Youth Pastors Should be the Weakest People on Staff
I’ve been a youth pastor for almost seven years, and in that seven years I’ve noticed a contradiction in people’s expectations of me. One week someone will remind me that student ministry is significant and needed in the church and that I’m doing a great job at it. But the next week I might hear suggestions like this: “Well, you’re just the youth pastor.” Somehow, my job is earth-shatteringly important as I navigate dangerous cultural waters, but captained by someone on JV.
Historically, there have been low standards for student pastors. But institutions like Rooted and churches like mine represent a larger trend where student ministry is treated more seriously and student pastors are better equipped. Wise churches are abandoning models of entertainment-driven ministry in favor of higher bars, more rigorous training, innovation, and better research.
But in this good, right, and godly course-correction there is a danger. We can forget that we are weak. We can forget that it’s not missional innovation that changes hearts, but God’s hand turning hearts to his will. And as necessary as fresh contextualization is, it was prayerfulness that Paul emphasized repeatedly. We’re never told to research, gain knowledge, gather data, or innovate but to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17).
Paul E. Miller says, “Prayer is learned dependence.” Prayer is the disciplined acknowledgment that God has better answers. It’s a learned leaning on God’s wisdom rather than our own (Prov 3:5-6). Prayer is a rhythm of recognizing that it is God who searches all hearts; if we have any hope of pastoring just one anxious heart, it will be through his compassionate Holy Spirit. After all, the gospel is “revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (Ps 139:1,23; 1 Cor 2:10). In other words, prayer is a liturgy of weakness and student pastors should be leading the church in it. Here are three reasons.
1. Our Enemy is Smart
The enemy has a R&D department. Its assembly lines manufacture new models of temptation and innovate more advanced weaponry. And Satan aims his weapons at children. His weapons aren’t really new. They are very old tricks gussied up. But parents and student pastors are often unprepared. Our kids are knocked flat by new cultural waves before our senior leadership has formulated positions, spoken from the pulpit, or had the chance to leverage their wisdom. At our church, it was the children’s ministry, not our senior leader, who first pastored a child experiencing gender dysphoria and needed to navigate truth and love with the transgendered.
Youth pastors must be leading the church in prayer because we are going to be blindsided. None of us are savvy enough to intuit the consequences of each piece of technology, legislation, or new celebrity voice. But each of us is equipped to do battle with the principalities and powers that animate the cultural surf. The Devil’s schemes are real, but his defeat comes swiftly on the feet of the gospel sustained by youth pastors who pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph 6:11-12 15,18).
2. We are Often the Youngest.
It’s easy to see our age as a handicap. I’m the youngest guy on a staff of nine pastors and that doesn’t go unnoticed – by me especially. To fix the handicap, I work hard. I triple-check my proposals. I manuscript all my sermons. I’m the first at the office on Monday. I don’t let balls drop. And I’m pretty good at it. But in treating my age like bloodstains that needs to be bleached, I often forget that God’s sovereignty has predetermined my age. I don’t just happen to be the youngest guy on staff, I’m supposed to be.
God has placed us in contexts and at particular ages that can drive us to prayer. If we don’t pray, our only other option is to brood over our immaturity as we double-down on our efforts to prove ourselves. Without prayer, whatever spiritual insight a youth minister might bestow will be received as critical and needlessly provocative – a clanging gong. (Remember that time you tried to talk about masturbation with a bunch of Moms, one month into your job?) A youth pastor’s immaturity is God’s ordained means to show that the only doubling-down that must be done is in our dependence, weakness, and prayerfulness.
3. We are Prone to Bitterness.
That nagging sense that you are “just” a youth pastor can wear on you. The little comments from people in your church are deflating. Even the well-meaning, “You’re such a good preacher, when are you going to leave us?” can be hard to process. If we are not careful, insecurity and restlessness creep in. Youth pastor tenures are short for a reason. We slowly become bitter at our leadership for not recognizing our strengths or pastoral prowess, like we are stuck and it’s their fault. All while we experience simmering feelings of failure, as if we are not doing enough.
The antidote to bitterness is confessed weakness. Youth pastors must prayerfully become conscious of their weakness, and embrace it. Slowly we will become less concerned that others see our strength and realize that Christ was our strength the entire time. Slowly we will realize that any ministry success or leadership acumen was a gift from a strong God. Slowly we realize that if we were to take pride in those things it would be plagiarism; if we were to demand recognition, it would be theft.
Only in prayer will God make us increasingly weakness-conscious, bitterness-free, and strong in the Lord. We should want it no other way.