Archive for the ‘dealing with discouragement’ Category

Whether you’re a youth pastor, a volunteer, a teacher, or a parent, you know that investing in middle school students can be a difficult experience at times. It’s not always hard, and it shouldn’t be, but there are times when everyone wonders, “Is this worth it? Am I making a difference?” I go back to those questions at least a couple times per year. Only by the grace and power of God do I persevere and remember this important truth:

I am a seed planter.

When I meet with a small group of middle school students and teach them the truth from Matthew 5:11, does every student go to school the next morning and seek to be persecuted because God will bless them if they are insulted for His name? No! (But wouldn’t that be cool?!) I have to lay the foundation before truths start to translate into action and fruit in their lives. Listen to this quote from Eugene Peterson, who writes of pastoral work within his congregation:

“The person…who looks for quick results in the seed planting of well-doing will be disappointed. If I want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it will do me little good to go out and plant potatoes in my garden tonight. There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and reaping. During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and planting still other seeds.” (Traveling Light)

We need to remember our roles in middle school ministry as seed planters. It is easy to get frustrated and question our effectiveness when we see little change. But reflect on what Peterson says in the quote… If we want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it doesn’t do us any good to plant the potatoes tonight! Of course, as Americans we start to think about the other option to just go buy potatoes at the grocery store, but that’s not how the Holy Spirit works. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the norm in our kind of ministry is of long waiting and often long suffering. So you have to choose if you’re willing to be faithful in the ministry of seed-planting: watering, nurturing, weeding, planting new seeds… It’s not easy business. But trust in the Lord and His work – It’s not about ME or YOU, but only about HIM.

Some people have asked me how I measure success in middle school ministry. I always tell them, “Ask me again in 10 years.” I know that for many of the students I have been in contact with over my years in middle school ministry, the change won’t happen until later in their lives. Now, that doesn’t excuse us from teaching, exhorting, and even rebuking sin in their lives today, but it does release us from expecting results immediately. One of my favorite things in ministry is when one of my former students contacts me and tells me about the Kingdom-things they are doing in the name of Jesus now in college or even in high school. Just recently I’ve been inspired by a former student of mine named Karly, who courageously faces a difficult immunodeficiency called Dock-8 everyday and still gives praise to God. She writes a blog for others to see for themselves how she maintains her faith in Christ. You can see that here: http://kjkdancingthroughtherain.blogspot.com/

The truth is that one day we might even learn from our own students if we give them the time to grow in the knowledge and love of Christ. Be patient. Love deeply. Trust in the Lord.

How do you plant, water, nurture, weed, and plant again with the students in your influence?

Dryness. This is the best word I can think of to describe my spiritual state last week. All of my attempts to create spiritual growth in my life and our students’ lives felt like they were coming up short. Combine that with the sad news of the budget cuts at Vanguard Church and the pink eye I contracted from a roommate of mine, and it was a rough week. I knew I needed a mini-retreat.

When Friday rolled around, I removed myself from all my responsibilities and all people to dedicate the day to God. It all started with reading half of A.W. Tozer’s book God’s Pursuit of Man. It doesn’t matter what Tozer book I read; I always come away with a fresh insight about who God is and what my relationship with Him looks like. I highly recommend his books to anyone looking to be challenged with some classic Christian writing. Something in particular he said really stuck with me:

“He must count no time wasted which is spent in the cultivation of His acquaintance.”

Immediately I was struck by the amount of time I spend pastoring students in comparison to the amount of time I spend cultivating His presence in my own life. I wasn’t neglecting my own spiritual walk by any means, but I’m not sure if I was seeking Him with the fervor that is necessary for daily ministry with middle school students. But God continued to teach me more…

As I spent the afternoon praying and reading through scripture, God directed my attention to John 15, which incidentally was a passage I taught in the middle school group a couple weeks ago. Rather than summarizing the passage, I want to write it out for you so you can grasp the absolute importance of what Jesus is saying here:

 1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

    5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Jesus is saying clearly and simply that any fruit we produce is because the Father produced it first. A branch alone cannot produce fruit; it is dependent on the vine. Similarly, we cannot presume to produce fruit (i.e. spiritual growth, character, Spirit-filled life, kids that love the Lord, etc.) without abandoning all our efforts to the Lord in order to allow HIM to make the fruit.

When I’m working with middle school students, occasionally I catch myself becoming over-confident in my abilities. It is hard to admit, but I know there are times when I believe my relational and teaching skills will make me an effective youth pastor. I wouldn’t ever vocally admit this, but it’s amazing how those lies will creep in and set up camp if we don’t address them. Satan will tempt us into worshiping the gifts instead of the Giver of the gifts.

As I was reading the John 15 passage, I felt God speaking clearly to my spirit, “Remember that you are a branch; you are not the vine. You cannot produce fruit in your ministry or your life if you do not remain in me.” I almost feel silly talking about this “new” revelation I received from God, as if I didn’t know it before. But for me it was one of those “AHA” moments that I won’t quickly forget. I must be completely dependent on the Father if I ever want to see fruit in the Hive Middle School Ministry of Vanguard Church. I can’t make it happen. Our leaders can’t make it happen. Our parents can’t make it happen. It is the ability of Jesus alone.

After coming to this re-realization on Friday, I was excited to give up control to the Father. Yesterday’s middle school service was one of the most encouraging and exciting services I have ever been a part of in youth ministry. I stopped worrying about what I could do to create fruit and started praising God for what He was doing. Students were lifting their hands praising God in worship, learning what it means to live their lives as a living sacrifice for God, discussing the need for justice and involvement in Swaziland, and talking in the 8th grade small group about what it means to be a leader and influence the younger students in the youth group. I left Sunday morning with so much joy and excitement for the fruit that God is growing in our students.

Now, in the influence you have with middle school students as a parent, volunteer, pastor, teacher, or otherwise, can you genuinely say that you completely depend on the Vine to bring fruit in the lives of your students?

Do you feel as if your attempts to create spiritual growth in your student(s) are coming up short?

Do you consistently lift up your student(s) in prayer to the Father?

Are you trying to be the Vine in your students’ lives?

Are you content with being a branch?

 My prayer is that we all (pastors, volunteers, parents, etc.) begin to recognize our ever-present dependence on God to bring fruit in the lives of our students before we exhaust ourselves with man-made attempts to transform. Our lives and ministries will only wither and die without the Vine.

Let’s be honest here for a second. Working with middle school kids is less than glorious. Parenting middle school kids is messy. Sometimes I think of middle school ministry like the fire department having a controlled fire – sure, there’s a degree to which you know you’ll be safe, but it still looks like more is being destroyed than is being saved. (Anyone who has done an overnighter with early teenagers knows exactly what I’m talking about. Can I get an amen?)

I love my calling to pastor and teach middle school students. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. They have the curiosity of a child but are developing the thinking capacity of an adult. There are moments in my ministry with this age group that I will never forget because of the depth of insight and growth I witnessed as kids grew closer to Christ. HOWEVER, there are also moments that I wish I could forget. I look back, wondering, “What good could possibly have come from that small group session?” or, “The kids looked more interested in the paint pattern on the wall than they were in anything we were talking about.” If I’m really honest, these moments happen more often than I’d like to admit.

Mark Oestreicher talks about the “Fifth Week Principle” in this article here. His basic premise is that every four weeks of small group sessions he has with middle schoolers feel like nothing good ever comes of it. But the fifth week comes, and all of a sudden kids are bringing incredible insight and asking good questions, giving him hope that the build-up of 4 weeks is completely worth it for that 5th week of small group. If you are patient enough to be consistent and dig through the messiness, the fruit of your ministry with early adolescents will come at some point.

I loved that article! It really encouraged me. But at the same time, I left wondering, “Well how do I emotionally and spiritually endure weeks of difficulty for that fifth week?” This question came back to mind recently after a dreary small group session with some of my students. There were a couple guys who refused to join the discussion and intentionally distracted the others who might have contributed their thoughts. I left discouraged, questioning my ability to lead. I’ve had these days before, but for some reason this one really messed with me. I started praying, asking God for direction and wisdom.

And He answered! He led me to Numbers 13-14. I’ve actually taught on these passages before, but from a different angle than what the Spirit revealed to me during this particular time. At this point in Numbers, the Israelites are wandering in the desert, and Moses sends some spies to explore the land of Canaan, which God had planned to give to Israel. The spies leave for Canaan, equipped with several questions for which Moses needed answers before leading the Israelites in a conquest.

When the spies return, they report to Moses in Numbers 13:27-28,

We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country – a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak!

At this point, Caleb tried to interrupt them and encourage Moses and the Israelites to be courageous. He gave Moses hope that one of his men actually cared about the mission God gave them. But still the other spies spread this bad report to the rest of the people in verses 31-33,

We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!…The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!

Despite Caleb’s plea for the people to bravely accept God’s calling, the people, as it says in the next verse, began to weep and cry all night. Not only did they throw a pity-party, but then they started protesting against Moses and Aaron. All of a sudden, cries for new leadership were abounding in Israel! Joshua and Caleb tried to talk reasonably with the people, and in response the people start to talk about stoning them. This is what I’d call a leadership challenge, though I’m sure there is a worse term for it.  

Now if I was leading over the Israelites at this point, I think I’d be more than tempted to throw in the towel and give up. Nobody wants to listen to me, and they’d rather be in slavery in Egypt than follow me. The Lord even spoke to Moses with frustrations that His people refused to be obedient to His calling. Thankfully, Moses was in charge, and not me.

What exactly was Moses’s response?  He prayed for his people. He begged the Lord not to punish the people for their rebellion. In Numbers 14:19, Moses prays,

In keeping with your magnificent, unfailing love, please pardon the sins of this people, just as you have forgiven them ever since they left Egypt.

I don’t know about you, but the response of Moses shocks me. I think my jaw dropped a little bit when I read it. I mean, the spies had tasted how good the fruit of the land was, and still they refused to dig deep and answer God’s call. What is it about Moses than inspired him to pray for those who refused to follow his leadership?

And then it hit me. A wise leader understands that consistent influence comes only after navigating through the myriad of emotions. People aren’t always going to feel like following the leader. Ask any President of the United States, and I think he might agree.

But that’s not the whole picture. A wise leader also understands that prayer is not just an option; it’s a necessity. James 5:16 says, “The prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.” From my experience, the most seasoned and successful leaders – though “successful” is a term I use very lightly, for success in the eyes of the world is not always success in the Kingdom of God – are the ones who refused to stop praying, even when results did not appear right away.

So what are the implications for working with middle school students?

Middle school youth workers and parents must remember that there will be days like the one I had and the one that Moses had. I doubt the kids will threaten to stone us (though I wouldn’t rule out shaving an eyebrow… Noah Goad!), but they will ignore us, distract others, and express little care for what we have to say. The emotional roller coaster that early teens are riding on will inspire them to love us profusely one week and revert to apathy the next week. That fifth week is coming, but we must continue to push through if we want to see the fruit. After this story, the Israelites continued to follow Moses and gave him their trust. It really was an emotional car-wreck – one that reveals the middle school traits that often follow us into adulthood – but in the end God’s mission continued on!

And, of course, youth workers and parents, hear me on this. We must pray for our kids. Especially during those moments when we don’t feel like praying, when we fantasize about just waiting for them to grow up, we have to approach the throne of grace with confidence and intercede for our students. I really struggled with this after my dreary small group session with the guys. I didn’t feel like praying for a couple of my students. I was frustrated by their lack of interest and by the way they’d distract the others from participating. But after remembering Moses’s response, I knew I must pray for them. In reality, there are probably issues at home contributing to their lack of concern for which they need prayer! As I mentioned before, wise leaders, youth workers, and parents will understand that prayer is not just an option; it is a necessity. I’ll never forget one day in college, when in the middle of a class my professor stopped and admonished us to spend time every single day praying for the students in our influence. I know for a fact that he daily prayed for us, his students, and I will always take his simple advice to heart.

Turns out that Moses could have made an incredible middle school pastor! Now if only we would learn from his actions!