Youth Ministry is Terrifying

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Being a youth leader is terrifying.

Am I allowed to say that?

I recently attended a youth retreat where the theme was “Identity in Christ.” It feels a bit coincidental (though I suspect it may be, to use Christian-speak, “a God thing”), considering it’s a topic I’ve been thinking, writing, and hearing about in several places about lately. For the middle and high schoolers I spent time with this weekend though, “Who am I?” is an even bigger question than it is for me as a 23-almost-24-year old.

And the truth is, I don’t know what to tell them. I think “finding your identity in Christ” is a starting point, but the particulars of how that looks in everyday life are a very different story—which isn’t a very pretty, wrapped-with-a-bow answer to hand middle and high schoolers. It’s kind of what I want to tell them about all of life—“You just sort of figure it out as you go,” which isn’t a very good answer for a lot of things, much less how to find your identity in Christ.

But it’s the only answer I have right now.

Try as hard as I may, I will never get the answers “perfectly right” in conversations with the students in our youth group.

I might say dumb stuff, or say the wrong words at the wrong time, or not say the right words at the right time, and I might not have the answers that will satisfy their questions.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this, or at least shouldn’t be posting it on the Internet. Students or their parents or their friends may be reading these words, going, “Why should I trust this leader who doesn’t have her own stuff together?” Or “This is the girl who’s hanging out with my child and supposedly helping shape them in their walk with Christ?”

It’s not a perfect picture, but it is an honest one.

The questions students in my youth group are asking themselves are the same ones I am, in some way or another, asking myself. Sure, I have a few more years of life experience and some college knowledge in my head, but that only goes so far.

It’s one of the most terrifying parts about any type of formal ministry—when we truly look at ourselves, our own struggles, brokenness, and failures, it can become easy to think we have nothing to offer. Our education, our beliefs, our stories may make us comfortable addressing one topic—but in youth ministry, there is always something for which we’re unprepared. We are faced with responsibility of what we do, of doing our best to create healthy, meaningful relationships with students and ultimately point them to Christ; it’s a weighty responsibility, one that can become crushing if we let it.

So yes, being a youth leader can be kind of terrifying. Life—and youth ministry—don’t come with one-size-fits-all answer keys. In the absence of perfect answers though, we can offer what we do have—gifts of listening, acceptance, and presence.

Sometimes the simple act of showing up, of being there, is the most important one of all.

And in the end, we can rest assured that God is big enough to use what we do have.

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Well put. I think it's better for students to see that we aren't perfect, that we make mistakes - and then, hopefully, see what it looks like to try and make things right in how we respond. Nobody's perfect, and trying to be perfect in front of those we lead can give them the idea that they have to strive for perfection one day. All too quickly that can become twisted into a belief that we must be perfect before we come to Jesus, rather than trusting that it is his work in us that brings righteousness. 

I recently started volunteering with our High School students, and I'm pretty much counting on making a lot of mistakes along the way. I just hope and pray that by showing up, showing love, and doing my best, God will bless us all as we learn together. So in other words: "Yes" is the answer to your final question. :)

Great question. Firstly, yes of course youth ministry is terrifying - you're talking to people who simply won't stand for jargon, badly thought through arguments, or falseness of any kind. They let you know where you are. We don't always want that, but how refreshing it is for someone like me - having taken on youth group leadership at 63 after teaching the Bible to adults for 40 years!

As far as identify is concerned, we've set out to help with just that question. We started with Psalm 139 and then moved into Genesis 1-2. We're exploring the idea of being made in God's image, being His "Masterpiece" - custom-made with a plan that goes back to the beginning of Creation. Eyes are opening. Next we're going into a look at Jesus - the One who not only demonstrated what it means to live fully and truly as the image-bearer of God, but who also freed us from the power of evil that holds us back from living this amazing life God intended - unique in gifts, experiences, personality, and passion, and perfectly suited for the eternally significant purpose God planned for us. I'm not settled on an approach yet, but looking at things like TImothy Keller's new book (Encounters with Jesus) - anyway looking at what the gospels tell us about how Jesus lived out being "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15).

It's just one approach - but so far it seems to be going pretty well. The kids are about to make a video about what it means to them to be "God's Masterpiece" - their idea, not mine. I still approach each week with trepidation, but it's a pretty thrilling ride.