Love Makes a Call Go ‘Round

October 10th, 2009


It wasn’t until I became a senior pastor, after 15 years of full-time youth work, that I finally understood my call in youth ministry. This revelation came at an odd time: the all-church potluck. After the obligatory fried chicken and casseroles, I instinctively began to greet people in the room. Within minutes, I felt myself drawn to the middle school guys playing poker outside on the church steps. Here was my logic: the adults were already in the church, and the middle school boys were still deciding whether they wanted to come in. I wanted to help them.

When I first felt called, I didn’t realize that the greatest threat to continuing in ministry with young people was a job description and a paycheck. I was so grateful when I received my first paycheck. I couldn’t believe the church paid me for doing what I love. That gratitude, at some point, became a burden. After years of developing leadership teams, planning Sunday school, and designing mission trips, I was ready to leave youth ministry and become a senior pastor. It wasn’t because of kids, though; I’d simply grown weary of trying to fulfill the job description, yet felt obliged to because I needed the paycheck. By the time I officially left youth ministry, I vowed never to return.

As I stood on the steps with those middle school boys, I realized I wanted back in. What I wanted wasn’t so much to be back in programming and developing youth leadership teams; I wanted back to the simple call. I just wanted to hang out with kids because I love teenagers. I wanted to be able to watch these young people discover the body of Christ. I wanted to enter into their world and help them see Jesus. I wanted back the simple life of knowing that ultimately my call isn’t about teens—it’s about my faithfulness to God.

A Love for Youth

I’m a slow learner. Several years ago I was taking a group of middle school students on a confirmation retreat. I was driving the 15-passenger van with 14 overly active, loud, totally excited seventh graders. The two other adult leaders on the trip were following in another car. When we got to our borrowed beach house for the weekend, my two leaders asked me how I was doing. They seemed really concerned. I said, “Fine, why?”

“Well, we heard the kids screaming from our car every time we got near the van and we were just wondering about your nerves.” I’d never really noticed. Now, I could blame that on my need for a hearing aid. But as I remember that day, I realize I simply enjoyed being with these young people.

As a youth worker, I was a disciple of two people: Jesus and Mike Yaconelli. I have to admit I only heard Mike speak once on an old youth training videotape. What he said, though, had a huge impact on me. I’ve never forgotten his words: “If you’re going to be in youth ministry, you’ve gotta like youth. It’s that simple.” I rediscovered that love when I became a senior pastor. I love the honesty of teenagers when they don’t like something. I love the way teenagers need/want to set themselves apart from adults. I love seeing a high school or middle school person having a great time laughing and telling stories. I love watching a seventh grader conquer a ropes course and feel as though she just climbed Mt. Everest. I love it.

A Love for Discovery

Jesus described the kingdom of God as a treasure hidden in a field, and when someone found that treasure he went and sold all he had in order to buy that field. I love to watch kids discover the incredible treasures that exist in the kingdom of God.

Bob discovered it one night at winter camp. Ridge Burns had given a powerful talk on the kingdom of God and asked if anyone wanted to discover what it was like to have a relationship with this awesome God. No one stood up. Ridge seemed to be getting nervous, so he asked again. I was amazed that in this group of about 400 middle schoolers, no one stood. Suddenly, there was movement near the front row. Bob, a scrawny little sixth grader, stood up on his chair. He stood alone, surrounded by hundreds of his peers. Ridge invited him to come up, and the entire room filled with applause. That night Bob not only discovered the love of God, but also the support of the body of Christ.

After Ridge’s prayer, we gathered with Bob and our other students on a deserted basketball court. Our bodies were frozen, but our hearts were on fire. Each student began to share how he or she saw God working that night. These young people were finding treasures all over the place. Bob was in tears. I asked him what was happening, and he said, “I am so bummed my parents don’t know God. I want to do whatever it takes to tell them about how much God loves them.” Bob wanted to share his treasure with others.

I rarely see that type of discovery at a weekly Sunday worship service with the adults. Having walked away from youth ministry for a while, I now realize that the success of that ministry had very little to do with numbers and everything to do with discovery. I’ve realized how much I love to watch people discover for the first time how much the kingdom of God is different from the world around them.

Entering Their World

As I prepared to leave youth ministry, I was tired of being creative. At some point along the way, I’d forgotten why our ministry did what it did. Towards the end I began to think that the surf trips, the bike rides, the mission trips, and the excursions to amusement parks were simply great programs. I’d forgotten the adventure of creating a place for those who haven’t met Jesus to come and get an introduction.

As I became a senior pastor, I had new responsibilities. I was asked to develop a men’s ministry. As we considered our first men’s retreat, I began to think about a nice campground, with a nice speaker, with a pleasant campfire for s’mores. To be honest, I was pretty bored just thinking about it. What would I do if this trip were for teens? I began to ponder. I’d find out what the young people outside the church were interested in and develop a camp around that activity. I’d go to the high school students and ask them what they liked to do and create an adventure. I’d bring the gospel into their world. Once again, I wanted back in. I wanted to enter back into the adventure of being creative in order to help others see Christ.

A call into youth ministry revolves around entering into the world of young people. It’s the adventure of the incarnation. Jesus entered our world so that we might know God fully. Now that my job description doesn’t explicitly involve meeting those criteria with kids, I’m rediscovering that love for adventure.

Back to the First Love

So, back to those guys playing poker on the church steps. Quite a number of them joined our confirmation class and began to discover God’s amazing love. At the end of the class, all the students were asked if they wanted be confirmed and join the church. Steve wanted to talk to me after our meeting. He said, “Tom, I really don’t think I want to join the church. I don’t think I’m ready to do all the stuff that church members do. But I want to say ‘yes’ to having Jesus in my life. I want to help people and love God and stuff. I totally want to come to youth group; I just don’t want to be an official member. Is that okay?”

Steve reminded me of my first love. Teenagers have a way of doing that. My first love is simply saying “yes” to Jesus and not just the church. My first love, my call, is about loving God and serving others; it’s not about a job description or “being a good church member who happens to be the pastor.” As Steve talked that night I was reminded of God’s message to a young church in Ephesus: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” (Revelation 2:4-5a). It was only when I became a senior pastor that I remembered how far I’d fallen from that first love of ministry.

Like I said, I wanted back in. About two months after my encounter with those guys on the steps, I was staying up all night with a group of middle schoolers at our community’s “Never-Ending Night, Part VIII.” I now get paid to be a senior pastor and I get to volunteer in youth ministry. It’s that simple, and it’s my call, and I love it.


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