The Shepherd vs. the Hired Hand

October 3rd, 2009

Crosswalk.com recently ran a news blurb about new research that seemed to indicate that teens weren’t getting much of value from their time at church. The gist of this analysis was that most teenagers don’t gain an understanding of “biblical values,” and that those who do, don’t apply that understanding to their life choices. Drat. And all these years I thought I was changing the world.

Why do I sound cynical, and what’s the connection between helping teens apply biblical principles and the numbers of teens we reach? First, I’m cynical almost every time I read stats about youth ministry. Call me simple (though I prefer uncomplicated), but I don’t deal with numbers. I deal with people. That’s not saying that I don’t care how many students show up to my youth ministry. I’m saying that I disciple one kid at a time. I may speak to many at a time, but you and I both know there’s a difference.

With or without Mideast tensions and increased persecution of Christians overseas, eternity is on the horizon when we look at our own American culture. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, motivations for us to be in youth ministry may range from marking the “oh, so needed” box on our self-appeasement checklist to being the object of hero worship. Once we get past the superficial motivations, though, most of us genuinely want to help young people live for Jesus. This isn’t a stepping stone to a greater position—many of us see no greater cause than God’s exciting, rewarding, and sitcomish call to love other peoples’ teenagers.

With that in mind, when numbers are low are we still internally motivated to do our absolute best? Can we, like Paul, say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)? After all, the same Paul wrote, “But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).

Are we okay with the “how, where, and with whom” God has given us to do the work assigned to us? It’s tempting to look at big youth ministries, with more students and volunteers than ours, consciously or subconsciously thinking, “They must be led by leaders bigger than me.” Maybe you’re too big to believe such foolishness, but I find that it’s difficult to resist the temptation to compare myself, or my ministry, to others.

If you’re okay with your “how, where, and with whom,” then you can determine what kind of youth worker you’re going to be. Nebraska Assemblies of God District Youth Director, Rod Whitlock, addresses the difference between the shepherd and the hired hand mentality in youth ministry. He says, “The Shepherd mentality says, ‘I’m going to pastor, disciple, train up, equip, enable, encourage, strengthen—all those kinds of things—the students.’ The Hired Hand mentality is, ‘I come in, do my big service, I have my nice message, my polished worship, then I go off and do my other things until my next youth meeting.’” Whitlock says this is a huge key with youth workers because “you can have all the right programs, discipleship books, and other stuff in place, but if you don’t have a shepherd’s heart or mentality, it’s “just another thing” in your life. It’s hard to measure how much of a shepherd’s heart you might have…or somebody else has. But you can see the fruit of it. And there’s greater fruit from a shepherd’s ministry than there is from a hired hand’s ministry—maybe not initially, but definitely in the long run.”

Maybe for you, this is a non-issue. In fact, maybe you’re so good at youth ministry and love what you do so much that it could easily become your relationship with God. If so, remember that even a shepherd needs a break from his sheep. And as Jeanne Mayo encourages, “God will always care more about you than he does about your ministry.” Knowing that God’s eye is on me motivates me to keep my eyes on God—first.

Is there a balance? In some ways, it seems there’ll always be conflicting messages in ministry. One says, “You can never do enough! Don’t just stand there; do something!” After all, 1 Corinthians 15:58 advises to “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” The other message says, “You can’t earn God’s favor by works—that’s legalism. Don’t just do something; stand there!”

The tension between these two can be confusing and frustrating. We have to know exactly what God has called us to do. I’ve heard big leaders make condescending remarks about small ministries, as though there was a difference in the quality of love and energy poured into the ministry because the numbers were fewer. And I’ve heard leaders of small ministries make subtle comments about big ministries, insinuating that there was no God-breathed effort to grow this thing: “Surely it’s 90% hype and show.” Last time I checked, big ministries didn’t just sprout up out of the ground without planting and watering. Christian businessman Jim Rohn has written that the greatest form of maturity is at harvest time. “This is when we must learn how to reap without complaint if the amounts are small and how to reap without apology if the amounts are big.”

So, do we ignore the researchers? No. I still read the studies because hard data can make me think and rethink methods and principles. So I learn from it. But if I’m honest, I’ll admit that half of the time I forget stats and percentages five minutes after I’ve turned the page. Statistics represent exhaustive research and I appreciate that. But I’m still much more concerned about the specific kids in my local church youth ministry than about all of the statistics in the world.

I’ve served in a ministry of 500 youth and young adults with 75 in our leadership core, and I’ve been part of a church plant when the first night of youth group yielded 11 warm bodies, including leaders. To this day, one of the most freeing statements I’ve read came from a youth pastor who wrote, “don’t grow big groups; grow big people.” And to this day, that’s my goal with teenagers. A large quantity can be fun, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Few things are more exhilarating than being in a loud, passionate worship service in an auditorium packed with bobbing young people (which serves the dual purpose of almost making you feel like one of them). But quality beats quantity every time; there’s nothing like seeing the light bulb go on in a young person’s eyes when she’s learned some deep truth from God in the daily quiet time you encouraged her to maintain.

Maybe like me, you just need periodic reminders that God smiles on you for what you do, small or big, for the Kingdom. What God really wants for you is a heart like Jesus—not the heart of a hired hand, but one of a shepherd.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.