To The Jeff-Mobile!

October 10th, 2009

In high school you wanted to be cool, didn't you? Come on, you can admit it. But then you grew up; now you know that it's what's on the inside that counts, and whether or not you're cool doesn't matter. Right? Phooey.

You still want to be cool. You still want teenagers to look at you and think “she's all that”or “he's da bomb”or “he's da man”or whatever the heck they're saying these days.

Jeff didn't ask to be cool. It was an adjective thrust upon him whether he asked for it or not. Jeff appeared as the embodiment of one those rare, undeniable proofs of God's existence: the adult volunteer.

I was the new youth director at a large church, and Jeff was one of the few faces in the church director who either already wasn't a part of a nuclear family or looked old enough to have taught Moses in Sunday school.

I called him out of the blue and asked if he'd like to help with the youth program. He was a painfully thin college student with absolutely no training with teens. He was a self-professed nerd; a sweater-wearing guy who, with nothing more than a willing heart, was asked to walk knowingly into the lion's den we call youth ministry.

Well, God loves a fool, as the saying goes, and Jeff said, “yes.”

We all know that teenagers can spot a fake right away. If you walk into that youth room and try to be just like them, they'll eat you alive. Act cool, and you never will be.

Jeff was not cool, but Jeff was real. There was nothing false about him. He never tried to be a teenager; he never tried to hold himself up as a role model; he never tried to pretend to be anything but himself. But Jeff brought two very special qualities into the group: a deep sincerity about life in general and an unabashed love for Christ.

He went everywhere with us. He drove an old gas-guzzling family station wagon (complete with simulated wood-grain panels and a third seat in the back that faced the opposite direction) that was soon dubbed “the Jeff-Mobile.”Suddenly that was the cool car, and nobody wanted to ride with the youth minister. They wanted to ride in the Jeff-Mobile.

Through the years Jeff seemed genuinely perplexed by the level of “coolness” he had achieved which, of course, only made him more real and more cool in the eyes of the teens. By spending so much time in the Jeff-Mobile—and of course with Jeff— the students picked up on his deep stores of faith. He gave these kids, who would often fall asleep in a worship service, a living, breathing example of what it means to be a Christian. With his quiet and unassuming manner he would cruise along with a car full of teens and ask those small but vital questions about friends, life, school, and faith.

I remember once when Jeff was on a mission trip with us. He was replacing a window screen at a homeless shelter. On his right was a freshman chess club president; on his left was a senior with a football scholarship. These two teenagers who seemed worlds apart came together to work with this quiet man of faith. Jeff had taught them more about being a servant than their Sunday school class ever could.

(I once Xeroxed a photo of Jeff on card stock. Then with scissors and paper fasteners the group members each created their own “Incredible Toy Jeff.”Soon these teens were going to school with “Incredible Toy Jeff”bookmarks stuck proudly in their textbooks.)

He never missed a service; he never missed a youth meeting; he always had his Bible with him. Jeff once stunned a table full of teens by offering a quiet prayer of thanks over his Big Mac.

Jeff was forever my lab rat. Whenever I would come up with some crazy idea, Jeff always let me test it on him first. He was right there crawling through the rafters trying to hang a speaker because I wanted to give the teens some bizarre new worship experience. And we won't even go into the balloon box incident.

I soon came to recognize what I call “Jeff Moments.”Here is one of my favorites. We were at an amusement park, and the whole group wanted to go together on the roller coaster. Jeff had an incredible fear of roller coasters, and I had one student named Sarah who hated roller coasters as much as Jeff. Standing outside the entrance gate, Sarah flat-out refused to get near the giant, metal machine of death. No amount of chiding or encouragement would sway here. Jeff held out his hand and said, “If you go on…I'll go on.”

Minutes later there I was in the front car, waving my hands in the air and screaming like a lunatic. I turned around to see Sarah two cars back, clutching the lap bar and squeezing her eyes shut. Next to her was Jeff, two cars back, clutching the lap bar and squeezing his eyes shut. In one moment Jeff had ministered to that girl more than I had in an entire year. I was busy running a youth program. Jeff was busy ministering to the youth.

Many in our churches are reluctant to get involved with the youth program because they're afraid the teens won't think they're cool. Don't worry about it. Teens don't think anyone is cool at first. Cool is earned. It is bestowed. Teens just want someone who is the genuine article.

They face a world in which friends seem to change on a daily basis and parents are just plain weird. They want someone who is there for them. They want someone who is a constant in a world where there are very few constants. They want to see that one example of the way Christ loves us…nerd sweaters and all.

Celebrate your volunteers. They're in your program; they are your program. They sit quietly in the back of the room and let you run the show. Yet they're the ones most likely to dig into their pockets when a teen has forgotten her lunch money. They're the ones cleaning up the pizza boxes while you're playing sardines. They're the ones who God will hold up to your teens and say, “See? You don't have to look like you just paddled off of Dawson's Creek in order to matter in this world.”

Jeff has graduated from college and moved on to another state to do his graduate work. He's married now but still volunteers his time at a new church with a new (lucky) youth minister. Yes, he still wears “nerd-sweaters;”and yes, he's still in touch with Sarah who is now in France studying to be a priest.

Our congregations are full of Jeffs and our youth groups are full of Sarahs. Our job is to put them together.


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