After serving as youth director at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL for six years, Thursday, April 28, 2011 will go down as my scariest day of youth ministry. My morning involved contacting thirty-five youth group alumni currently enrolled at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the day after the catastrophic April 27 EF4 tornado. Each dial of the phone and scripting of a text message possessed the possibility that I would never hear back from the student.
The stories of courage, fortitude, and tragedy have blown me away. Several students lost friends in the storm. Two students stood trapped on the second floor of their apartment building, praying the tornado would change direction. Dozens of students have hit the streets from dawn to dusk serving anyone they can. Many of these kids are not simply collecting diapers and bottles of water, a noble endeavor; they were searching for lost people on behalf of families.
The tornado has reaffirmed my belief that youth ministry has to run deeper than morality and experience. Certainly, students need to understand and embrace biblical morality. Yet I want kids to have powerful emotional encounters with the Lord, as well. These constitute valuable elements of a full Christian life.
At the same time, a youth ministry background centered on emotion and rules absolutely abandons a student when they emerge from their obliterated home to find the corpse of a child in their front yard. If a student exclusively derives their confidence in the goodness of God from the exhilarating experiences of Wednesday nights and mountain-top retreats, then the horrifying pain of death and catastrophe very well may overrule this trust in God when storms roll through their life.
Students need a well-developed theology to face the pain, tragedy, and disappointment they ultimately will face in this broken world. A student’s confidence in the love of Christ must have foundations, not simply in their experience, but more so in the objective reality of the Cross and the evidences of God’s goodness revealed throughout scripture.
A week after the storm I listened to one student process her near-death experience with an attitude of gratitude and humility. She talked about the sovereignty of God in protecting her, her dependence on the mercy of God in all things, and the reality of the world’s brokenness as a product of original sin. Her relatively sophisticated knowledge of scripture and doctrine for a twenty-year old seemed to reassure her that tragedy does not signify abandonment or apathy from God. Christ’s love and redemption remain constant, in spite of circumstances that appear to defy these truths.
The tragic tornado has reinforced my determination to concentrate our ministry on the long-term development of students’ belief systems, rooted in the Gospel and God’s Word.