By Scott Armstrong
As a youth pastor several years ago, I was talking with a buddy of mine and youth pastor at another church. “How did your youth camp go?” I asked him.
“Great!” he exclaimed, with a wide-eyed grin. Then his look changed to befuddlement as he said, “But I cannot seem to figure out these junior-highers!”
“Huh? What happened?” I wondered aloud, somewhat confused myself.
My fellow youth pastor grinned a bit and shook his head. “Well, I have been praying for one of these guys for over a year. He’s 13 years old and usually bounces off the walls during our youth service. Finally at camp I thought the Lord was working on him during one of the services, and then I knew it when he went down to the altar! I gave him a few minutes alone and then went down and prayed with him. ‘What’s the Lord talking to you about?’ I asked him.
“‘Nothing,’ he said dryly, pointing at another junior-higher. ‘I just came down here because my friend did.’”
Ah, adolescents. Sometimes we see the fruit of the Spirit in amazing ways through their lives. But most of the time we wonder if anything of permanence is really taking place. In all this talk of video games and movies, does he even care about church? Is she more preoccupied with being popular or being passionate for God? Are they even getting what I am saying?
Of course, all of us know there usually is light at the end of the proverbial – and pubertal – tunnel. And that hope is what keeps us going, even in the face of pseudo-altar call responses and A.D.D. Personally, my love for adolescents has grown enormously, and due to a somewhat surprising source: cross-cultural ministry.
I have now been a missionary in Latin America for several years. And youth ministry, especially with adolescents, is quite different in Guatemala City as opposed to Kansas City. I have especially learned three important things from the local churches here regarding this age group.
1. With adolescents, we must have a Commitment to Community.
What does your community look like? A bunch of teens hanging out on youth night? Do those same teens ever talk with each other about anything of spiritual substance during the week?
A lot of times what we mean when we use words like “community” and “relationships” has to do more with staying up late at an all-nighter with a bunch of our friends than with accountability and prayer support. And who expects junior-highers to hold each other accountable or pray for each other anyway?! Absurd!
Now, all-nighters are a part of community and FUN is definitely a big part of community. But the Latin American church has taught me that even middle-schoolers can truly worship. In fact, in many cases they are willing –often hungry – for meaningful relationships that move past likes or dislikes. I have to be honest: a lot of times in my youth ministry I have sought to entertain junior-highers instead of feed them. Both are important probably, but the first without the second is akin to pastorally letting them drink milk (or even Coke!) when many are more than ready for some meat (Hebrews 5:12-13).
*This article will continue in the next post.