Raising Up Saints of God
By The Rev. Eric Wolf
“Don’t let them pigeonhole you into youth ministry!” advised a seminary professor as we prepared for internship. What that professor meant was, “You’ll be doing many different roles in your ministry, so insist on getting a wider experience than working with one group in your internship congregation.” What a lot of us heard was, “Youth ministry isn’t really pastoral ministry.”
That had a particular impact because I’d already been involved with youth ministry for some time at this point. When I got to internship, I boldly told my supervisor that I was happy to help with some youth things, but I really wanted a wider variety of experiences and that I needed something different.
I worked with a variety of committees and groups, my supervisor involved me in the top-level meetings about finances. I worked hard to learn well-rounded skills and do all the things that I thought were expected of me and was successful. During internship I preached, I taught, I worked to be a grownup. I did ministry with our older parishioners during health, sickness, and death — it wasn’t terribly difficult to find older parishioners in Florida, so I spent days visiting 90-plus-year-olds who had the heat on during the summer. Don’t get me wrong, walking with these people was holy ground; but did I mention that I’m a well-insulated man? In the words of John Pinette, “I’m a large mammal”. Heat in the summer? Lord have mercy!
When I look back though, those aren’t the things I remember most as being most formative.
We practiced with the praise band every week. Our 60+ organist, an early 30-something, a young adult Eric, and four teenagers who became some of my favorite people in the congregation. We played praise music and then stuck around to play Stevie Ray Vaughan, Weezer, Matchbox 20, and the other obligatory music surrounding 2005. We talked about heartbreaks and navigating hormones and first cars, first wrecks, learning to grow into new competencies, and they asked me hard questions about faith, life, the universe, and everything. With the full youth group, we went to Universal Studios and did hurricane relief work following four Cat 4 and 5 hurricanes during the very early time in my internship, and I had the privilege of learning from them so much about myself through their eyes.
I keep up with just a few of the people from internship, but recently I was messaging on Facebook one of the “kids” (who has his own kids now) and told him, “I know I was just an intern, but I think a lot about you”. He said, “you were a lot more than an intern to me”.
“Don’t let them pigeonhole you into youth ministry;” “you were a lot more than an intern to me”.
When I think about what it means to be Church and look at the cloud of witnesses who forms and shapes me, I see years’ worth adults who cared enough to form my faith and answer my impossible questions; and hundreds of Youtherans (many of whom are now young adults) in my mind. I see their creativity, their passion, their growth and deep discernment. These sages ask me the hardest questions, challenge me the most earnestly on my opinions and interpretations. They tell me jokes that aren’t religious!
Jesus lifts up the young. I wonder if it’s because they’re willing to see him, not the religious guy who goes around doing cool stuff and saying profound things. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will know even as we are fully known” (1 Cor 13). I think this is what makes youth ministry such a rewarding vocation, youth haven’t yet learned to guard themselves against the discomfort of being formed, they aren’t afraid to be changed by the Gospel.
Working with our synod’s youth ministry is a joy and an honor. We have enthusiastic youth, a richness in adult leadership, and a unique opportunity to work on faith formation with young adults as they learn to be the next generation of adult leaders to fall in love with formational ministry.
After all, isn’t that what Jesus tells us our job is? Make disciples.
The Church is a lifelong faith formation enterprise with disciple making as our mission while we learn to love God and love each other. The Church isn’t a place for being, we can be so many places. The Church is a place for growth.
If you want to see young adults in worship, be involved with the youth and young adults in your congregation. Invest your time and energy in helping them to become the adults you hope they might become. Invest your congregation’s resources in their formation so they can learn to be faithful stewards and have hearts for serving God with their time and talents. Hound them with your love throughout their college years and don’t let them forget who they are and what they mean to you — not “you”, your congregation, but to you. Don’t do it hoping they’ll stay. Do it because they matter to God. Do it because of what they can offer to your own growth in faith and love in your own life.
Make your congregation a place for growth. Get involved with each other, and discover Jesus together!