The longer I’m in youth ministry the more I wonder how long I can last in youth ministry. Ever since my college days as a youth pastor in-training, I’ve always had the desire to be a lifelong youth leader. Stop laughing, I’m not kidding. But the clock on the wall, the calendar on the fridge, and the face in the mirror all seem to testify to the fact that I’m getting older. This might be where you’d expect me to begin to concede a quiet retreat into the “good night” of the senior pastorate. Sorry to disappoint you, but when it comes to student ministry, I’m here to stay.
But aging has a way of bringing out the practical side of us, doesn’t it? This year I’ll hit 40 years of age and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I sometimes think things like: How marketable is a 40-something youth pastor? How true are the stories I’ve heard that at 40 (physically speaking), the “wheels start to fall off” and you’re introduced to unexplicible aches, and longer recovery times, not to mention the widening age gap between myself and those I love so much and want so badly to influence for the Kingdom. My hairline and my waistline are beginning to betray me, I’m afraid.
Add to this the ever-evolving culture we are daily swimming in. While so much of the teen experience is universal, more than ever it is also an incredibly uniquely challenging time to be an adolescent. Rules, structure, discipline, and boundaries are fading away and being replaced by shifting lines of amorality, circumstance-dependant decision-making, and a no-one-is-wrong state of the union. Toss in the hyper-connected, tech-saavy, socially-integrated mindset of the typical teenager and you’ve got the picture perfect opportunity for someone like me to face the temptation for feeling a bit…well…used up.
You may mistakenly chalk this next bit up to good ‘ol fashioned denial (or ego), but I still feel my best years are ahead of me. Perhaps not my youngest years, but my best years. I honest to goodness still feel like a 20-something who thankfully enjoys the bearings of a much older veteran of youth ministry. I’m constantly excited about new ways to engage teens, to morph (appropriately) with the social tides, and to go stride for stride with anyone of any age willing to come along.
But how? How can someone of–ahem–my age stay effective in a world where those I’m seeking to connect with are typically one-third my age? Here are some things I’d like to encourage all of us with.
First, stick to the guns of your calling. Write it down, nail it down, and stand on it. Few things anchor me like knowing that I know that God has me in student ministry for a reason. Maybe two.
Next, don’t ever stop being a student. Be a student of teen culture. Not in a lab-coat, clipboard kind of way but in a way that stays interested in what teens today think about anything under the Sun. The greatest tool you have in this regard are the two things on either side of your head. You want to connect to another human being? Listen to them.
Next, embrace technology even though by the time you reach the end of this sentence what’s “in” will proably be “out” and replaced by a new “in”. Case in point: emailing today’s teen is about as with-it as sending smoke signals. Call them on the phone and you’re likely to be taken aback by their weirded out response that you use the phone to actually call people. Current tech trends include Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, FaceTime, and even good ol’ fashion texting is still hanging in there.
Lastly (for this post at least), give up trying to fit in. God didn’t call you to fit in with teenagers. Besides, few things are lamer (and sometimes creepier) than an adult trying to act/dress/fit in as a teen. Not to mention it doesn’t really help them. Instead, rely on your genuine love and interest in them, their joys, their hurts, and their life to be the thing that points them to Jesus through you. You don’t have all the answers. No one does. But you likely have more answers than they do. That’s not a point of boasting, its a point of reality. God is writing your story for them to read. Showing you care about them where they are, who they are, and what they are means you’re willing to be MORE than a friend; you’re willing to be an adult in their life that isn’t going anywhere.