Friday, August 16, 2013

The Joys & Tears of Youth Ministry

I remember it like a grainy film - that first night - like some tragic drama playing in painful slow motion.  Me, glued to the back floor of that room that helped to shape me through those years of molding up into the adult I'd become, eyes wide and terror gripped tight against my chest at the sight of all those crazy kids.  I was only a few years older but I felt our differences like a violent culture shock that spun me in a dizzying jet-lag and I knew I couldn't do it.  I knew I couldn't relate.  I knew I couldn't make a difference.

I wanted to sink.  I didn't know how to be relevant.  I didn't understand how my presence could minister.  I felt angry with the youth pastor who had approached me - a young, brand new mom - and tricked me into agreeing to this nightmare.  I felt stupid and uncomfortable and peripheral.

I went home that night and cried, giant tears of 'not good enough' and 'I have nothing to give'.  I wanted to quit.

"You're not a quitter!" my husband reminded me.  And I wasn't.  But I had this idea that I needed to be exactly what my old youth leader had been: loud, charismatic, bubbling up with scriptures appropriate to every single situation that presented itself.  That wasn't who I was nor could I ever force myself to be that.  What then, was my calling?

And then, as I battened down the hatches of my self-deprecation it occurred to me in some obscure light-bulb kind of moment:  I didn't have to be relevant.  I only had to be real.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Isaiah 40:29

I faced my second Friday night with lighter shoulders and a determination that helped me find my footing on the slippery slope of teenager chaos.  And I found myself smiling.  I realized there was joy in letting go of my own fears.  It become startlingly clear that all I needed to do was LOVE.  And by loving on these kids I was ministering into their lives in ways much deeper than I ever could with words.

And then, as weeks turned into months turned into years, something incredible happened - I was the one being blessed.  These kids had turned my ministry of love back on me and I soaked it up like a thirsty sponge.

This is the reason behind it all: to see the love of Christ reflected in the eyes and hearts of kids once thought too broken or worldly to change.  To see that love reaching out into a community darkened by a fallen world.  To watch your own heart soften to their hardness.  To watch that hardness dissolve.  To claim victory when a soul is won.  To celebrate together.  To cry together.  To see God's hand in the little things.  What could ever be more rewarding?

There have been many favorite moments - memories that capture the essence of what this ministry means - but there is one, for me, that is set apart.  So simple, yet so drenched in the selfless purpose of what it all boils down to...

T-shirts are thrown from the main stage to promote the merchandise tent.  There's a dive for it - like single girls going after a wedding bouquet.  Five guys and a boy about eight. The little boy gets knocked around and one of our youth wins the fight over the shirt. The boy goes back to his mother, crying, hurt and disappointed.  He sits in his chair, tears on his cheek, arms crossed, shoulders shaking.  When our guys realize he's hurt they take the t-shirt and give it to the little boy.  He refuses to look at them, taking the shirt without raising his eyes, his mother saying thank you for him.  The shake of his shoulders stills. He unfolds the shirt carefully, checking out his prize, tracing the design with a finger.  A small smile starts to spread across his face.  He hugs his mother.  And I'm fighting back tears like a blubbering idiot and am so ridiculously proud of our guys that I want to hug them...for giving up the shirt they got grass-stains on their own by fighting over.
                                                                                                                           
(This story was first shared here.)

There are moments that stretch you beyond what you thought you could bear.  There are days that leave you feeling breathless - like you could never go on.  There are words spoken that break you.  But never has there been a moment when I felt regret for the time I gave to this ministry.  Never (since that first night) did I think it was all for not.  It has made me better.  It has taught me patience, faith, grace.  It has taught me to love without limits.  How could you not want a piece of that?

And now there is a call.  Will you step beyond your boundaries?  Immerse yourself in something that, like it did me, scares you to death?  Will you give of yourself - even if it hurts?  Will you be Jesus to a youth?

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.  Deuteronomy 31:8

  Alanna Rusnak shares her life with her husband, three children, and a cat she's trying hard not to love.  She has attended HMC for her entire life and been on staff since 2003, currently fulfilling the role of Creative Communications.  You can find her over at her own blog, SelfBinding Retrospect.

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