When youth ministry meets real life – an excerpt from Rebooted

The following is a small excerpt from my book, Rebooted, which was released a week ago. This is the section – which comes from Chapter 5: ‘Youth work through the Prophets’ – that was read by my wife, Katie, at the official launch. Hope you find it helpful!

Youth work is not always pretty, it doesn’t always follow the rules, it doesn’t always show up on time, and it doesn’t always play fair.

I remember getting a phone call at 6am from a local school in London to explain that a very popular sixteen-year-old boy had tragically lost his life in the night. He had been out with some friends, came home late, and – complicated by an undiagnosed heart problem – choked on his own vomit in his sleep. I was asked to attend a memorial assembly that very morning, then asked if I would stay behind afterwards to ‘counsel’ some of his friends.

I got up, donned my suit, and headed through the morning London traffic. The assembly was heart-breaking. Two thousand students, many openly weeping, a confused and unsure shell of a head teacher trying desperately to find words of comfort, and the boy’s parents, fresh from the hospital on the front row in each other’s arms. It got very real very fast. This was nothing however, compared to what came next.

Myself, a local church minister, and a school councillor were taken to a small temporary classroom outside the main hall. This had been set apart for any young person or teacher that wanted time to reflect, or someone to talk to. Students were also told that it was ok to write some messages or stories on the walls inside if that would help them.

Over the next couple of hours, we saw hundreds of students come through that building, almost all of whom left a message. By the afternoon every piece of wall, inside and outside, the carpet, the tables, the chairs, and the ceiling were covered (and I mean covered) by writing:

 

There were funny stories of times when friends had gone out and done stupid things together.

There were shared dreams and aspirations of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

There were heart-wrenching, deepest apologies – the guilt of which you cannot imagine.

 

Myself and the other two counsellors walked around like lost sheep. We tried, very carefully, to talk to some of the young people; but that’s really not what they wanted. I shared a hug with a young lad I knew from my youth club at the time, tears lining his face. I had no idea what to say and no idea what to do.

You learn about these times in college and through books, but nothing prepared me for it. I remember tangibly thinking, God please help me take my youth ministry more seriously.

Of course, this is not youth work going wrong, this is youth work working! This is youth ministry at its most pertinent. The creativity of the school gave the young people an uncommonly valuable way of moving thorough their pain as a community. It was amazing. I was there, at best, to facilitate the safety of the activities and the tone of the room. God was obviously, however, in their midst.

Youth ministry is, of course, not all lock-ins, nerf wars, and happy teenagers ‘getting saved’. There are times when real life just happens; the question is whether we have created a youth ministry context where real life is welcomed, and projects that embrace the fullness of this life – even when it ‘goes wrong.’

When the rubber meets the road and things get real, the question left on the table is ‘have I built a youth ministry that can weather this’?’ Or – even better – ‘have I developed young people who thrive in the midst of suffering?’

Life, ministry, and certainly youth work, can get very messy.

 

The Book of Daniel

I – according to my entire team – have a serious defect: I do not like Disney films.

This isn’t entirely true. I still have a soft spot for The Lion King, I don’t mind the new Star Wars, and I could quote Cool Runnings all day long. However, I cannot make it through almost any other Disney film – especially the ones with cartoon animals that wear hats, but not pants! My problem comes down to formula – I think they are all basically the same. This is probably where I lose some of you. Thanks for reading this far!

Each film starts off with a happy situation. Good friends, cosy family, feel-good music and glitter everywhere. Then ‘the thing’ happens. The thing could be anything that introduces a tragic separation into the film (usually the death of a parent): Mufasa is killed by Scar, Bambi’s mum meets the hunter, Dumbo is separated from his mum by the circus… after being rocked like a baby in tears through the bars of a cage, Nemo’s mum and unborn siblings are eaten by a freakish barracuda, Tarzan loses his parents, Chance, Shadow and Sassy get lost in the middle of nowhere, Cinderella is emotionally abused by her sisters, Bell gets kidnapped, Andy gives away his toys, and that whole opening scene from Up!

Once the thing happens, and all the watching children are traumatised for life, there is usually a ‘thrown far from home’ bit. This is then followed by an ‘amazing journey’ bit, a rapid race through the five stages of grief while ‘accompanied by new streetwise friends who you first thought were jerks’ bit (think Timone and Pumba, Buzz Lightyear, sassy candlesticks, a load of kitchen utensils, or a boy scout and demented Labrador). Eventually they find their way ‘back home’ and ‘find themselves’ in some existential way in the process. The evil protagonists die in a brutal way (they usually fall to their doom), and everyone lives happily ever after. The prophecies are fulfilled, the world is saved, there is sometimes ice cream or toast, and so on. Disney in a nutshell. I thank you.

Interestingly, that however, is also really the story of Daniel. A young lad, happy in the promised land, then the thing happens – which is the Babylonian conquest. He is dragged far from home, meets a ragtag group of friends, finds his way, and helps a king (somewhat) connect with God and (kinda) lives happily ever after. If I could sum up the story of Daniel in one line it would be: Trust in God, because everything else is a nightmare!

It’s likely that Daniel (alongside Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) were teenagers because they were taken from Judah and trained to serve in the king of Babylon’s court (Dan. 1:4-6). They were also specifically called ‘young men’ in v.4.

The fascinating thing we see in these young companions, and especially Daniel, is their immense faith, and connectedness to God’s Word in the middle of a destitute world of sin and godlessness. They would not ‘defile’ themselves with food God had forbidden (1:8), they were divinely given all kinds of knowledge by God (1:17), including the prophetic gift of dream interpretation. They are also kept safe from a fiery furnace (3:6-28) and a lions’ den (6:10-23).

Throughout this whole story Daniel is able to worship his God, speak his word, and challenge the King of Babylon to do the same. Incredible!

Daniel trusted in God, and God raised him up to both speak truth and remain pure Babylon, which probably still rates among the worst cultural environments of all time. Babylon is the metaphor God uses for the Godless world that would be cast into the sea in Revelation 18:21. Young people are immensely resilient, especially when they have a firm foundation of faith and conviction.

We need to do all we can to help young people to thrive under pressure by standing them firmly upon their faith in God. We cannot teach purity, holiness, spiritual disciplines or even a passion for evangelism legalistically or abstractly. We need to continually point them back to God in the midst of tragedy, struggle and grief. We need to help them find God in the midst of pants situations. This is to objectively ‘speak God’ into where He might otherwise have been missed in the middle of the mess. Then they will be equipped in faith to thrive supernaturally.

 

What about you?

What do you do to help your young people thrive supernaturally? Does this only work in good times, or do you point to it in the worst times too?

 

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