When you signed on as a youth minister, you placed yourself in the path of crises—both small and daunting. It’s all part of the deal. In fact, most of the best impact you’ll have in youth work will happen during crisis situations. That’s when kids need a prepared, focused, engaged, and loving ally. That’s when they’re powerfully open to God’s healing surgery.
When tragedy stalks your church or community, how can you be sure your kids—and you—will be ready?
The first thing he did was put his hand on the glass…. He was starving for relationship and still is.
Can God trust us with hurting kids? Sometimes I think hurting kids are not brought into certain folds because the Lord knows they may not be cared for there.
Many times teens and adults do not minister because they do not feel equipped to minister; they need truth.
How can we be prepared for needs we don’t even know about…for something that’s going to happen three years from now?
Chris Perry is at the eye of a terrifying hurricane called the Jonesboro massacre. That’s because Mitchell Johnson, the oldest of two middle schoolers who allegedly shot and killed four classmates and a teacher in late March, is a member of his youth group.
Perry is a 15-year veteran youth minister who’s grappling with a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy in his community. He’s essentially the only minister allowed to have contact with 13-year-old Mitchell, who professed his faith in Christ at a church revival last September. He must also lead his kids, many of whom lost friends in the massacre, through the dark alleys of doubt, grief, and fear. One of those kids, Mitchell’s younger brother Monte, is afraid he’ll always be branded “a murderer’s brother” and is mourning the death of a good friend, one of Mitchell’s alleged victims.
What would you do if you were in Perry’s shoes? Are you the kind of youth minister struggling kids and adults would turn to in a crisis? Is your ministry strong enough to weather the shock waves of a tragedy?
Not long after the shootings, Perry contacted us seeking help with counseling resources and ministry support. We sent him a box-full of programming ideas and counseling contacts. We prayed for Perry to have wisdom and courage. Then we asked him to reflect on what he’s learned in the midst of this crisis, and what it takes to have a ministry that reveals the light when all that surrounds you is darkness.
GROUP: What’s your connection to the kids involved in this shooting, and what’s happened in your group since the day of the murders?
PERRY: We have several church members who serve as teachers at Westside Middle School—where the shootings took place. The brother of a boy in our youth group walked Paige Ann Herring out of the school, where she was shot. We have in our group about a dozen Westside students. In addition, in the fall of 1997, Mitchell and his little brother Monte were saved during a revival at our church. At least, they went through the religious motions. That’s something only the Lord can determine.
I’ve spoken with Mitchell—they allowed me to see him at the jail, through glass. The first thing he did was put his hand on the glass. He wanted me to put my hand over his. He was starving for relationship and still is.
GROUP: Do you know him well?
PERRY: I wouldn’t say “well,” but I had a ministry started with him.
GROUP: How did that conversation go? What did you come away thinking?
PERRY: He’s very, very lonely. As you well know, young adolescents are such social creatures, and he’s been denied social contact. Rightfully so, but it’s still deeply disturbing to him. He has a lot of confusion. He’s been very much protected from the media. Things that you and I are frustrated hearing over and over, he has not heard at all. He did hear the 20/20 episode about the molestation issue [Note: 20/20 reporter Barbara Walters interviewed Mitchell’s father and lawyer, who said that Mitchell had revealed for the first time that he’d been the victim of sexual abuse as a child.
Afterward, I was thinking that there are moments when you think all you’re doing is for naught. Then you have other moments when heaven seems somehow quieted, and you sense angels are watching.
GROUP: Where every word is valuable...
PERRY: Yeah, and hearts are all synchronized—students are feeling, "This is real, there’s power here." We had one of those moments the Wednesday night after the shooting. Monte [Johnson] came to our Wednesday night program with his biological father Scott. Basically what I did was open it up to sharing. I chose not to call on Monte until the tone was set for the evening. I didn’t want him to open himself too soon; I wanted to protect him.
At 8 p.m. I asked Monte how he was doing. He struggled to communicate. He shared that he was so lonely. He felt that he was going to be branded and penalized for what his brother had done. Plus he lost a friend—one of the girls who died. To have a brother who killed your friend…He was scared to go back to school, [scared] of rejection, and of the stigma and shame of knowing that your brother is a murderer.
At that moment, I asked our youth group, “Can Monte find friendship here?” And there was a roar of applause. As we were ending the meeting—I don’t know how many students, maybe 80 of them—literally surrounded Monte and his dad and hugged him and encouraged him.
What I saw was the youth group acting as a safety net. That means two things: (1) If hurting teenagers come to our group, can they fall into our safety net—our ministry? and, (2) Can God trust us with hurting kids? Sometimes I think hurting kids are not brought into certain folds because the Lord knows they may not be cared for there. I’ve been fertilizing and watering the “safety net” concept for a couple of years now. I saw it take on flesh and bone that Wednesday night. It was one of those mental snapshots I’ll have forever.
GROUP: In what other ways are your kids responding?
PERRY: I’ve seen them grow more sensitive to the needs of people around them. And I’ve responded by talking about the idea of “a spiritual immunity system.” The concept there is that you and I both have bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells in our bodies. And you and I do not get sick because our immune systems are able to identify what is unhealthy and then overcome that with healthy cells. Based on that, I began to create an idea of how Christian teenagers are supposed to function as an immunity system on their school campuses.
In other words, Mitchell gave some warning signs that something bad was going to happen. I’ve tried to lead our students into what it means to be discerning in terms of immunity and protection. Our group is now realizing, in light of what happened at Westside, that they need to tangibly express their Christian faith by being safety nets and immune systems.
GROUP: Give me an idea of how you build in kids a “spiritual immunity system.” When a situation like this happens, how do you know kids have whatever they need to respond as Christ would?
PERRY: First, we must develop an awareness of the critical needs of teenagers’ faith in the context of their normal everyday struggles—in order to preclude major problems. I’m working to develop in our young people “Matthew 9 eyes”—eyes full of compassion.
GROUP: What goes into developing “eyes full of compassion”?
PERRY: Our kids are seeing the raw and painful reality of a crisis. Remember the centurion who was before the cross? He was Roman, so he spoke Greek. When Jesus cried out his last words on the cross, they were all Aramaic. When he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” he said it in a language that the centurion did not know. But the centurion said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” He knew this just by the way Jesus died. So there are moments when we look at the raw reality of pain and crisis, and somehow truth is quickened within us.
GROUP: It sounds as though you’re saying to not over-spiritualize those moments, but to take in what they really are.
PERRY: It means having compassion eyes when you are in the crisis. Jesus made it clear that truth is what sets us free. Students need us to give them truth. Many times teens and adults do not minister because they do not feel equipped to minister; they need truth.
GROUP: Give me an example of how your kids have used truth in their response to this crisis.
PERRY: When they surrounded Monte that Wednesday night, they were acting out 1 John 4:16-17, “God is love….As he is, so are we in this world.” They were doing what Jesus would do. I was talking to one of our high schoolers when she said, “I’ve got 28 days left—what a downer way to end my high school experience.” I said, “You can look at it that way, or you can say, ‘I have 28 days to change the world.’ ” I think that helped her get a grip on things, to take charge of the Christian club she leads at school.
There’s been a theological crisis coming out of this: If God is big and loving and powerful, then why would he let this happen? Is this fodder for atheists or is this an opportunity for us to understand God?
GROUP: That’s a tremendous and very real theological issue—it’s really asking, “Do I understand who God is and how the world works?” How are you seeing kids deal with this?
PERRY: I saw a lot of confusion when I was counseling kids at Westside after the shootings—teachers and parents were dealing with that as well. I remember Pam Carlisle, a teacher who was walking out with Paige Ann Herring when Paige was killed, said, “Chris, when I heard the fire alarm why didn’t I have some intuitive, gut feeling?” So she was dealing with the guilt. Why didn’t she have a supernatural radar with God?
So the first thing we’ve done with kids is to give them space to talk about their doubts and questions about God. It’s almost as if you shouldn’t talk bad about God. He’s God…you don’t question God. What we’ve done is really to foster open dialogue, and we’ve addressed our feelings about God. We’ve really hit it face on: “Who pulled the trigger? Did God pull the trigger?” And the answers have been, “Absolutely no.”
At that moment, truth sets them free and we can begin to develop some tenets of Christianity—for example, God is love. Christ is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3). Christ wasn’t negligent during crises, so therefore we know God can’t be. Another counterbalance is the human volition that God gave man—Adam and Eve. God gives people the choice to make decisions that bring blessing or cursing.
GROUP: You’ve given me the first part of your framework for talking about the immunization idea. Could you give me the rest of that framework?
PERRY: Well, the next thing is vision casting. I feel that teenagers need to know that they can make a difference. It’s asking kids, “Can Monte come here and be influenced; can we make a difference in his life? Can his life be redirected in such a way that honors God and actually brings about what is good upon the earth?” It’s a turning—the idea of Genesis 50:20: What Satan meant for evil, God meant for good.
Another thing I’ve done through the years is try to redefine leadership. Often the leadership base of a group is made up of those who are good-looking, popular, talented, and athletic. I move quickly to try to correct that misconception.
I define leadership as those who are willing to set the example first—the first one to set the example of Christ. I try to establish a proper understanding of leadership, and from that I appeal to the leadership core to be effective on campus.
We have a boy named Nathan Brown who’s started a Christian club at his school and is doing really well. He’s mentoring some younger students. He’s going to pass the baton to them. Nathan is a leader, in the 9th grade, and has been a leader for two years. Adam Argo led a boy to Christ recently and is pumped about it. Adam is in 7th grade.
Sometimes we’re too busy to be on campus. But in God’s network of things, he knows when the crisis is coming. So one way we can be practically prepared to handle crisis-level ministry is that we are a familiar friend, not a stranger.
I ask a pretty direct question: “If you walked into a crisis ministry opportunity, would you be viewed as a stranger or a familiar friend?” I think that is extremely crucial for youth pastors.
If we walk up to a student or a teacher and say, “Hi, my name is John Doe, and I care and am here to help,” it’s too late. You’ve missed the ministry. Rather, it should be, “Hey, man, it’s me. Are you doing okay? Let’s go talk.” There’s a radical difference. In very practical terms, we need to be Christ incarnate in the ministry areas that the Lord’s given us, including with teachers and administrators.
GROUP: How do you personally deal with these issues so you can lead your kids?
PERRY: Matthew 9 has really helped a lot, more than ever. In the story, Christ has been going from village to village teaching. And then it says that he had compassion on the people; he saw them as sheep and himself as a shepherd. The Greek words are very powerful. Sheep cannot get up if they’re on their backs. The imagery is one of tremendous desperation.
This has renewed in me a sense of obligation, a sense of calling, and a very scary word called responsibility. How influential will we be in righting sheep who are harassed, who are being fired upon? How effective will we be as safety nets? How can we be the kinds of people God can use to help an unnamed kid if he fell into our arms? How could we be the kind of people that would somehow help him turn away from a decision that might cost someone’s life? How can we be prepared for needs we don’t even know about…for something that’s going to happen three years from now?
It’s the whole issue of seeking to see people the way Jesus sees people. And that teens are not people to be frustrated over, or to ignore, or tolerate, or somehow manage. But these are real lives—lives that can end quickly.
GROUP: It sounds like your calling as a shepherd has been seared into your consciousness during this time.
PERRY: Very much. It’s been a renewing, a sharpening of the focus on the legitimacy, urgency, and relevancy of this whole thing called youth ministry.
GROUP: We have an urgent need to know that something good came out of this before we’ve really dealt with our doubts and fears. How have you walked that line?
PERRY: Let me give my philosophy of youth ministry: Often the greatest teaching experiences do not take place during the hour in which I speak. They take place in the corridors, the campuses, the homes. When parents are fighting. Or when there’s stress on a school bus. Or when you’re watching a movie with your friends.
The times I’ve tended to learn the most about life and my walk with Christ normally do not occur during a sermon. So we must have patience that students are in process and that a lot of lessons in life come slowly. Our task is to give them truth in relevant terms that they can write on their hearts, hide in their hearts. As the Lord is taking them through life’s experiences, those truths become alive and relevant and meaningful.
GROUP: From your observations during the past several weeks, what is it that allows those truths to become anchored in kids’ hearts?
PERRY: When we experience real Christianity, it’s not always in the confines of our religious programming. Although God uses those things, they’re actually only a part of a much larger picture.
The question is not only, “What is Chris Perry doing to make these things come to life in their hearts?” It’s what is the Holy Spirit doing? The Holy Spirit is the resident teacher, bringing to remembrance what Christ has taught us, convicting us of sin and the judgment of righteousness. He causes all things to work together for good.
And interfacing with that—we should be as he is in the world, to follow in his steps. We present truth and seek to model it, and what it means to be a safety net. We don’t shake our fist at God foolishly, and we’re willing to be both a Job and a Joseph. Modeling and simply spending time with people are the tools that the Lord uses to quicken truth and quicken maturity—that thing that we call discipleship, when the human soul grows spiritually.
GROUP: You’re walking a path that’s familiar to most youth ministers. They have crisis situations that come up. But the attention that this has garnered puts you in an unusual place. I’m wondering, from that perspective, what advice would you give your peers?
PERRY: I would say begin a mentoring and teaching ministry with your adult leadership. Get them ready for crisis-level ministry. And as a part of that, your workers should know how to handle trauma.
GROUP: How would you help them prepare for that?
PERRY: Two things: There are great printed resources. Secondly, the Red Cross provides a trauma counseling program certification, similar to CPR certification. We need to train our leadership core to handle trauma.
I think our youth ministries can sometimes have a very narrow vision—the vision can tend to be inside the Sunday school walls as opposed to the idea that we are to walk among the people. An incarnational perspective is crucial. In our situation, I’ve witnessed people coming up who are total strangers, trying to capitalize on the moment.
I think of another moment when I was going, “God, thank you, thank you, thank you.” One of the ladies at the school said, “Chris, I appreciate you so much. Every time there’s something going on, you’re always there.” That went so deep in me because sometimes you wonder, “I’m 37 and I’m going to hang out with 13-year-olds again? Come on Lord, give me some grace here.” There’s a price tag on going to the campus or the cafeteria again. Yet when she said that, that was the payoff. It reinforced the idea that when crisis-level ministry comes, will you be greeted as a stranger or a familiar friend?
GROUP: It strikes me as you say this—all that you’ve become, all that you were as a child and a young adult, all that you’ve encountered as an adult has been artfully fashioned so that in this moment, you’re a person who belongs where you are.
PERRY: Yes. That’s Romans 8:28 paraphrased. God is beautifully and poetically working out our lives. And if we will cooperate with him, we can be there and ready for when those moments come—to be what he’s called us to be.