T.J. was one of those kids every parent prayed for. At 16 years old, he was strong in his faith, passionate about the mission field, full of joy, and a real practical joker. T.J. was a student who had been at our church for years and was loved by many!
This past September, while on his way to church with friends, tragedy struck. Who would have thought that a car full of Christian teens would have ended up in a wreck, taking the life of T.J.? After receiving a call with the shocking news, I prayed for God to give me the wisdom to help T.J’s family, students and leaders navigate through this tragedy. Here is what I have been learning in the last few months.
1) Simply… be there. As much of a cliché as it might seem, just being there for his family and the students made all the difference. At the time of tragedy, people need love, comfort, and support. As youth workers, we don’t need to feel like we have all the answers or standard responses. Simply being there is the most significant ministry practice in times of tragedy.
2) Change your plans. With so many cut to the core by what had happened, my ministry team needed to create an environment where students could just process, hang out, and be heard. This included changing our message series for the next month to focus on the tragedy. We talked, we cried, we prayed, we laughed…we supported them (as they unknowingly supported me and my leaders too).
3) Ask questions, even the tough ones. To help students process the tragedy and make sense of it, I began asking the pertinent questions they were wrestling with. For three weeks I had question cards available for students to fill out. I discovered that even when we created an environment for students to easily ask tough questions, some students felt guilty for questioning what God might be doing. I found that students opened up more when I brought up the toughest questions myself… (It meant I had to pray and consider the answers fully too). In addition to providing discerning answers, this also shaped the teaching and application times.
4) It’s alright to admit you don’t have an answer. I had heard this before, but never had so many instances where I had to ask a student to give me some time to find a solid answer for him. However, I found it was better to pray and take time to form a conclusive biblical answer, rather that give a shallow cliché.
5) Think Long Term. It’s only been a few months since T.J. died. However, a good mentor reminded me that while we adults might accept the reality quicker, T.J.’s family and many of the students will be struggling through their loss for many months (and years) to come. It’s important to follow up, and to continue to pray for and acknowledge their loss.
Despite the tragedy, it has been refreshing to see God work powerfully through T.J.’s family and the students in my ministry. I’ve never seen such a thirst and hunger to know Jesus and serve others. T.J.’s love of God and love for missions is a legacy and a catalyst for countless students!