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I frequently tell students in my sermons that there’s nothing they can tell me that will surprise me—I’ve heard it all and seen it all. I let them know that the adults in our youth ministry are here to help them break the pattern of bondage to sin and abuse. Or they can choose instead to follow their destructive patterns and have much longer roads to healing later in life.

Behavioral patterns are very predictable and are easily spotted by the person who understands what to look for. The statement “There’s nothing new under the sun” is as true today as it was when it was written thousands of years ago in Ecclesiastes 1:9 by Solomon. The root problems are the same even though the culture has completely changed.

The longer you’re in ministry, the more the patterns become apparent. I realize there are exceptions to everything, but unfortunately some issues are very predictable.

• The overachiever will eventually have a meltdown.

• The couple who’s a little too physical in public is probably going too far in private.

• The teenager whose home life is a wreck will seek out attention through behavior issues or relationships.

• The student who’s the butt of every joke will begin by laughing it off but eventually express a degree of cynicism and bitterness.

• The girl who obsesses over her weight is probably in the early stages of an eating disorder.

This may sound strange, but these patterns shouldn’t cause fear (sadness, yes, but not fear)—patterns can be a great help to you in ministry! When you recognize negative patterns, your experience can give you the confidence you need to engage students in difficult conversations about their behaviors.

When I tell my students that I recognize these patterns, it seems to have a freeing effect on them. The week after I preach on a difficult topic and tell students that they aren’t the only ones struggling with a problem, I get dozens of letters, phone calls, and emails from students confessing sin, reporting abuse, and asking for help. They say predictable things such as, “I’ve been hurting for so long and didn’t think I’d have anyone to tell or have anyone understand;” “I’ve felt trapped, but now I have hope;” and “Thank you for telling me that I’m not the only one struggling with this.”

My challenge to you is to pay attention to patterns, to learn to help students before they get hurt, and to offer unconditional love and assistance to those who need to find healing. As youth workers, one of our callings is to bring hope and healing to a lost world. Because of the incredible need, we must become intuitive about spotting destructive patterns. Students are waiting to be freed. If we don’t help them now, they’ll have much more to overcome later.

Doug Fields is the pastor to students at Saddleback Church in California. He’s the author of more than 30 books, including Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry and Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry (Zondervan), and president of www.simplyyouthministry.com

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