It was front-page news on a recent issue of USA Today. The headline read “Obituary Takes a Turn,” and that was enough to lure me into the article. The story was about 80-year-old Kathleen Dehmlow, whose obituary started with the standard stuff—date of birth, husband’s name, children, and so on. But then, around sentence four, the summation of Kathleen’s life story took what the writer called a “cringe-worthy turn.”
It read: “She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay, who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Minn., Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.” It’s concluding two sentences were the final kick-in-the-pants: “She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face the judgment. She will not be missed by Gina or Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”
That’s a heart-stabbing assessment of a life that left brokenness and destruction in its wake. I texted the article to my sons, joking that I hope my obituary will turn out “a little better than this one.” But in light of this final gut-punch from the bitter children of a mother who was never really a mother, I’m reminded how profoundly accurate William James’ words are: “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will OUTLAST US.”
I don’t think it worked out too well for Kathleen Dehmlow.
But what about us? We’re important players in the game-changing world of youth ministry. Unlike poor old Kathleen, we still have daily opportunities to plant the seeds of our own epitaph in the lives of teenagers. What an incomparable (but costly) privilege that is. Against that backdrop, here are my all-time “top three truths about discipling today’s young people.” It’s too late for Kathleen, but not for us…
“We’re important players in the game-changing world of youth ministry. We still have daily opportunities to plant the seeds of our own epitaph in the lives of teenagers. What an incomparable (but costly) privilege that is.”Click to tweet
#1: He who spends the MOST TIME…WINS. Discipleship is a farce without life-on-life attention. Of course, you likely can’t spend personal time with every one of the students in your ministry. But you can create an effective small-group system that you prioritize every week. No one under your ministry umbrella should “fall between the relational cracks.” And remember, “time” does not always translate to long blocks or profound conversation. Short connection-points, given with consistency and punctuated with hyper-focused attention, always wins. It’s almost scary how little investment it takes before a teenager will say, “You’ve made a big difference in my life.”
#2: RIGHT CHOICES in discipleship will eventually bring RIGHT EMOTIONS. Do I always feel motivated to make a discipling investment—to give my time and heart away? Hardly. But I know that if I keep my focus on living out my true identity—“Jesus with skin on”—with a handful of kids (ungrateful as they often are), my emotions will eventually line up with my choices. Sadly, emotions are the new facts of the 21st century. But as leaders, we can’t fall into that deceptive trap. If I discipled according to what I “feel,” I would’ve quit youth ministry a hundred times over (or been sentenced to prison for attempted murder). But the great news is that, eventually, when I make enough right choices, my genuine love for my teenagers starts to magically grow.
#3: You’ll never DEEPLY UNDERSTAND today’s young people until you embrace their desperate need for FAMILY. You can be a “big brother” or “big sister” or un-official “spiritual mom or dad” to kids who are hungry for family. They want to feel like someone in leadership cares that they got cut from the football team or were dumped by their latest crush. And they need to believe that person isn’t quitting youth ministry next month.
Together, let’s partner with Jesus to write a better epitaph for our ministry life…
This article originally appeared in the recently released Special Discipleship Edition of Group Magazine. To request your free copy, click here.