After walking into the room full of teenagers, I was immediately overwhelmed by the chaos. Teenagers were chasing each other around the room, items were being flung in the air, and the noise was deafening. Before I even had a chance to assess the situation, a fight broke out. Angry voices flared, and fists were coiled. This was my first day in inner-city youth ministry.
After that out-of-control evening, I vowed to impose order. Soon I established a consistent set of standards, and my team started holding teenagers accountable. It took a while, but as we raised and clarified expectations, youth group looked less like a scene from Fight Club and more like…youth group. My team loved the control; I loved the order—honestly, maybe a little too much.
One day I realized we’d become so focused on (and good at) modifying teenagers’ behavior that we were missing opportunities to transform their worldviews. Our systems of keeping everyone in check had produced the desired result: Kids knew how to act. Unfortunately, their hearts weren’t any closer to Jesus.
I wish I could say that was the last time I focused more on behavior than the heart. It was never intentional, but often my desire for “good-looking” ministry trumped the mess that often comes when people wrestle with their faith.
Discipline is good, but like the Pharisees we can become so focused on order that we miss the Messiah.Click to tweet
Take time to regularly evaluate these ministry areas to locate your focus:
- Programming—When students know what will happen week in and out, it’s easier to be timely and orderly. Kids come in, play a game, listen to a lesson, worship, and then form small groups. Nothing’s wrong with that. But sometimes a program just doesn’t work. A game flops, the songs fall flat, and everyone’s just staring at you during the lesson. In the name of consistency, I used to muddle through, even on the bad nights. But then a mentor advised, “Plan well and then allow the Holy Spirit the freedom to change your plan.” When something isn’t working well, use discernment about making changes and allow Jesus to move differently.
- Bible reading and prayer—The two most basic ways of connecting with Jesus are reading Scripture and conversing with him. If I want to get to know Jesus and allow him to know my heart, I need to spend time with him. But my youth group kids started seeing that as simply something you do to be part of youth group or church. A small-group leader told my own 15-year-old that the “formula to hear God” was being in her Bible more and praying. Lately she’s been struggling with God’s silence and can’t figure out why her formula isn’t working. It’s so easy to read Scripture and throw out a prayer in an effort to do what’s right; however, the bigger challenge lies in maintaining a heart that longs to be closer to Jesus and therefore seeks him. The small-group leader meant well, but no formula exists. We must inspire students to draw near to Jesus and let him draw near to them, not just read the Bible because it’s part of being together.
- Acting “right”—This is tough. Many Scripture passages reveal that the “fruit” we bear comes from the heart. In other words, the more we know Jesus, the more our actions and desires to do what we want to do should diminish. Yet telling teenagers, “Don’t wear that, watch that, listen to that, Christians don’t do that” is much easier than saying, “Let’s talk about why you’re doing this and why you like it.” Although the Bible addresses do’s and don’ts in many areas, God leaves lots of decisions to us. As we help teenagers navigate how to live for Jesus, let’s not reduce it to a checklist.
Order and discipline aren’t wrong. In fact, one of my favorite Bible passages is 1 Corinthians 14:33, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.” This is actually referencing order in corporate worship. However, if we focus so much on keeping things going well, we just might miss the moments when Jesus comes to change a life. These are almost always messy.