Messy—that’s my summary of serving Jesus these days. It’s not the neat, ordered spiritual world I wish I could make it—that would be easier. The truth is that the work of God is messy and youth ministry is messy. It’s not just messy because the games involve copious amounts of Cheetos® and shaving cream. It’s messy because God’s love for people goes beyond the normal, safe, sterile, perfect little box we sometimes secretly wish was the work of God.
A quick skim of the Old and New Testaments immediately lets readers know that to work with people in this world means to get your hands dirty with divorce, rape, falsehood, addiction, adultery, betrayal, and a whole other list of things we’d rather not put on our next youth ministry brochure. So, if you want to get messy with Jesus, here are four ways to dive in:
- DIG UP THE REAL QUESTIONS. Do a survey asking students to express their doubts. Send around a list of questions you think they might have and ask them to check off the ones they care about. Declare a Holy Day where no question is a bad question and no question is off-limits. Maybe they don’t know what to believe about the Bible, Jesus, homosexuality, marriage, abortion, war, money, the planet, the future, heaven, hell—or who knows? But the truth is they have questions. If we’re not hearing students ask them, then it’s time to go digging. They are out there and if they don’t start asking questions now in your group, they will ask them on Myspace and in the hallways at school instead.
- TEACH ON UNCOMFORTABLE TOPICS. Once you hear the questions, don’t hide them, teach on them. We know Oprah, Bono, their history teacher, and their peers will teach them all day long. So give space for students to explore uncomfortable topics in small groups and to hear you share from Scripture on these subjects. Bring these topics up in a one-on-one conversation over a burrito after school. However God leads you, love students enough not to avoid the hard stuff.
- HELP PEOPLE THAT MAKE YOUR LIFE HARDER. I recently dived head first into this by taking into our home a trouble teen who used to be in my small group. He graduated and was kicked out of his home and . . . well, it’s a long story. And it’s messy. What I’ve done is not for everyone or the only way. But there’s no avoiding the fact that loving the hurting in the world will cost each of us lots of time, prayer, energy, money, and mentoring on a scale that surely would make our lives easier if we ignored the problems of others. So I dare you to let the problems of a student or two mess up your life and make it harder. And when they do, lean hard on Jesus.
- LISTEN TO OR READ THOSE WHO DISAGREE WITH YOU. They are not hard to find. Search engines will provide millions of hits for you to explore. Simply go to YouTube or Google and search for “Why I don’t like Jesus or the Bible or Christianity.” Hold on, because it’s not neat and pretty. If you haven’t let someone mess you up recently, it’s time to read a critic or two and wrestle through why you agree or disagree as you follow the Holy Spirit’s lead in your life.
YOUTH MINISTRY SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Be warned! People who want the church to be a safe, healthy, perfect place for their kid to be guarded from the influences of the world will not like this messiness. So use some wisdom in doing this. Some of you can dive right in. Some of you will have some prep work to do—a lot of prep work! I’ll be praying and messing up my life and ministry for Jesus with you.