standing firm: young ministers speak out about serving in traditional ministries, vol. 1
when i opened gmail today i was surprised to find several intriguing responses to the question i posed in the previous post. the first response is from wes wilson my: good friend, Bible college roommate and former sacker at albertson's. i hope you enjoy the post. feel free to either respond below or send me a post of your own.
Just two weeks after turning down the US Army halfway through my senior year of high school (back in '96), I found myself being drawn to recent conversations with a person who had been a friend and advisor throughout this whole teenage-adventure-seeking process of joining the military. We had lots of conversations about faith, about ministry, about the confusions of following Christ, and about the ways God works through our lives. He was the youth minister from my home church, a guy who I had found a lot of trust in, even though his personality sometimes was a little "rough around the edges." He mentioned that I should look into one year of Bible college. So I did. Six months later, I went up with a fellow friend and sojourner in the faith from my hometown and we became roommates. The rest is mainly history. I stayed for the entire educational duration, receiving my degree in youth ministry.
Finding myself in various volunteering and part-time youth ministry positions throughout college, I began to seriously wonder if I had made the right decision of devoting my life to youth ministry. Most of those were decent experiences, at best. Most of the time, they were more frustrating and brutally real, dealing with the struggles of extremely distraught youth who lived with parents and families who could care less about them. But nonetheless, I wanted to complete my commitment, and so I did. Three years of being a student ministry intern in New England and one year of searching for the best circumstances for a longterm ministry led me to the position I currently serve within. I've been in this student ministry for just over three years now. Not a day goes by where I wonder if I can minister to teenagers outside the structure and parameters of the traditional church. So, the question arises, "Why do I continue to do my ministry within a traditional church?"
To be quite honest, this question leads me to another more ministry specific question, "Is there any other way for me to fully and openly dive into the lives of teenagers and lead them down the road of discipleship?" Each time I think about this, I almost always say "No." I've thought long and hard about starting a community of teenagers that is all inclusive and leads them into a journey of encountering Christ. But to do that, I need help. Help comes best from adults who have been and are going through the same journey. Sometimes, the tradtional church setting offers some of the most amazing adult volunteers this side of heaven. Also, reaching out and ministering effectively to teenagers requires a decent amount of bling. Believe me when I say I've thought and have even scratched the surface by pursuing other vocations that allow me full-time influence and time spent with teenagers - i.e. teaching, school administration, counseling, etc. But when I look at those, I truly wonder if I would be as happy there as I am with the situation I'm in.
As I say that, I definitely have my moments of total frustration and even bitterness. Working for a church under the title of "Youth Minister" or "Student Minister" is perhaps one of the most frustrating positions ever created. I say that because everyone tends to think in one way or another that they are your boss. Parents are the culmination of this and sometimes, it's enough for me to just say, "Screw it all." Not all parents are like this, but for the most part if they feel their kids aren't being "entertained for Jesus" then I must be a complete idiot and I know nothing. So, I spend a decent amount of my time in conversations, phone calls, emails, meetings, etc. saying that ministry to students is about relationships, not entertainment. I know, relationships is a major ministry buzzword. But I will say, it's what draws students to a deeper level of faith. If you want entertainment, hire a clown or a MTV v.j. if that's what you want. I do some events of high entertainment elements, and it's definitely a lot of fun and well worth the money that it takes. But those events are just one aspect of how I try to approach a fully authentic and committed ministry to teenage students.
On a personal level, I have an extremely hard time dealing with the structures of traditional church. It's pretty safe for me to say that if I wasn't in student ministry, there's no way I could work for a traditional church. For the most part, it is a necessary evil I put up with because I am passionate about ministry to teenagers. The discussions about contempory worship vs. traditional/blended worship, building issues and policies, capital campaigns, attendance, bulletin layouts, newsletter articles, and debates upon debates about stuff like whether or not women can serve communion and how words like "liberal" are evil and how God has ordained the U.S. as the official Kingdom of God on earth. It all just drives me crazy sometimes. Not to mention both the spoken and unspoken competition that comes with established congregations: "We need to do ministry better than XYZ Church down the road." Or, "Isn't that the Jones family from XYZ Church? We must be doing things right, glad they left there to come here." What's really fun is dealing with parents who think a person in my position is ungodly if he listens to other music besides Christian stuff, and enjoys non-Christian music probably more than most Christian music. Or if he owns R rated movies. Heaven forbid if I take pleasure in the great tastes of some very carefully brewed and world renowned beer. But not all parents are like that, and even though some think they are my bosses, I know whom I answer to both in heavean and on earth, and so I feel quite at ease with the blend of my life and ministry.
So, after a really long look at some of my current and re-occuring thoughts as to why I stay in the traditional church setting, I come back to a dream I have. It's a dream where I truly believe one day, in the very presence of God and his saints, I will hear him and others say to me, "It was worth it, wasn't it Wes... it was totally worth it." To that truth alone, it is all totally worth it. It's also worth it when:
- you take students on a mission trip and they see how good we all have it and they begin to break down the barriers of relationship contstraints they have with one another.
- you get to show students how Christ cares, that he's not about our pious rules of Do this and Don't do that. You get to show them that he doesn't stand eons away, looking down at us. He is the incarnate God who walked and died and came back to life - to show us the way as he walked in our own shoes.
- you get to show students that following Christ is not about a set of "5 easy purposes" or showing up on Sunday just to go through the motions. It's a lifelong journey, one of ups and downs... one with hardly any easy answers where canned phrases serve no real purposes. It's a journey that he takes with us, walking with us step by every step.
- you get to show that faith in Christ has many different elements, and yes, doubt sometimes makes it way into our faith. But doubt is not necessarily a horrible thing. It's sometimes through doubt that I've been drawn closest to Christ.
- you get to show teenagers that following Christ is not all about Sunday attentance records with stickers and trophies for those who came 56 straight Sundays in a row. It's more about faithfulness in growing closer to God and to each other... it's about being ourselves, being real, and allowing God to be God in our own lives.
It's worth it in so many other ways too, but those are just to name only a few. Will I be in the full-time student ministry within a traditional church setting for my entire life? I really don't know and most of the time, I think not... but I've learned to never say never...just like I once said vehemently over and over again 4 years ago I would never do ministry in the midwest, and look where I am. Anyone who knows me knows that I desire to pursue various passions in other areas of ministry throughout my life, God willing. But for this indefinite period of my life, I will pursue my ministry within this setting. Will I ever one day say, "Screw it all" and just cash in my chips? It's definitely possible. But I truly hope that I persevere through those moments so that when I enter the presence of the Almighty, I hear him and his saints say, "It was worth it Wes... it was totally worth it."