“Come-on Dad, listen to me!”
“I said, What Son!?”
“I don’t like this at all.”
“What don’t you like son?”
“I don’t like this new place?”
“Because these people just don’t get it.”
“What do you mean son?”
“They don’t like the way I do things?”
“Yes and they are mean!”
“Yes. Bobby B bit my boob, blew snot all over my new shirt and spit on one of my toys. Da Moose made me look like a fool and Randy threatened to sexually molest one of my good friends.”
“Wow son you must really have it bad.”
“You bet Dad. It stinks here!”
“But son didn’t you ask me to give you a place where you could help people?”
“I know Dad. But not these people. I want to use my way of helping people. They will never listen. They hate people who do things the way I like doing things.”
“Well son maybe you will have to change.”
“Me! You got to be kidding. They are the ones who need to change. I am doing things the way our family, your family, has been doing them for generations.”
“But maybe this time I can teach you a better way, son.”
“A better way! What do you mean Dad?”
“I want you to spend time with these people. I want you to spend time with them even though they have hurt you. I want you to get to know them and how they feel. I want you to do this even though they are far away from our family and me. You are going to go through a lot of pain over the next few years. It’s ok. I’m here with you. I will help you turn that pain into a real change in your life. Along the way you will be able to help these new people. You will especially help the ones you don’t understand and want to be the furthest from. I will teach you to love them. I will teach you how to bring them into our family.”
“Bring them into our family! You got to be kidding Dad! One of them, Stan really stinks—I mean he has bad body odor. I almost want to throw up every time he comes close to me. “
“Son, listen to me. You used to stink just like that to me. You know I have very sensitive nostrils. I didn’t let that stop me from bringing you into my family. In fact, I am always with you and when you do things wrong now you still stink just like that—even worst!”
“I know Dad. I’m sorry.”
It’s ok son. I just want you to love these people the same way I love you!”
“When you understand that son, you will be the man I want you to be!”
“Ok, if you say so. But where do I start.”
“It’s easy son. Just shut up and start listening to them!”
For six years in the early 80s, I ministered as a pastor at a church on an island. I had been trained to be a pastor. I had pastored for four years prior to that. My favorite part of ministry was preaching and teaching the word of God. After six years my time in that church was finished. I found myself in a new community.
Here I served as the youth director in a youth center. My time as the director in that youth center is the foundation of my present life in Christ. It stretched over a 16 year period. This all started 30 years ago. The lessons I learned there are now the focus of how I do ministry today.
Those early days at the center were filled with frustration and confusion. I remember walking through a large shopping mall when I first arrived at this location. Life on the island kept me pretty well isolated from what was going on in youth culture. (Then there was the issue that I was a pastor. I thought I had graduated out of youth ministry. Why did I have to be around these kids anyway?) As I walked through the mall with my family I saw kids with spiked multicolored hair, nose rings and tattoos. My wife looked at me and said, "How in the world are you going to relate with that!?" Boy did I understand what she meant. I was a child of the 60s. I understood our rebellion. Boy was this different—even frightening.
The first time I visited the center was even worse than my walk through the mall. There I met some the most rude, obnoxious, disrespectful youths that I had ever seen. The more I got to know them, the worse it got. Not only did these kids live in sin, they reveled in it. Not only did they revel in it, they were proud of it! These were some of the most disconnected trouble youths I could have imagined. I soon learned that I was not the only one who had problems with them.
One day the chief of police walked into the youth center. As he looked around I watched the most confusing look develop on his face. He walked over to me and introduced himself. He then asked me if I would step outside with him. Outside he looked me straight in the eye and said, "How do you keep this place from erupting?"
"What do you mean," I asked?
The chief explained, "Down there I saw some of the most disruptive kids we have in our community. I find myself chasing down almost every one of those kids. You have them all together in one place! How do you keep it from erupting? No offense but isn’t this a Christian place?" This conversation with the chief of police made me wonder if I was really where I was supposed to be.
I soon learned that even the school had given up on them. There was one young man that I decided to help with his homework. He was way behind and the semester was almost over. I met with one of the principals at school. I asked if I could get a copy of the work that he needed to finish. I was hoping that he could at least pull a D in his classes. The principal looked at me and laughed. "Jim you need to know that this kid has been failing ever since he moved into our district. The truth is that you need to know most of the kids you work with are failing. I will ask the teachers for the work he needs to make up. However I think you're just beating your head on a brick wall."
But it even got worse. The local ministerial association is the organization that started the youth center. I was invited to join with them and give them regular updates on the progress at the center. I figured things would be different here. These were my comrades. These were the people who started the center. Surely they would understand. Don't get me wrong, many of the members of the local ministerial association became my friends. Most of them stood behind what we were trying to accomplish. Yet after that first meeting no less than six of them individually walked up to me. Each of them patted me on the back. Each said almost the exact same thing. "Good luck Jim. You'll need it. Better you than me!"
The conversation that opened this chapter is just a sample of many conversations I had with my Heavenly Father. I think I was down on my knees more than I was in the youth center. Oh, don’t think I am a spiritual man. I was just so confused. I had nowhere else to turn. That, my friend, was a very good place to be driven. It became the place of great change in me which brought great change in those around me.
I immediately turned to the Bible. Yet this time I decided to take off my ecclesiastically colored lenses. These lenses were colored by the way I always heard ministry was to be done. They were colored by the way I liked to do ministry. Taking off those lenses caused me to open my eyes to what had been happening around me. It opened my eyes to what was happening both in the church and in the community outside of the church. I asked Father to open my eyes to whatever he really expected my ministry to be.
Wow did that ever change everything! It really changed me. It also lost me the respect of some and brought many hard questions by others.
The crucible in which Father began to teach me these lessons was the crucible of working with troubled youth. It was not the local church. I was in a small independent para-church organization. Often in my posts I write about things from the perspective of someone who is working with troubled youth. I just can’t get away from that. Troubled youth are the basis of my stories. Working with them is where Father began to change me. They are where my passion lies even to this day. However I try to write these posts from a broader perspective.
My hope is that this will allow you to make these lessons the focus of any ministry. I call what I learned “Invested Ministry.” I cannot take my lessons out of the context of ministry to troubled youth. However it is my prayer that Father will help you use invested ministry in any ministry setting. It is my prayer that Father will help you use this in any ministry into which he has lead you.
I know a lot of pastors. I know a lot of church youth workers. Many of these friends have prayed a very similar pray to the one that opened this post. However they were not praying about troubled youth. Whether your crucible is troubled youth or church people or church kids, I know Father is transforming you. I know he is transforming you as he continues to transform me.
If not I think we should just hang it up.
If you are satisfied with where you are, this blog is not for you. If you are satisfied with the results you see coming out of traditional 20th century ministry models, this blog is not for you. My prayer is that each person who reads this blog will have the blessing I received in living these lessons. That blessing was simple. My life was turned upside down and inside out!
Is your life being turned upside down and inside out? I hope so. If not maybe you are caught in the bog of the 20th century North American church.
It’s never too late to start praying that prayer.
You know . . . the one in your heart that sounds so much like the one that opened this post.
Sep 18th, 2014
Good message! I don't have time to write much now. I have a teaching tonight and have to do some necessary things before it. I will try to get back with you soon.
Sep 18th, 2014
Thanks for the encouragement John. Hope you listen to the audio. I played both parts in the prayer reenactment. My wife couldn't stop laughing. May God use you in a mighty way this evening brother. JBW
Sep 18th, 2014
What a journey down your spiritual memory lane Jim! So many years, so many lessons - all with a faithful Father. That's for being so vulnerable and sharing your heart. Blessings to you my friend.
Sep 18th, 2014
Thanks Cheryl. The last serious one-on-one I had with your husband John is where he challenged me to be more vulnerable. Yes I have a faithful Father. But he also gave me a very faithful brother to kick me in the posterior when I needed it and put his arm around me the rest of the time.