Be Courageous, Try Something


Mark Oestreicher, The Youth Cartel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other day, my ministry partner posted a simple sentiment on our organizational Twitter feed: Lead students courageously today. 

It’s a sentiment that’s easy to skate past with a “Yup, I’m doing that.” After all, youth work always takes some amount of courage, right? But it gave me a little pause. After well more than thirty years of youth work, I might defensively respond with, “Hey, I’m 50 years old! Hanging out with teenagers at this age is clearly a sign of courage!” But that’s a smoke screen. In fact, I’m more inclined to phone it in and do what I’ve always done than ever before.

When you’re a rookie in youth work, everything is new—teaching, interacting, planning, counseling. But after a few laps around the track, a bit of learning, and a bunch of helpful failure, things can quickly become rote.

My current role as a volunteer youth worker is leading a grade 8 boys small group that’s part of my church’s ministry to young teens. They’re fun guys, and they like me well enough, and our weekly time together has become…well…easy. I prepare for fifteen to thirty minutes, show up, get caught up on their lives, and lead a little discussion around some sort of spiritual theme. Most of the time they give me good feedback and we can all tick the box that says we accomplished what we’re about.

But. I’ve been noticing some things on some of their social media feeds lately that has me deeply concerned about the double lives they’re living. My experience tells me that this is extremely normal for young teens (or, all teenagers, really). They’re trying on different identities as a part of the good and normal part of figuring who they are. It’s not that they’re being “fake” in my presence—they’re merely in the process of living out multiple experimental selves to see what fits.

However, it would be a lazy cop-out for me to leave it there. I know I need to jump into the deep end with some of these guys. Simply shaming them won’t provide any meaningful long-term results; instead, I need to get into the muck with them and help them wrestle with who they really want to be in the long run.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my son about eight years ago, when he was half his current age of 16. Max, who has grown into an awesome young man with convictions and humor and a strong sense of himself, really struggled with risk as a kid. He played baseball for a few years, and was consistently one of the weaker players on his team. Really, it was anguishing for him and us (and his coaches). After agonizing over whether or not to play his last year, he’d finally decided to give it one last year.

After the last game, while he and I were heading driving to the post-season team pizza bash, I asked him: “Remember how hard it was to decide whether or not to play this year? Are you glad you played?”

His wise response was: “Well, I wish I had made the other decision, not to play this year. But I know that if I’d made that decision, I’d always wonder if I should have played, and I would never know. Now I know, so I guess I’m glad I made the decision I did.”

I don’t golf much these days, but used to play regularly. And I’ll always remember the comment offered to me once by an old guy who’d been stuck with me and my friends on a particular green after yet another one of my putts wasn’t long enough. He said, “Approximately 100% of all short putts don’t go in the hole.”

Max’s wisdom, and that old duffer’s wisdom, speaks to my current youth ministry context: Have courage, and try something.

I’m not responsible, ultimately, for the spiritual transformation of my young teen guys. That’s God’s job. But I am responsible for stepping in with courage and trying something. I’m responsible for positioning myself in a way that God might use me.

In what aspect of your ministry do you need to try something new? Maybe, like me, that looks like diving into the mess of teenagers’ lives rather than coasting along with superficial stuff. Or maybe it looks like re-inventing your program, or the way you interact with parents, or even your job description. Whatever the implications for you, I know this: Trying something new is life giving, because it always puts you in a place of dependency on God.

AND, if your group is going to Unleash the Feast this weekend during the first 30 Hour Famine National Date, we pray you’ll have a heart full of courage! Try something new, and trust that God is with you!