Attractions or Distractions?

As a lead youth worker, I’ve been given so much information on how to attract a crowd. I have constantly tried to find some way to bring in more students and reach out to the unbelieving community. I can’t begin to imagine how much time and effort I’ve put in to creating something amazing that would be the magic magnet – drawing students into a relationship with Christ. In my recent reflections on God’s Word, however, I’ve come to learn how much time I’ve wasted.

Becoming All Things to All Students

“I don’t care what it takes, I’m gonna bring them in. If it takes smoke and lights to get students in to hear the Gospel, then our church will have smoke and lights!” Sound familiar? After a pastor made that statement recently, I began to think through what theology was behind it. In the course of his explanation to the others, he, of course, quoted Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” So, this statement shows a clearly biblical perspective of student ministry…or does it?

In the context of Paul’s writing to the Corinthians, he makes this statement in regards to relating to those around him, just like we, as youth workers, are seeking ways in which to relate to the students in our communities. So, Paul made sacrifices like a Jew, obeyed the law by refraining from pork, disobeyed the law by eating pork, purposefully lost faith in God and all to “become all things to all men.” Absolutely NOT! Such a lifestyle would drive someone toward insanity, which is exactly where I was heading in my ministry to students.

As I continue to study this passage, I learn more about what Paul intended. If you look to the greater context of Paul’s life and ministry, you see that he taught that we should “not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men” (Ro. 4:16-18). In this passage explains how we can pursue peace by living above the outward preferences and traditions and concentrate more on “being in Christ” as opposed to “doing for Christ.” We can follow Paul only as he follows Christ, which he does because Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Jesus didn’t do what everyone else did to fit in or attract them; He lived a life that allowed God to attract others through Him.

I have a lot of mail coming across my desk that lands in the plastic can on the other side to prove how busy we can be for God. Countless tell me how students are looking for the next “high” experience and then proceed to unveil their plan to give it to them. Last time I checked, my job wasn’t to provide a “high” but an example of how Christ would live. In reality, I believe students are looking for solidarity that they know they can’t receive from any grand experience. Instead, I think they seek the “highs” to hide the hurt that comes from brokenness.

What They Really Need

Consider a young man we’ll call Matt. Matt is not someone every youth worker hopes for. Rather, Matt has some interesting views on sex, wears t-shirts that speak hate and he would much rather question and joke about everything you have to say than to take in the message of Christ. What can’t be seen is that Matt comes from a home where parents are fighting and taking things out on him, he sits in the loneliness of his room because his church friends think he’s too “out there”, and he wonders where God is in the midst of the brokenness of his life. So, he finally decides to come to this big event you’ve been talking about that would truly ignite his passion for the Lord. Instead, he feels the speakers holding his sin against him, lonely among a crowd of Christian teens and still far away from God in spite of the “high” this event seems to bring.

What students need is relationship. They need someone who isn’t going to be like them but rather someone who will be there for them. The drunks and prostitutes didn’t need Jesus to take part in their activities; they needed Him to be Who He was. He didn’t need to mimic a kegger with root beer or pass out badges to virgins. He lived a holy life as an example to all of us. When we work with our students, we need to concentrate on the “being.” Are you living in such a way that God can attract others through you? “Well, I think I do pretty well,” you say, “but students aren’t just going to come in the door to hear the Gospel!” “You know what,” I say, “you’re exactly right.”

Drawing Them In

In the last decade of working with students, I’ve worked hard to create memorable events. I bust my butt to promote it by word-of-mouth, video announcements, mailings, and more. When the night of the event comes, I’m floored by who shows up. Mostly, it’s the students I see every week. They would come regardless. “So what about their friends,” I wonder. Then I decide to cover a topic that isn’t all that exciting to me, but I know the students have been talking about it. The first week we have one visitor and two more the next. I didn’t promote a thing. I just taught the Word. What happened? Why did they show up? Was it just that I chose a relevant topic? I don’t think so. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:44). God works in hearts by the movement and prompting of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that when He is lifted up, He “will draw all people” to Himself (Jn. 12:32). Does that mean in the end everyone will be saved? No. Everyone is still responsible for responding to the drawing of God. But the fact remains – God does the drawing. What if we’ve got this youth ministry thing all wrong? What if we are trained to create experiences that do nothing more than help mask the pain students are feeling? What if all of our energies are focused on bringing students in to an event or even a Bible study? What if most of what we are doing is something that God has already said He will take care of? Do we really think we can do a better job of drawing students to Christ than God? Our student, Matt, doesn’t need another experience. He needs someone to be real. Matt, like his peers, is looking for someone to show him how life was meant to be. He needs to know that he was created in God’s image and is God’s special creation. He needs to know that God wants to heal his broken spirit and be His faithful Father. Matt doesn’t need experience. Matt needs life.

How Time Should Change

God desires to give life to the students around us just like he determined to give life to us. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” God chooses to use us to be an example to others of the life and love He offers to all people. This concept has really changed how I spend my time. I still prepare for some events here and there, and I must always be prepared to teach God’s Word. Yet, I find that I spend more time examining my own life as opposed to researching trends among students. This may sound selfish, but it has become the most unselfish thing I’ve done. I have a greater love for my wife, a greater faith by which to father my children, a greater love for God’s people and a broken heart for those who do not believe. I have become more in tune with God. What could my ministry to students have been like had I developed a more intimate relationship with Christ instead of another program. Paul says in Philippians 3:14-16, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” Our students need to see mature believers doing just that. I think it’s time we all stop trying to create a better Christian experience and start living up to the amazing life we’ve already been given.

That, my friend, is attractive.

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