Sep 18th, Mission Possible: Youth Ministry, with Tyler McQuilkin
Sep 18th: Mission Possible: Youth Ministry, with Tyler McQuilkin.
Last week, Kally started our new sermon series on how our new adapted mission statement can be understood through the lens of community. Our adapted mission statement is till live the radical and spacious love of Jesus so that all might flourish. This week I want to consider what our mission statement of living the spacious and radical love of Jesus might look like through the lens of youth ministry so that youth might flourish. I’ve served in youth ministry where I’ve seen some great examples of youth ministries creating spaces for young people to feel this spacious love of Christ so that they can flourish. Seeing these moments where young people have places to belong and be loved through loving communities is something that I think youth need now more than ever, given the different pressures they are facing from social media, from school, from parents and their peers, and just so many other places.
John’s Gospel gives us a much more detailed and intimate understanding of Jesus’last night with his disciples compared to the other three Gospels. Unique to John’s Gospel is an extended description of the time he spends washing the disciples feet after supper, the final lessons given to his disciples before his arrest, and then extended prayers from Jesus for the disciples and for the world. Jesus knows he will soon be arrested and killed, so he has just this final evening with his disciples to share whatever important lessons they might need to have learned before he leaves them. The way Jesus spends this evening with the disciples is a great model for how youth ministry can be the kind of spacious and radical love that allows youth to flourish. Youth ministry is just such a short time in the grand scheme of a person’s life.
At most, a student might be involved in a youth group for six or seven years. Jesus was with his disciples for only three years, and this last night with them was his last chance to teach them whatever final lessons he thought would be important for his disciples to know. Jesus doesn’t give the disciples an exam to make sure they have all the correct answers from the past three years of following him. Instead, he begins the evening by eating with his disciples and serving them by washing their feet. He then promises them the Holy Spirit and then has a final discussion with them to equip the disciples for a life of following Jesus once Jesus is no longer with them.
I once had a conversation with a mentor of mine and youth ministry who said that parenting and youth ministry, when done well, should help prepare a young person for the road, rather than preparing the road for the young person. When a person is prepared for the road, they are equipped with tools, resources and the community to help them as they venture out onto their road. But when the road is prepared for a young person, what happens is that with the child is there is a lack of dialogue. Decisions are made for the child and the future is decided for the young person without asking for any input on what they want their future to look like. Jesus last night with his disciples was his last chance to help prepare the disciples for the road.
Jesus gives the disciples lessons and how they can best set out on their road and so much of this comes in our scripture today. He teaches his disciples to abide in him so that they might bear fruit. He closes this section commanding them to just love one another in the same way that he loved them. The road for the disciples at this point is very uncertain. But one of the last lessons Jesus gives his disciples is this command to love no matter where the road takes them.
As you may know, most of the disciples were killed on their road. Ancient Christian writings and tradition believe that John, the Gospel of John author, was the only one to die of natural causes. All the other disciples were killed because of their faith and the message they carried. The road that the disciples went on was not an easy road but they were equipped by Jesus to go out and love those they encountered on the road. Here at First Presbyterian we might have students join us in youth ministry for a few weeks, a couple of months or like I said, six or seven years at most.
But even students that are with us for all of their middle school and high school experience their time here is still just such a small portion of their life for us to live into this mission, to be the spacious and radical love of Jesus so that youth might flourish. I think we are only going to do this by doing our best to equip them for a life so that they can continue to be the love of Christ wherever they end up on the road. Before I went to seminary, I was serving in youth ministry at Whitworth Church in Spokane, Washington. I was the middle school director and was supervised and being trained by our church’s high school director. Me and the high school director named Anthony worked very closely together and we helped each other with each other’s age group so that we could best care for all the students in our ministry.
During one high school youth group we had a student walk in for the first time after being invited by a friend of his. Our high school director Anthony later got coffee with the student after he had come to youth group for a few weeks and in their first coffee meeting the student disclosed to us that he had been kicked out of two other youth ministries for certain things he believed as well as some of his own personal religious practices and convictions that went against what those youth groups believed. He also later decided to leave his private Christian school because of some bullying he had experienced for not fitting in with his peers. Anthony only asked questions about his experience there and just wanted to know more about his beliefs that were important to him. Months later, this student later told me that Anthony was the first Christian leader he had ever met that asked questions rather than just quickly trying to convert him or tell him why his beliefs were wrong.
This student continued to come to youth group for the following years and eventually began serving as an usher and singing in the church choir. Anthony and I both left that church to go to seminary, so a new youth director began serving that youth ministry. About two and a half years later, we had both left and I was back in Spokane and decided to attend worship at Whitworth Church after I had already found my seat. During the first song, I saw the student come in from the other side of the sanctuary. He was still active in the life of the church as an usher and children’s ministry volunteer.
He continued to attend youth group because his community of peers embraced him and allowed him to believe different things without feeling guilty or pressured to change. We as youth leaders did our best to embrace the student and be with him while he was in high school and help equip him for the road. At the very least, I am confident that the student found a safe community where he could speak with adults and be in a safe space that saw him as a valued member of the community. So if youth ministry is a place to help prepare students for their roads, then a natural question to ask is how will we go about this? With the busy schedules of teenagers today?
How can the few hours they participate in a youth ministry be a place that equips them for the road long after they graduate from high school? In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says the greatest commandments are to love God with all their hearts, souls and minds. And then he says the second commandment is like it, that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Jesus commands the disciples to love one another. I think this is how we are informed what it means to love in this world.
This command is twofold jesus commands first, to love God, and second, to love our neighbors. In the same way Jesus commands his disciples to love each other the way he loved them. We are called to love our neighbors with this love of Christ. While this is a simple statement to love God and to love our neighbors, I think this is such a challenging element of our faith. I’ve seen some churches and ministries that seem to emphasize loving God so much that their neighbor is almost neglected.
On the other hand, I’ve seen churches care so much about loving their neighbors that they sometimes neglect any sort of faith formation and forming people to know and love God. Now, both of these are clearly in Scripture and are attempts at following the commands of Jesus to love. So I’m not trying to bash other ministries that have emphasized one over the other. All I am wanting to say is that this is a real challenge for us to consider because doing both is extremely difficult. But I think it is also a great framework to pursue in youth ministry so that young people can come to this place to love God and their neighbors with all of their heart, soul and mind.
To help young people flourish with this command to love God and love their neighbors, this doesn’t mean we will be teaching them all the creeds and confessions of the Christian tradition so that they can know a lot of facts about God. This commandment isn’t intended to create experts in Bible trivia. Instead, our faith formation will always involve Jesus and understanding Jesus’s work and love in our current context so that we can best follow and participate in his work. In addition to creating spaces where students can wrestle with questions around God and faith, we also want to help them find ways to serve and love their neighbors, as we are also called to do. Alongside questions and discussions around God and faith, we also want to move outside of our heads and the walls of our own community to embrace our local and global communities.
Once, when I was working at Whitworth Church, we did a youth service trip to San Francisco to serve with and learn from different shelters for people without homes. We stayed at a church in San Francisco and would walk to all the different sites to get acquainted with the city. During these walks, we would walk past people that had been sleeping on the sidewalks or in parks where our church was. In Spokane. There were not too many people experiencing houselessness as we were walking.
One day, a student in our group came up to me because this was his first encounter with this degree of people that were without places to live. Actually experiencing this in San Francisco, he had a new heart for people in houselessness. There are so many people in need of love, so creating spaces for our youth to encounter others that we can love is another way we can live out this radical and spacious love of Jesus so that others may flourish. Opportunities to serve and love our neighbors bring about change in us and can help teenagers find ways to love and serve people long after they graduate from high school. Another youth ministry mentor of mine goes by the name of Ted Lasso.
I imagine many of you have seen this show and have also fallen in love with the characters in this show. But for those of you who maybe haven’t seen it, I will just summarize the show saying that a US. College football coach from Kansas decides to take a job in England as a coach for a professional soccer team. He is known for his overwhelming kindness and care for his players, as well as his ability to unite his team together. At one point early in the show, ted is being interviewed by a reporter.
The reporter says that what Ted is doing is irresponsible because the team is important to the people in the town, and he just believes that Ted is going to destroy the team because of his lack of experience coaching soccer. Ted responds to the reporter saying, now, I’m just going to say this again, just so you didn’t think it was a mistake the first time I said it. For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellows be the best versions of themselves on and off the field. And it ain’t always easy, Trent, but neither is growing up without someone believing in you.
I distinctly remember hearing Ted say this the first time and thinking that that is what youth ministry should look like. Ted isn’t only focused on making them the best soccer players. His care goes beyond soccer and aims at caring for the hearts, bodies and minds of his players so that they may flourish long after they leave his team. Similar to Ted, I don’t see success in youth ministry as making sure students have tons of Bible versus memorized or knowing how to defend a certain doctrine. Sure, conversations like this will come up and can be important for a person’s faith formation.
But ultimately, I see youth ministry as a way to help young people engage with questions as they try to understand who Jesus is, as they work to love their neighbors, while also being confident that there is a place where they are safe and belong with adults who care and believe in them. The time spent in youth ministry makes up just a small portion of a person’s life. Jesus disciples came from a wide range of backgrounds. Some were fishermen, some were tax collectors. Some had more religious education than others.
Still, his command to his disciples was consistent for all of them that they follow him and go out into the world prepared to love, regardless of where their roads took them. The three short years spent together was a time of fellowship as well as a time to prepare his disciples for a life of following Jesus. Youth that are under our care and ministry here will also come from a variety of backgrounds. Some students that I have met have little to no experience in the church. Others have grown up here and maybe have some more familiarity with who Jesus is and want to dive deeper into their faith.
Regardless of their background, I think this can be a place that helps prepare students in heart, soul, and mind as they set out on their own roads by creating safe spaces for discussions to talk about questions around God and what it means to follow Jesus in our world today. This can be a place that allows them to express doubts and push back on points being made because we are all trying to just learn together. I also think this means we create opportunities to love our neighbors through service and listening to stories from people different than us. Through these opportunities to love their neighbors, teenagers can also be equipped to keep their eyes open for those who are suffering in their future so they can bring the same radical and spacious love of Jesus to others. Youth ministry here can also be a peace where teenagers can have adults and peers that believe in them and support them.
Like Jesus’s short time with his disciples and especially the last night with them, Jesus spends his time in fellowship, eating with his disciples, serving them by washing their feet and then giving them lessons on how they should live and love in the world. And now we can do our best to imitate this with the teenagers here so that they might leave here feeling the love of Christ so that they can extend this love to others. Amen.