A Little Message For Youth Workers On Broken Kids. . . And Some Things I’d Do Differently. . .

In his bestselling book Season of Life, Jeffrey Marx follows a season of high school football at Baltimore’s Gilman School. At the cookout following the team’s first preseason scrimmage, one of the moms approached head coach Biff Poggi to ask how successful he thought the boys were going to be. “I have no idea,” Biff said. “Won’t really know for twenty years.” Biff went on to describe how his efforts with the team would be judged by what kind of husbands, fathers, and community members his players became.

I wonder. . . now that we’re back in the thick of our youth ministry fall schedules, are we thinking like Biff  as we evaluate how we are currently doing youth ministry in the midst of this changing culture?

“I wonder if I’ve been successful?” was the question rattling around in my brain a few years ago as I drove to the 20th anniversary reunion of the last youth group I led. It had been two decades – Biff Poggi’s twenty years – since I stepped out of local church youth ministry to study youth culture full time with the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. Now, I was going to spend the better part of a Saturday getting to see the fruit of that ministry. . . or lack thereof. I had kept up with a few of those students, but not all. What kind of Christ-followers had those now middle-aged kids become? Were they pursuing God? Were they striving by his grace to live to his glory? Were they integrating their faith into all of life?

It’s been said that “hindsight is 20/20.” Before, during, and after our reunion I thought very seriously about what I would have done differently in order to be more effective at fostering true, deep, life-long spiritual growth in those kids. On the positive side, we had done many things right. Lots of our students grew up to be passionate about their faith and are pursuing ministry opportunities all over the place. But there was a downside. In many ways I had been a slave to the “bigger and better” model of youth ministry that we assumed was so very right back in the 1980s. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would act on what I know now and make adjustments that would have led to increased long-term effectiveness. Things like less time doing big events and more time spent in relationships. There would less time reading game books and more time spent immersing myself in Biblical studies and theology. There would be less time spent in getting and keeping kids interested in the youth group now, and more time spent investing in things that would develop their passion for serving Christ and his Kingdom in the future then.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. With the passing of time and the gathering of experience that includes both ups and downs comes greater wisdom and a more focused vision. Sadly, it doesn’t include a chance for a “do over.” But it does give older guys like me an opportunity to pass on advice regarding what we’ve learned in the hope that others might benefit from our experience. It’s sort of like a vicarious “mulligan”. . . which I’m now going to take. What I want to humbly pass on is both a simple more-focused paradigm for how I’d do things, and what I firmly believe is a timely example of how those in youth ministry today can enlist that paradigm in a focused way that will yield future effectiveness.

First, if I were doing youth ministry today with an eye on future effectiveness, I would spend lots of time focusing on cultural realities and their long-term results. Because we live and do ministry in a fallen world where things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, I would look long and hard at my kids to figure out where their specific world is broken and in need of repair.

There are two questions I would be asking of every kid. . . questions that I wish I had asked of every kid twenty years ago: 1) What is happening in this kid’s life that shouldn’t be happening? And 2) What is not happening in this kid’s life that should be happening? In today’s world, there are a growing number of kids in our ministries who are experiencing the divorce of their parents, the absence of a father, victimization by the advancing scourge of sexual abuse, and a whole lot more. Then, armed with that knowledge, I would study the statistics, dig through the research, and listen to the experts in order to learn as much as I could about both the short and long-term effects of this brokenness. Why? Because they are destined to have to deal with the fall-out for the rest of their lives. And if I am serious about effectively leading kids to spiritual maturity that marks their lives both now and in the future, I better know what the future is going to hold for them.

One future reality resulting from current brokenness that all our kids will have to face is the need to forgive. Without that knowledge, we most likely won’t see the need to aggressively pursue a youth ministry path and strategy that will equip our kids to forgive what’s been done to them both now and twenty years down the road. Forgiveness is without a doubt one of the most pressing youth ministry issues precipitated by the relationally broken culture of the day.

Second, if I were doing youth ministry today with an eye on future effectiveness, I would go out of my way to talk to kids about the cultural realities they are facing and the way that living in and experiencing those realities will effect them for the rest of their lives. While I need to know as much as I can about what my kids are facing, it’s only useless head knowledge if I don’t pass the wealth of what I’ve learned – ugly as it may be – on to my kids.  I would tell kids how being a child of divorce, fatherless, or a victim of sexual abuse shapes who they are both now and in the future. I would talk about the unique pressures and struggles they will face in their own marriages and families as a result of these experiences. Again, doing this correctly requires an investment of our time. We must listen hard to counselors and researchers who have developed expertise in “fallout.” For example, we should be listening carefully to Judith Wallerstein and what she’s learned through her study of children of divorce. Her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce offers a wealth of insight into what children of divorce face in adulthood. Did you know that children of divorce are more prone to divorce, substance abuse, giving in to negative per pressure, depression, suicide, rage, bitterness, vengeance, an unwillingness or difficulty to forgive, and a whole lot more? And if you do know it, are you going to speak up now and warn your kids about what lies down the road? If we hope to prevent our children of divorce from heading down the same path, we must first communicate the realities they will face in convincing and compelling ways. We do them a disservice if we sugar-coat their futures, assume that they are some how immune because they have walked forward to follow Jesus, or if we offer the false hope that comes with a posture of “let go and let God.”

forgivenessThird, if I were doing youth ministry today with an eye on future effectiveness, I would enter into passionate, never-ending study of how God’s Word speaks to the cultural realities facing our kids. Knowing that one of the lasting issues of childhood brokenness is a life-long wrestling match with forgiveness, I would study what the Scriptures have to say about forgiveness, its dynamics, its difficulties, the need to give it, and the need to receive it. From cover to cover, the Bible is a book about forgiveness and reconciliation, both God’s offer of forgiveness and reconciliation to us, and his command that we forgive and reconcile with others. We are commanded to forgive “whatever” (Col. 3:13), to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us (Col. 3:13), and to forgive over, and over, and over (Matthew 18:21).

Forgiveness needs to be defined. In his wonderful book Free of Charge, Miroslav Volf offers great insight into the nature of forgiveness as forgiveness is defined by God in His Word. Volf says that to forgive is to name the wrongdoing and to condemn it, and to give wrongdoers the gift of not counting the wrongdoing against them. In addition, we must break through false notions of forgiveness by understanding what forgiveness is not. Christian mediator Ken Sande gives insight in his book The Peacemaker. Sande tells us that forgiveness is not a feeling. It is an act of the will. Forgiveness is not forgetting. When God says that he “remembers our sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25), he is not saying that he cannot remember our sins. They don’t disappear from memory. Rather, he promises that he will not remember our sins. It’s a choice not to mention, recount, or think about the wrongs that have been done to us. And, forgiveness is not excusing. We don’t write off what others do with a simple “that’s okay.” Forgiveness is needed because the wrong done was inexcusable.

Forgiveness is costly, commanded, and necessary.

Finally, if I were doing youth ministry today with an eye on future effectiveness, I would devote a great deal of time to teaching, modeling, and encouraging kids to apply the Scriptures to the cultural realities they are facing. The Bible is not a book about getting saved. Yes, the Bible offers a life-giving message of salvation that includes great promises for an after-life that we can certainly anticipate with great expectation and joy, but it’s also a life-giving message of salvation that calls us to purposefully live the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Simply stated, the cultural realities and resulting brokenness that exists in kids’ lives requires that we teach them now how to embrace forgiveness as a lifestyle.

If they don’t forgive, people who have grown up victimized by divorce, fatherlessness, and sexual abuse sentence themselves to a life in prison. In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu writes about three U.S. soldiers who converse with each other at the Vietnam Veteran’s Wall in Washington, D.C. One asks, “Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?” Another answers, “I will never forgive them.” The third then says, “Then it is certain they still have you in prison, don’t they?”

Burdened with hurt and pain, future effectiveness requires that we teach kids now how to find the freedom that comes from being a victim who forgives. We must equip our ministry kids to avoid what could be called “Fred Goldman Syndrome.” Since the day his son Ron was murdered along with O.J. Simpson’s wife, Fred Goldman has been imprisoned. Unable to forgive, he has been consumed by his crusade against O.J. Simpson and his desire for revenge. It has eaten him up. With forgiveness being a defining issue for the generation of kids who populate our youth groups today, we want to equip them now to be free, 20 years down the road and beyond.

Perhaps nowhere in the world is the issue of responding to the pain of one’s past through forgiveness more real than it is in present day Rwanda. Just 22 short years ago this small African country experienced a horrific genocide. Churches, communities, and even families were shattered as over one million people were killed by friends, neighbors, and family over the course of just 100 days. Most of them were macheted to death. Now, as victims and perpetrators pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and move on with life, it is not easy. Guilt, shame, rage, distrust, pain, and anger are just some of the negative emotions felt by people trying to live side by side as they rebuild their lives. While our teens haven’t experienced genocide, they are experiencing things now that will require hearts bent on forgiveness as they move into adulthood. For that reason, hearing the stories of forgiveness from Rwanda offer hope and a powerful example.

In an article in Christianity Today, Mark Moring tells how Rwandans are attempting to correct the flow of history by deciding to go deeper by being obedient. A picture that accompanies the article tells a powerful story. Sitting on a bicycle seat is Marc Sahabo, a Hutu who got all wrapped up in Hutu Power during the genocide. Using a machete, this man killed 15 Tutsi people during the genocide. Sitting side-saddle on the rear of the same bike is Felicita Mukabakunda, a Tutsi woman who was a neighbor and friend of Sahabo’s before the genocide. When the genocide began, Felicita hid in the marshes. While hiding, she heard Sahabo and others discussing their plans to find her and kill her. However, before killing her, they planned to take turns raping her. She also heard Sabaho say that he had killed six of her family members, including her father and uncle. After surviving the genocide, Felicita returned home to discover that 29 of her family members, including 16 of her brothers and sisters had been killed.

And now, they are photographed sitting on a bike together. . . a bike they ride from town to town to tell their story. How is that possible?!? That story is a difficult and painful story of repentance and forgiveness. It’s a story about what it means to dig deep into the faith and to be obedient to one’s calling as a follower of Christ as we reckon with the pain of our past. It’s about integrating faith into all of life and doing what is right, rather than what feels right. Mark Moring’s article makes it clear that forgiveness is a long and involved process that is in no way easy.

Forgiveness – a defining issue in youth ministry that we must address now because sooner or later our kids will need to dig deep into their wells to forgive. Now is the time for us to fill those wells, because twenty years is sure to come. And then, we will be able to see if what we are doing today with our kids, has really been effective.

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