Letting Go of the Need to Be “Liked”

I never thought I’d become a youth pastor.

I knew for several years before becoming a youth pastor that God had called me to vocational ministry. However, I was one of those cases that said, “Ok God, I’ll agree to this life of ministry on one condition—anything but youth.”

There were several reasons for this. My brother was a youth pastor. He was good at it.  People at his church loved him. Probably because he served as a hero to me, I figured he served as a hero to the youth to whom he ministered. I felt the same way about my college roommate, who had a clear calling and passion for youth ministry. He was good at it. We both volunteered with the youth ministry at the church on our campus and he was a natural. On the other hand, it took work for me to strike up conversations and not feel awkward the entire time. 

Looking back now, I fell into a trap of thinking that youth ministry as a vocation meant having a certain amount of charisma and charm to influence young people. And this was for good reason—the goal or end being to influence them for the kingdom of God. Having been a part of youth ministries growing up, these were the sorts of words that became prevalent: impact, touch, change, shape, and transform. Again, these words all had an end as “for God.”

Even out of benevolence, this sort of influence can become very seductive and somewhat dangerous. It’s not difficult to confuse the things of God with our own preferences. The gauge by which we evaluate effectiveness in ministry then becomes how big of a following we can obtain, and the means by which we measure that can become petty—Twitter followers and Instagram likes. Influence can boil down to, “am I well-liked?” We can kill ourselves trying to make every play, ball game, awards banquet and graduation while sacrificing the time and space our families need from us and we need from them.

Somehow, I did become a youth pastor. Only God could have called me to the church where I have served for nearly six years(!) as a youth pastor. My church didn’t want a superstar (that’s not me) but they did want someone who would seek to disciple youth and be willing to journey with them. That became very appealing. The job was to create a safe environment for students to explore the things of God in a community. I was to know them and their families. Above all, I was given the task to point them to Christ.

Andrew Root has helped me greatly in thinking theologically about youth ministry. In his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, he uses Bonhoeffer’s theology to argue that incarnational ministry is not a ministry of influence. His definition of relational ministry has been helpful:

“Relational ministry, then, is not about a strategy of influence but about persons being conformed to the person of Jesus as incarnate, crucified and resurrected, and going into the world to join the who of Christ as incarnate, crucified and resurrected.”[1]

We enter into relationships with youth to point them to Christ. We do so to join them in their suffering as Christ, by virtue of the incarnation, has joined all of humanity in suffering. We point to the good news of the kingdom, preaching it with vigor, subtly referring to it in conversations over coffee and meals, and living it out in every way we can. It requires us to live in balance: establishing boundaries on our availability and practicing Sabbath. We show up when we can, listen as well as we can. and offer advice when we can, not out of our own desires, but out of faithfulness to the way God is calling a particular youth.

And sometimes, they won’t listen. Sometimes, they will. But it isn’t our job to “influence” youth into listening. Our job is to continue to be faithful to point them to Jesus over and over and over again.

May God help us to be faithful in doing so.

[1] Root, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 1029.

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