[legacy post from blogspot]
OK, so I’m kind of strong. I lift three times a week. Does it impress you that 6 or 8 people couldn’t take me down over half an hour’s time last night? So what if their ages ranged from 7 to 11 and one was a girl? I handled them all! (Andrew flexes and roars.) That’s why I like 6th graders so much. With 8th graders, they actually have a good chance of getting me underwater, but last night, I was king of the pool.
I’m not really overly proud of being able to manhandle 11-year-old guys. Sometimes I forget how much stronger I am than they are. Never actually hurt anyone, but sometimes they stop trying as hard. And I’ve come to the upsetting realization that out-strengthing a middle school kid is not just limited to wrestling around at a pool party. It can also be very evident in the kinds of things I’ve been able to get kids to say and do in the name of “spiritual growth.”
I could almost say that in the past I have displayed evidence of possessing the spiritual gift of manipulation. I’m ashamed to admit that there are probably quite a few kids over the years that, with my “guidance,” prayed a prayer or affirmed things about their faith that they just weren’t ready to. I’m not saying that none of the commitments made by students I have talked to over the last 16 years have been genuine. Some of my best ministry memories have been of leading kids in a prayer asking God for salvation. From the first time I ever led a kid to Christ while Kevin and I waited for the line at the pizza buffet to die down, to praying with Blake at camp as he waited for his ride to the ER to remove a wooden bead lodged in his ear, to a conversation with a baseball teammate of a CCC 5th grader this summer at VBX in which he told me how he had prayed to receive Christ the night before, I can “claim” a lot of kids for Christ. But that type of language doesn’t stir me near as much as it used to.
Theologically, I’ve changed drastically since my days as a Southern Baptist or walking in charismatic circles. I have come to believe that salvation is much less about saving individual souls and getting people to go to heaven as it is about God inviting people He is redeeming to join Him in a redemptive mission for all creation. My days of “Me And Jesus” evangelism are over. What I really want to do is help students connect to the story God is telling throughout history, Scripture, and the Church; to help them figure out the next step toward intimacy with God, whether that means opening for the first time to the possibility that God even exists, connecting with a community of believers, or entering the story at the point of redemption.
As if to prove that just praying with a kid once and then hoping they’ll be OK is not the best evangelism strategy, I’ve come across a slew of kids I once “led to Christ” years later this summer on Facebook. Not that a profile can really tell even a fraction of the whole story, but I’ve read enough in enough pages to discern that most of these guys are not currently vitally connected to Christ. And I am left wondering, what has made the difference in those that still are?
One of the top things I see is ongoing support of family. But that’s not the only factor, and good thing because so many of those I’ve seen commit to Christ come from families which are not on the same page in matters of faith. Nor does every student who comes from a “Christian” family end up sticking it out in the long run. I believe another huge factor is who they surround themselves with. If they choose to connect with a small group of like-minded friends who can offer accountability, support, and challenge, my hopes that they’ll make it rise dramatically. If they feel isolated from church and church friends, they will find someone else who affirms them and they will be shaped by that connection. I also see the critical importance of adult leaders who listen, care, and pray for them through all the dips and curves of adolescence.
So, am I about to bolt for high school ministry? Thanks, but that’s just not my calling. But, I do see the importance of keeping the big picture in mind. As webmaster for the student ministries, I keep up with what the older students are doing (and Facebook helps me stay in touch with former middle schoolers), and my involvement with VBX has given me a glimpse into how important kids ministry is in laying the foundation for future growth. However, my niche is definitely here in middle school. I embrace my role in helping kids transition from kids’ ministry into student ministry, and it seems I’m pretty good at it. My prayer is that God will place other people in position to carry them forward and especially to walk with them as they transition into and out of high school. My dream is that high school and college students would continue to stay connected and active. I’ll look on from afar, and be glad that I had some small part to play along the way.
Back to the present. My heart continues to be full/broken/heavy/hopeful. I had a conversation with a student last Friday that included him committing to Christ in prayer for what seemed to be the first time. May I never lose the joy and wonder that the angels experience when a soul is redeemed! And I continue to pray for the students who came as guests to camp, and for those for whom camp was their only true connection point all year, even though they may have attended church every Sunday. I so desire that camp would not be a flash-in-the-pan experience, but that it would be the forward thrust for momentum that would carry for the whole year I have with these guys, and then every year as they grow. I think I’m beginning to understand what Paul was trying to express when he said, “Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives” (Galatians 4:19, NLTse). Sometimes I can hardly bear the love God has given me for young people, but I know any pain along the journey will be overtaken by the joy that will one day come into the light when students I have encountered tell their stories to Jesus.