I was invited to speak at a weekend retreat for one of our dormitory floors this past weekend. In one of my brief messages, I chose to focus upon an intriguing passage from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John. Within it, we return to a familiar scene in the life of Christ: the Last Supper. As the story begins, Jesus grabs a towel and starts to wash feet. Peter is confused by the strange turn of events and does not seem to want his master performing the role of a servant. Among the ways Jesus responds is this:
“You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.“
A powerful statement, for we know what comes later. Arrest. Fear. Denial. Trial. Crucifixion. Burial.
In just a few short hours, Peter will come to realize that Jesus came not to control but to serve. Before long, Peter will understand that the way he looked at the world was completely backwards. He’ll begin to comprehend what the gospel of our Lord is all about. Redemption will come for Peter after the Resurrection, but even then I think there is more for the Apostle to learn. The years he lived after that poignant moment at the Supper will stay with him the rest of this live. And at that life’s end–whether hanging upside-down on a cross as tradition tells us or expiring in some other way–is when I think he fully understood what Jesus was all about. For Peter a life of service and sacrifice suddenly came into focus, and all because of something Jesus said and did for him years before.
Though it wasn’t the main theme of my retreat message, a passage like this makes me think about youth ministry. So much of what we do as youth ministers is not understood by the students we serve. They chafe at rules. They can resist teaching. They don’t understand why some things are good ideas and some things are bad ideas. It can be frustrating. If only behavior modification or simply giving up were part of what the gospel was about. At least then we could have an answer.
But Jesus’ actions here speak to something different: word and deed offered in relationship. The washing of feet for a confused soul. Truth and love to someone who needed it far more than they realized. An act done with little initial return. As a matter of fact, if one is to judge the effectiveness of Jesus’ mentoring in the twenty-four hours after this event, he ought generally to be considered a failure.
This is often true as we work with students. The time and energy we put into walking with them through life. Living the gospel in front of them. Discipling and teaching them. Sometimes it can just come to naught. They fall in with a bad crowd and off they go. They graduate high school and drift away. In college they decide that their previous faith was just so much smoke and mirrors. Like Peter, they seem to have failed to learn anything.
Jesus, of course, has a longer view of Peter than just that day. When we think about our students, we ought to as well. I really believe that when we think about the effectiveness of youth ministry, it has relatively little to do with how many students you can get running forward to an altar or raising their hands in worship. Seeing them take abstinence pledges and wear Christian t-shirts might make use feel better in the moment, but in the end that isn’t what matters.
What matters is where they are later. What they understand one day. If–even when they don’t realize what we are doing or why we are doing it during their teen years–they understand later on. Like Jesus, youth ministry must take the long view. For some of our youth, serving Christ will be an uninterrupted story. For others it will be a more punctuated one. For both latter and former, I hope and trust that some of what we do (and, Lord willing, some of what I did those six years in New Jersey) will be grasped one day.
Ultimately, this ought to be both an encouragement and a challenge to us. It should hearten us when it seems like we’ve failed miserably with our students (remember: Peter didn’t start out so well either). But (and this is important): it should also remind us that taking the long view may very well mean changing the way we operate in ministry. Eschewing the immediate optics or ministerial sense of satisfaction in favor of what is much more lasting. Difficult, perhaps, but worth it.