Growing up as a youngster in Wisconsin, no sweeter words existed than “snow day” – unless you count, “And the Packers win the Super Bowl!”
But I’m not so sure this 6-month long pandemic “snow day” carries the same feeling of freedom. Prom? Donezo. Graduation party? Not going to happen. Sports season? Not so fast. Then spring turned to summer and it was mission trips that bit the dust. Fast forward a little more and cancellations feel almost as normal as a middle school student forgetting their deodorant for a weeklong camping trip. We don’t like it, but we’re anticipating it.
So here are three practical considerations for every youth leader (perhaps even parents and extended family of students) in a moment like this:
Take advantage of the time
Another day, another email announcing a cancelled student ministry event. But as the fog of disappointment lifts, I see opportunity on the horizon. The busyness of students and families dominated conversations pre-COVID. Not anymore. Sports are riding the bench now. Distance learning and hybrid approaches have left students with time on their hands. Check out this instance of transformation another youth leader passed on: “God transformed my life through quarantine because he gave me more time with my parents.”
We’ve all experienced COVID-19 closing doors but there’s now an open window that I encourage youth leaders to wriggle through. If your school district is online or hybrid, how can you reach students during the day? What new opportunities are there to get relational time with them?
I know a lot of youth leaders have had to shuffle their ministry calendar, rethink their gatherings and change events altogether. But the widespread cancellations of school in-person and after-school activities have cleared students’ calendars like few things in the past. A perk of having homeschool students in youth group was how easy it was to get lunch together. Now your entire group might be in that category. Is there room for a mid-afternoon Bible study that didn’t exist before? Is there a need from parents that you could meet?
Don’t get discouraged, get creative
It’s naïve to think leaders are immune to the discouragement and frustration of this season. I think about the reasons I wanted to dive into youth ministry in the first place – and it wasn’t for the opportunity to be on a Coronavirus safety and compliance committee. It probably wasn’t because of the opportunity to spend a lot of time on Zoom meetings and giving elbow bumps.
When I ask people how they ended up in ministry, the answer almost always revolves around seeing the transformation of students as they meet Jesus and grow in their knowledge of Him. Compelled by love, we want to see people know Christ. It’s simple. It’s thrilling. We were ready to fight past the normal youth ministry hurdles. Increasing busyness of students, decreasing priority of church life, the distracting draw of social media. And so we pressed on to win them to Christ in spite of those walls. But COVID-19 has built more walls than Nehemiah. It’s hard, though. It can be complicated to know how to get quality time with students and point them to Jesus. Or to gather them together and help them find belonging in a community of believers.
But like the friends of the paralytic who carved a hole in the roof and lowered their friend down for healing (Luke 5:18-19), don’t give up on doing what it takes to keep on bringing students to Jesus. The cancelled retreats and events are just a crowd. Go find the weak spot in the roof and start digging.
One student ministries team created a weekday space for students who are now distance learning – it’s basically a youth group study hall. Another youth ministry leader in California put together a panel of local experts for the benefit of parents who have never homeschooled before. Some have simply shown up in the driveways of students that haven't been to church since March because that’s what it takes to remind them that they’re loved and seen and not alone.
Find the spot in the roof where you can make a hole that leads students to Jesus. Do what it takes.
I spent a weekend during high school at a local youth group’s fall retreat. I walked away from that weekend wanting one thing – a carpetball table. I know, you probably thought it was going to be something more spiritual.
Fortunately for me, my recently retired grandpa was a woodworker with some time on his hands. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t as easy as placing an order with Grandpa Industries and waiting for my new carpetball table to arrive. Grandpa wanted me to build it with him. And to my dismay, good craftsmen apparently take their time. My “How much longer?” was always met with, “Patience, patience…we want it to be perfect.”
I don’t know how much longer this COVID-19 season will last, but I know that it won’t be one minute longer than God allows. God is working all things together for good for His children (Rom 8:28), so I remind myself that I don’t need to rush back to normal. God is working in these unusual places.
In October, I spoke at a fall youth ministry retreat. It was one of the more “normal” experiences (even with precautions) I’ve had. And you know what stood out? The thankfulness. Teenagers aren’t always known for thankfulness. It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the next generation. But there it was: dozens of students just so thankful to be in that place with their friends. It left me convinced that this ongoing season has softened the hearts of young people. It’s an earthquake that shook the foundations of so many things they used to find comfort in and left them with doors open to God in new ways.
But it took a lot of patience and creativity to get there.
I don’t want to sugarcoat it: ministry right now is uniquely difficult. But with prayer, patience and creativity we might see a movement of God like never before. We might see revival. For all the difficulty of faithful ministry in the midst of strong opinions, cancellations and fear, it seems like youth ministry has never been more important or vibrant.
It takes faith to keep going when numbers are lower, events are fewer and volunteers are exhausted. But God works in our weaknesses to display His own power. And that’s my prayer for all of you fellow adventurers in the wild west of youth ministry: may you see God’s power at work more brightly in this present darkness. May He give you all the strength and creativity and patience to carry on in this necessary work. And may you find His reward to be entirely worth the cost.
I’m not sure if I’ve grown in patience over this pandemic. But by God’s grace I think He’s teaching me humility. I find myself repeating, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” more than ever (Prov 16:9). I end sentences with, “If the Lord wills,” more than I used to. And that would be infinitely harder if I didn’t believe that we have a Father in heaven that not only desires good for us, but is powerful enough to accomplish it. So we have to be patient and then more patient. Because God is working on making all things new – on making all things just right.
I don’t know what happens in the rest of this season, but I’m thankful that God is the Head Writer. So keep going, friends. And see what He might have written for you next. After all, I like to think that the future can be viewed like Lewis’ famous description of Aslan:
“Is it quite safe?”
“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course [it] isn’t safe. But [it’s] good.”
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