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Successful or Faithful?

Ministering to teenagers for over 12 years has, much like a teenager, come with a variety of emotions. Days where I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing to days where I dream of a 9-5 office job where I can just clock out for the day. When I began doing youth ministry as a full time intern in 2007, I honestly thought that there was a certain age where you just aged out. Most women in youth ministry I knew moved to a different career in their early 30s or left all together to have children. Most men moved to a “real” ministry position as a pastor or campus minister. At least once a year I’ve been asked and have asked myself, “So, what are you going to do next?”

In that question there’s seems to be an underlying assumption that sometimes catches me off guard even within myself. The assumption that there should be a next. Is this really what you want to do for the rest of your life? In some ways a twinge of (maybe even more than a twinge of), you could do better than this. In my pride, my idol of success and desire to be the best, I struggle with this tension. This tension has been a main tool of sanctification that the Lord has used throughout my life. In my walk with Jesus, am I motivated to be successful or to be faithful?

Whose Glory?

There has never been a day where I have not known Jesus. I’ve grown up in the church. Both of my parents are believers and love the church. If the doors were open, we were there. I have often said if you were to make a Saturday Night Live “youth group kid” skit, that would’ve been me. There was something so satisfying about being the good Christian kid that everyone wanted to be around. Not only that, but I could be a better Christian than everyone else. I could avoid all the temptations and look down on all of those around me with “such little faith.” I was a pharisee to the core. Motivated by my good behavior and it was, in a word, exhausting.

My parents would often get the brunt of this exhaustion. Having been “perfect” all day at school to be the good girl, avoid the bad kids, be liked by everyone, do all the right things in front of other adults; all my “ugly” was released when I got home. That exhaustion just led to me being a mean, rude, entitled daughter, who allegedly loved Jesus. I was so motivated by how other people saw me that when I was in the safest place, home, the truth of my sin was revealed. My walk with Jesus was motivated by how good of a Christian I could be. It was a motivation to be successful. If I’m going to follow Jesus then I need to be the best one at it because being the best, after all is what makes one successful, right? I, sadly, see so much of me in James and John’s request in Mark 10:35-37, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Give me glory.

Doing long term ministry, with teenagers, has revealed so much of Jesus’ rebuke of James and John in my own life. When my motivation is to be successful, I am the star of the show. I have to make sure that people like me. That at every event everyone is participating and having a great time. That everyone wants to hang out with me. I am motivated by the love of people and if you know teenagers, their loves change every .25 seconds, therefore, you’ve got to be ready to have a new act in the same timeframe. Impossible.

This is an all too easy trap to fall into when it comes to working with youth. The pressure to have the best youth ministry in town so that people come to your church. That you have the most attendance because that shows that you are good at your job. If kids aren’t showing up, it’s on you. When I am motivated to be successful I am desiring a glory for myself which leads to burnout, impatience, anger, and a joyless ministry. Not only that but it will lead to a church culture and a culture of students who view ministry life in the same way, where numbers become the view of a good church. As a Bible-believing Christian I should not be shocked at this result.

We see this all too clearly in the first chapters of God’s Word, Genesis 1-3. God created all things for His glory, including us. We were made to bring Him glory, and we functioned best, most human in that way. Then we believed the serpent’s lies that we should have this same glory. We deserved it. God was holding out on us. The result is what we see in the lives of any celebrity or Apple product, there’s always the latest and greatest. We cannot keep up with this glory because we weren’t made for it. Only One can produce glory in and of Himself, the God of the universe. In order for us to maintain glory we have to stay on the treadmill of whatever we deem as success and never, ever get off. We have the incredibly high privilege of getting sideline seats to watch Him work as our faithful, steadfast, covenant keeping Lord. Click To Tweet

Faithfulness in Weakness

Just like Jesus revealed to James and John, it is in that exhaustion, in that weakness, where God’s faithfulness meets us. It is in His willingness “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45) that we can enter into this kind of faithful ministry. It is in us coming to the end of our own glory and laying down our view of greatness or success at the foot of the cross. Long term ministry, alongside the guidance of others that have ministered faithfully throughout the years to teenagers, has taught me and continues to teach me that when my motivation is to be faithful, or rather to respond to God’s faithfulness to me, my motivation is no longer my own. It’s not about me at all. It brings rest and joy even in the midst of chaos because it allows me to trust and rely on God to do the work He has set out to do. We have the incredibly high privilege of getting sideline seats to watch Him work as our faithful, steadfast, covenant keeping Lord. (Deut. 7:9)

Teenagers live in ever changing, fast pace and let’s face it unfaithful world. Friendship are easily abandoned. Crushes and loves change daily. Emotions and feelings are running rampant and confusing. Parents divorce. People cheat and lie. There is little place where a teenager feels safe to share a secret or a struggle for fear of overreaction or their secret being shared. Teenagers more than ever need faithful adult believers in their lives. Faithful with their lives, because Jesus has been faithful to them.

Youth ministry for the long haul is a high calling, but more and more critical for the lives of students and for the future of the Church. I have had the privilege of being a part of a network called the Barnabas Connection that I have turned to, been challenged by, encouraged by, and entered into deep friendship with others in ministry for the long haul. Without the faithfulness of the Lord and the community of those He has called to minister alongside me I would not be in ministry today. So what is my aim? To be successful or to be faithful?

Sara Litten

Sara Litten is the Girls Ministry Director at Covenant Presbyterian Church (Birmingham, AL) and has been in youth ministry for over 12 years. She is married to Paul, a middle school choir director and has two children, Marley (6) and Reid (2). Sara loves youth ministry and wants to see more men and women enter the youth ministry field for the long haul.

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