I was a young preacher looking for the silver-bullet solution to grow a small youth group. I started with no formal training, but I had a lifetime of a preacher’ s-kid experience to draw upon. I knew how mundane church life could be. Because of this, I began seeking answers; I needed to reach more teenagers. Most of my church-raised students were nominal in their relationship with Jesus and with the church. I knew there had to be some hidden secret of getting them more engaged. I was determined to find it.
A fellow youth minister handed me a small book. It was supposed to be a popular read that re-packaged the gospel in a culturally relevant way. I habitually flipped to the back cover to find it decorated with applause from renowned Christian leaders. I was convinced this could possibly be my answer.
A few days later and a few chapters into the book, I was thoroughly disappointed. The author, whom I shall leave unnamed, shared his disillusionment with the American church. He took a few chapters to identify the cultural shift in our society and then urged Christians to consider making the same shift as well. His book implied that a more covert and less demanding presentation of the gospel would effectively reach an emerging generation. I’m not saying that all of the writers’ ideas were wrong, but I was simply taken aback by the assumptions that were made. He posed that the church of Jesus could be more effective if we took a less aggressive stance on moral principles and rather focus on simplifying the message of salvation. His solution was for ministers to empathize with a culturally-induced need for individuals to feel “cool.”
I laid the book down and thought to myself, “Is this really it? Have I been missing it all this time? Am I preaching a message that is not culturally relevant?” I made a shift in my ministry approach in response to what I read. I made it my aim to be more sensitive to the cultural pressures that my students faced. I worked harder to engage in what interested them. I tried to listen to their music, watch their shows, and be more in tune with the latest norms. It was effective to a small degree. I was a cool youth pastor in their eyes. In the building of stronger relationships, I got to know my students more. Attendance increased in my little youth group. But in the urge to be more relevant, I began to sacrifice my time in the presence of Jesus
Soon, I faced a bigger problem. I was confronted with serious issues in the lives of my students. I had cutters, sexually active, and porn-addicted kids. They were all church kids with non-church problems, and all I could offer was my ability to empathize with their way of thinking. I felt powerless. I wasn’t a counselor, and I didn’t have any new answers to age-old problems. I needed power, and my culturally-relevant author had nothing to say about it.
Around that time, I received a call from one of the parents in our church. Their teenager had gone off the deep end. Their role-model child decided they were done with the whole Christian life. In short, their child left home, moved in with their friend, and decided they were done with the Christian faith. Their child stated that they were going into a sexually active relationship and that, because of the love they felt, they didn’t want to be inhibited. The parents were devastated. Thinking about the book I had just read, I couldn’t come up with a single idea of what to do or how to respond.
Then I remembered how my parents faced situations like this in their church. I remembered how my mom many times would take up a fast and cry out to God for the lost. Over the next few days, I followed that well-traveled road of fasting and prayer. I rose early and headed to our portable building/ youth room and spent hours worshipping, praying, and interceding for this family. Within seven days, a miracle happened. God restored this student and brought healing to the family. In my time of prayer and fasting, however, something more happened to me. I began to encounter the presence of Jesus in a powerful way. I was reminded that my call to ministry wasn’t hinged on my ability to present the gospel in the most socially acceptable way. I began my ministry out of a powerful encounter with Jesus. He appeared to me, and I responded to Him. I was reminded that all ministry flows out of continuous encounters with Jesus and nothing less. No amount of marketing, entertainment, or culturally sensitive ideologies could change the heart of a broken student.
Today I feel like I’ve come full circle in this aspect of ministry. As I scroll through news feeds and emails, I’m bombarded with sales pitches that are aimed at aiding preachers. They boast of marketing strategies that can triple church attendance in so many days or launch one’s communication skills into another realm of influence. Those techniques may be successful in attracting and entertaining crowds, but ministry isn’t a subset of the entertainment world. We are in the world of redeeming lives and making disciples. Sure, you can buy a little box of videos and books that may improve your communication, but the work of transforming lives can only be done by the Holy Spirit, and He seems to have a disdain for those who try to buy His power. (See Acts 8:9-25)
What works in the ministry? Following the Holy Spirit. Unless you have a deep honor for His presence and full reliance on His voice, the ministry will become a constant frustration. On the contrary, when you have your heart connected with His, you’ll find that in the most challenging of seasons, the joy of an effective ministry cannot be extinguished in your life.