encouraging an old youth pastor’s heart

in about 1990, 20 years ago, i had two dudes in my middle school ministry in omaha, nebraska. mark arant was a short kid, fairly quiet (at least at church), and not interested in much other than skating. jeff thune was also small, not as quiet as mark, but just starting to individuate himself from only being known as the senior pastor’s kid.

today, those two guys are now 33 year-old men, planting a church in iowa city, iowa.

i’ve followed their stories on an off over the years, thanks to facebook and a few mutual friends. i ran into jeff at a youth worker event about 5 years ago. both guys were youth workers for a while (among other ministry roles). but they felt called to start this church in iowa city that is especially targeted at connecting with the 40,000 students of the university of iowa.

i was in iowa city last weekend for a speaking gig, and had a chance to reconnect with mark and jeff. man, there is just about nothing better for the heart and ongoing calling of a youth worker who’s been around the track a few times to see now-adult former students with a significant faith. i thought i’d have youth ministry fuel for at least a year merely based on the comment mark made as we said goodbye, “hey, thanks for building into us, man.”

but then, i saw this — mark’s blog post from the other day:

This summer is the 20 year anniversary of when I first “got it.”

You see, I was a Christian butthead. I grew up in church, prayed “the prayer” every night (“God if you didn’t hear me last night, I really don’t want to go to hell. I invite you into my life once again as my personal Savior.”), but I had a problem. I was an angry, violent, insecure skate punk.

My mom, along with Sally Kuphal (my friend’s mom), conspired to get Joe and me on a mission trip to Mexico. They brokered a deal with Marko, the junior high pastor, that we would both go if we could be together the entire 10 days of the trip. And so it happened, we went kicking, but not screaming, because we figured, “Ehh, it can’t be that lame if we can be together. We should be able to endure this uncool group for a week.”

It was the first time I prayed out loud in a group (other than my family), saw poverty, got caught up in corporate worship, felt “called” to something bigger than skating, made friends other than Joe… (One of them I’m currently planting a church with. Cosmic accident?)

I look back on that summer as one of the top ten defining moments of my life.

But somewhere in the middle- between a 13 year old spoiled American skate punk and a loving and good God- was a junior high pastor who believed that 13 year olds are worth it.

Nineteen years later, as divine providence would have it, Jeff Thune and I got a Facebook message from our old junior high pastor, “Hey, I’m in Iowa City doing some training for youth pastors. I heard you guys are here! Let’s hang out.” Of course, 20 years later he’s going stronger than ever, loving teenagers (he still has a small group at his church) and training youth workers (he travels the world, speaking, writing, and mentoring).

From 13 year old punk to 33 year old church planter. That’s me. I have a trail of people to thank along the way.

Thanks, Marko, for believing that teenagers can change the world. Bless you, my friend.

i read this to a youth ministry friend who is also “seasoned” and she started crying, even though she’s never met mark and jeff. this is it — this is why we do this thing. this is why. thanks, god; this is why.

19 thoughts on “encouraging an old youth pastor’s heart”

  1. Made me cry too. What a beautiful tribute to you and to everyone who invests in teenagers, no matter the outcome.

  2. It’s such a blessing when we go places, and John is stopped by parents of past kids in him small group, and thank him for the influence he had on their lives. It happens about 2-3 times a year, and it amazes me every time. We are so blessed to be used in these kids’ lives.

  3. That is awesome. It’s stories like that, that keep us old guys going. You never know what loving kids unconditionally is going to do!

  4. It looks like God had a better reason for you to come to Iowa City than to just speak at our event. It is an amazing story of why we do what we do. Thanks for letting us in on this amazingly encouraging story for all youth workers.

  5. Marko, this is what you have said and all who work with Junior High have said over the years. We don’t get feedback from them while they are in the adolescent years but it is when they emerge on the other side and write these types of things or call us years later that we get to see what we already know God will do in their lives. Amen and thank you for building into them and us!

  6. Thanks Marko! It’s the thought that someday God is going to introduce us to millions who will thank us, not for being the awesome youth pastor guy but for loving, mentoring, and believing in the students who made a difference in their lives…

  7. a strong reminder of why we do this! 13 year olds are certainly worth it, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine the lasting impact. i needed some reminding today. thanks for sharing.

  8. I hear some of my own story in Mark’s words: typical church kid, knew all the Bible verses, prayed “the prayer” when I was little (maybe more so every time they showed Thief in the Night!) but it wasn’t until the summer of 1992, when you took a small group of us jr highers to LA for a week that i “got it.” Not only did I experience God and his kingdom and heart like never before, but I too made some incredible friends who are friends to this day. Thank you for pouring into us Marko, and stretching us with such an experience along with many others. That year you were our pastor (I can’t believe it was just one year!) was one of the most pivotal in my life and I’m grateful for the time you and Jeannie invested in me personally as well as my friends. We were incredibly blessed to have you!

  9. Marko: Great post. I am so thankful that “after all these years” you are still investing in the lives of teenagers, since my son is in your small group. It’s so awesome to see other adults speaking into his life and valuing his input. Thanks for investing in Zach, and all of the other kids along the way. It’s a lasting impact and I am so glad you got such a great reminder.

  10. Fantastic stuff Marko. Sometimes (as you know) it takes time before you see the long term fruit of your ministry, but man is it fun when God gives you little pictures of Kingdom Impact! Thanks for your faithfulness to our great God! Keep going! -JB

  11. Thanks for the reminder, Marko. Sometimes when you are in the midst of the job you forget why you are doing what you are doing and it is things like this that smack you up side the head and remind you.

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