more than fifteen years ago, i identified three 7th and 8th grade guys in my junior high ministry and started meeting with them, as a group, as guys i wanted to mentor. i saw both a spiritual interest and leadership potential in each of them. i think back on this little group as one of my many fond memories over my 30 years in middle school ministry.
one of those guys was michael. other than one or two facebook connections in recent years, i’d mostly lost touch with michael. until a week ago. all i knew was that michael had, in the years since, seemed to drift away from the church (and maybe his faith?).
last week, while visiting the city michael now lives in, i got to have coffee with him. it was a blast to reconnect and hear his story. he’s a highly committed volunteer youth worker at his church these days, which–of course–brings me great joy.
but hearing michael’s story fascinated me. his freshman year of high school, michael had a traumatic skateboard accident and was incapacitated for three months. even though he’d been extremely involved in the youth ministry, no students called him while he was out, or came by to visit him. a couple leaders reached out, but no students.
the sunday morning he returned, not one person asked him where he’d been or how he was, or expressed that they’d missed him. a switch flipped, and michael suddenly, in that space (remember: he was a 14 year-old 9th grader at the time), saw that he didn’t belong. and he never came back.
a dozen years passed. michael got involved in a bunch of destructive habits, dropped out of high school (even though he was always an extremely intelligent guy), got his G.E.D., moved to another city, and sort of drifted through life. he said he never really dropped his belief in god, but he was very angry with the church. over time, this anger at the church grew to a calcified belief that the church was a joke, and merely a collective of hypocrites.
after a dozen years, michael felt the pull to try out a local church he’d heard about. funny thing is, while it might have been god’s spirit prompting him to return, michael’s entire reason for giving it a shot was to prove, to himself, that he was right about how cold and hypocritical the church was. by this time, michael had tattoos up and down his arms. he purposely wore a sleeveless shirt that morning, as an intentional dare to whoever would look at him funny or say something negative about his tattoos.
michael was walking across the parking lot of this church, steeling himself for the negative response he was confident he would receive. but the first person he encountered said, “great tats, man. who does your work?”
that was it. michael was back.
here’s what i find stunning about this story. the actions that caused michael to leave, and the action that opened the door to his return, were so very, very minor. they weren’t about structures or methodologies or programming or curriculum or buildings or youth rooms. they were both–negative and positive–about expressing (or not expressing), “you belong, and we want you here.”
amazing. seems life a puff of air — something so featherweight. but in negative and, thankfully, redemptive ways, these seemingly minor expressions shaped michael’s story more than anything else over the last 15 years.
how is your youth ministry embodying the value of belonging?