in the last couple weeks, i’ve heard a couple stories of youth workers that were so inspirational and challenging to me. both stories were inspirational because they capture a vivid snapshot of the passion of people who truly love teenagers. and challenging, because, in both cases, they poked at my comfort and my willingness to really empty myself (as christ did).
i’m in england as i write this post, speaking at the british YFC staff conference. it’s a wonderful family gathering of 450 youth workers from all over england, wales and scotland. immediately following my morning talk on the first day, where i’d attempted to remind the crowd of the simple core of our calling (and not all the complexity we’re often pulled toward), a upper middle-aged couple approached me and asked if i could spend some time with them. later in the day we met for what turned out to be a coaching session of sorts, and i hope god used me to speak some truth into their lives, both encouragement and caution.
but their story…well, it just blew me away.
sue and jim had mostly raised their own children (i think their children are 18, 21 and something a little older than that now). sue was (and is) a part-time mobile hair stylist, and jim manages some properties. but three years ago, sue felt a nudge to consider ministry, and started bible college. as part of her program, she was expected to do some sort of practicum. she approached the minister of her small church and asked about starting a children’s ministry. there were no children in their church, but she somehow reached out to some children from a “council estate” (the british equivalent of a housing project; but here in britain, they are often not urban) a few miles outside of her town. very quickly, the church had a small children’s ministry of 7 or 8 kids. as sue got to know the kids a bit, she realized the struggle of their community, that many of the children never even had a chance to leave the estate, and that there was not a single church presence in this large community, where thousands of children and teenagers lived.
so sue and jim sold their house and moved into the housing estate.
they asked their church for support, but were, in essence (these are my words), shunned, and told that the church would have no part of their work. with no training, no resources other than their own, and no support, they began working directly in this community, seeing the children’s ministry quickly grow from 7 or 8 to more than 120 children attending every week. they launched a young teen gathering and an older teen gathering. initially, their ministry work consisted mostly of taking kids on excursions to give them experiences outside their little estate world. needing transportation for this work, they used personal funds to purchase a 16-person mini-bus. but as the ministries all grew, these excursions became more and more untenable.
without a place to meet, they’d originally held gatherings in their home. but when the attendance overwhelmed their space, they rented space in a small building on the edge of the community.
currently, they run 6 weekly meetings for these three age groups — a sort of “youth group” for each on a weeknight, and a children’s or youth church for each group on sundays. they do all of this without any consistent help from any other adults (one of their adult children had been a key leader with them, but he has just recently needed to step out due to other demands in his life). a long-empty small church building in the middle of the estate has just come up for sale, and they’re in the process of considering using jim’s pension to make an offer on the building.
jim and sue (jim runs the older teen group, and sue runs the children’s and young teen group — but they both attend everything) seriously need to make some changes in order to become sustainable (and hopefully, their recent move to become a YFC centre will be part of that solution).
no youth ministry expert would look at jim and sue’s ministry and conclude that they’re doing things perfectly. how could any two people run multiple ministries of this size and demand in a sustainable way or a way that reflects “best practices” of relational youth work. but without anyone willing to join them in their work, they’re doing literally everything they can to meet needs and follow jesus. changes need to happen, or they won’t make it.
but their hearts. their willingness to give all. their courage. their generosity. their willingness to forfeit comfort. frankly, i was breathless, and brought to the edge of tears.
what are you doing–what am i doing–what brings you beyond your own self-sufficiency and resources? what are each of us who are called to youth ministry doing to minister in a place that completely requires dependency on god?