Every Christian who serves sometimes wonders if his or her efforts are having any effect. With some people it’s not obvious that God is working. Am I really helping this person change? Does my faithfulness really matter?
I added a Youth Ministry Concentration to my M.Div. while in seminary and the primary faculty member suggested that I teach a Youth Sunday School class at my church. He warned me, however, that this particular group of 7th grade boys was notorious. Several teachers had quit over the past year, and he didn’t want me to be another one–these boys didn’t need that. He related to me that the teacher just before me was another seminary student who naively promised the guys on his first Sunday that he wasn’t going to quit on them—he lasted about a month.
The youth pastor at my church was a friend of mine; we had worked at the same Christian camp one summer and were now in seminary together, so I wanted to help him out while also investigating if youth ministry was for me.
While my wife attended an adult S.S. class, coincidentally taught by the father of one of the 7th grade boys in my class, I made my way to my class on that first Sunday. It’s not my default to be optimistic, but I was certainly naïve. I wondered how bad could they really be? I was a little late finding my way to the classroom—this church had famously labyrinthine hallways, and by the time I got there, the boys had arrived and had locked me out of the classroom. They saw me and heard my knocking, but wouldn’t open the door. I had to get my youth pastor friend so he could unlock the classroom for me! He gave them a talking to that morning before I could even get into the day’s lesson.
On one of the next Sundays they stole my curriculum and hid it. For a while they wouldn’t tell me where it was. They were a rambunctious lot: interrupting me, not listening, intentionally creating distractions, speaking out of turn, trying to sidetrack me—it seemed they were purposely trying to annoy me. I continued to invest in them primarily on Sunday mornings, but I also went to Winter Retreat Camp with them as their counselor (they loved shooting me with paintballs!). We did work days and other teen activities together. I was their teacher for 7th, 8th, and one half of 9th grade. By that time I was done with seminary and was moving away to my first ministry. This isn’t a Hallmark story. They didn’t come up and hug me on my last day, and there are a few whose lives since then have proved they were never believers. But they knew that I didn’t quit. I was their longest serving teacher.
About ten years later one of those boys that was married and on the road representing a Christian college stayed at our house. He confessed that all the boys decided that first day of class to see if they could make me quit. They literally plotted this together! It wasn’t personal; they really didn’t even know me until that first day. It’s just that others had quit, and they suspected they could make me quit too. They were, as my wife said at the time, “naughty little boys.” They were hoping to set a record for how fast I would quit; they actually discussed that. I’ve had others in that class confirm that story since then. It’s funny now, but it was certainly difficult at the time.
A surprising number of them went to seminary and into vocational ministry serving as pastors and at least one as a missionary in a closed country. Others are active in their churches. I don’t live on the East Coast where I went to seminary, but over the years I’ve run into a few of them and now we laugh about their antics. Their spiritual growth had very little to do with me; I don’t remember one lesson that I taught them those 2.5 years. But they had parents that had the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon and a youth pastor that loved them. And, most importantly, they had a God that was working in their hearts even when I couldn’t see it.
I thank God for those 7th grade boys. They taught me dependence upon God. I found out that God’s grace could keep me serving even if it were difficult. Sure, probably most people could have endured an hour a week (although several teachers that quit belie that claim) ministering to ungrateful little rascals. It wasn’t that impressive. But it is an example of God’s faithfulness to me. He gave me strength and actually joy (?!) every week as I anticipated serving them.
I was just trying to be faithful as God commands.
Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 1 Cor 4:2 (ESV)
Faithfulness is not all that is required for effective ministry. Other attributes are important too. However, sometimes that’s what ministry is. Being faithful in the little things and trusting God even when His work seems invisible or impossible. The little things are where we show faithfulness. For those boys and for me, just showing up every Sunday mattered.