A couple of months ago, a relative of mine passed away. The funeral service was at the church, and the burial service was at a cemetery next door. After the committal service, our extended family was invited to the church fellowship hall, where people of the church graciously served a meal.
Our one-year-old daughter was with us, and I went to the lady in charge of the kitchen to ask for a highchair. She looked puzzled and said, "You know, I'm not certain we have one." I said, "Not even one highchair?" She said, "We might have one back in the storage closet."
She grabbed a damp washcloth and opened the door to a closet full of everything. I hiked over the top of a bunch of loose folding chairs and found the lone highchair. It looked like it had gone unused for quite some time. I pulled it out, and as the hostess wiped it off with the damp cloth she said, "It's been a long time since we've had any little ones around here."
Do you see a problem? The cemetery had moved into the church. "Where there is no vision, the people will perish." Where there is no concern for the church of tomorrow, there will be little power in the church of today. The church has a responsibility to keep the dust off the highchairs and plan for the future by placing a high priority on today's youth. When I talk about keeping the dust off the highchairs, it has nothing to do with maintenance, and everything to do with ministry. My talk will be divided into two parts: the responsibility of the church and the responsibility of its youth leaders. The church's responsibility to its youth includes a purposeful ministry and consistent prayer—purpose and prayer.
Purpose focuses youth ministry
Several years ago, the London Transit Authority had a problem. Buses were going right past passengers who were waiting at designated places to be picked up. They were at the bus stops, and the buses were sailing right past them. The London Transit Authority released a statement to explain their actions. The statement said it was impossible for them to maintain schedules if they always had to stop and pick up passengers. You and I thought a transit authority existed for the purpose of providing transportation.
It's important that the church recognize its purpose for the youth program. Are kids seen as obstacles or as opportunities? When I speak at youth conventions, the same thing occurs every Saturday morning. While the kids are in workshops, I do sessions for adult sponsors. I hear the adults grumbling about the concert the night before. "I couldn't believe that group they had in here. That rap music! I was up on the seventh floor, and I could hear every word they said. I told them Pat Boone was available. I don't know why they didn't get him."
I tactfully remind these adults that what matters are the needs of the kids, not the needs of the adults. That's why we call it a teen convention. If it can reach a young person, bring it on.
The purpose of youth ministry is modeled for us in the life of Jesus Christ. Luke 2:52 links Christ's life at 12 years of age to the time when he's 30 years of age. One verse covers 18 years in the life of Christ. You memorized it as a youngster. It says, "Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man." It should be the goal of youth ministry to grow our children the same way God grew his. How did God do it? They grow in wisdom (intellectually). They grow in stature (physically). They grow in favor with God and man (spiritually and socially). There's the purpose of youth ministry.
Prayer must be a component of youth ministry
The other responsibility the church must assume is prayer. Doug Shaw, my youth minister, is here today with 20 years in youth ministry. Doug is the gentleman in the straitjacket here at the front. One time, Doug told me about a hospital call on an elderly woman who was on the verge of death. This woman was active in the church and had a real burden for the kids. Just before she died, Doug offered to pray for her. She said "Don't pray for me; pray for the kids." That's exactly what Doug did. He took her hand and prayed for the young people at her church. By the time he finished praying, she had passed away. It's no surprise that church keeps the dust off their highchairs.
On the whole, our churches don't pray enough. We leaders don't pray that much. The problem is, in our fast-paced society, complete with microwave ovens, car phones, fax machines, and drive-through banking, we want fast answers and results. When we don't get them as quickly as we want, our response is to stop praying. We blame God for not answering our requests. As youth leaders we need to set the example for our church by becoming prayer warriors for our kids.
A couple of years ago, I went with three other people to a Pizza Hut restaurant for lunch. The four of us ordered personal pan pizzas. Our waitress put a timer down on the table and said, "We've got a special going right now. If you don't get your pizza within five minutes, you get your pizza for free."
Like a little kid, I watched that clock the whole time. At the 4-1/2 minute mark, I hollered across the room that she had 30 seconds left. I didn't want to get my hopes up, because I knew she was going to come sliding in there at 4:58 and put the pizzas down, and I'd have gotten excited for nothing. But she didn't get over there until 5:38 seconds. Now the rest of my table was ready to let her off the hook. But when she came over, I said, "I guess you owe us a free pizza." She said, "I guess I do." She brought four free coupons for free pizza on our next visit.
I had actually said to her, "Hey, we didn't get what we expected within the allotted amount of time, so it's time for you to pay up." Are you ever like me? Are you ever guilty of treating the God of the universe like a Pizza Hut waitress? "Time's up! You owe me, God. I prayed, God, now save my marriage. Where are those sharp youth sponsors? I've prayed; now heal her. I've been praying, Lord; where's that raise? Where's the money for my school bill? I want to see some results. The timer's running. The timer's running."
We need to change our mindset from thinking that prayer is a last resort and allow it to become a first priority in our lives. Martin Luther said "I have so much business to tend to that my day cannot begin without first spending two hours in prayer."
Some of you probably came to this conference for no other reason than to escape from the pressures and frustration of your ministry. Some of you came to this conference to get rejuvenated, get some fresh, new ideas, and have a great time of fellowship. Some of you may have come to this conference praying, "Lord, help me change churches." Maybe you need to pray, "Lord, change me." Sometimes prayer changes things. Usually, prayer changes us. We must pray specifically and confidently, and pass that baton of prayer on to the members of our church. When we pray expectantly, God brings the increase. Ephesians 3:20 says God is able to do immeasurably more than we ever ask or imagine. He blows us away.
Two-and-a-half years ago at a staff retreat, we had a two-hour time for prayer. Each of us was to go into the park and pray alone for any heavy burden we were carrying. Our senior high youth minister, Jim, had been on staff for about five months, and he still carried a heavy burden for the church he had come from. The church had not replaced him, and he was concerned that the momentum he had seen might simply disappear. He even wondered if he should have left that church. "Lord, will you somehow just give me some type of confirmation?" In about half an hour, he saw a van pull into the park and stop long enough to throw some trash into a wastebasket. Jim recognized the driver and walked over to the van. It was a guy from his previous church—four hours away from the retreat site. In the course of their conversation, this man said, "I don't know if you know this, Jim, but I'm teaching the senior high Sunday school class that you used to teach. Everything is going fine. You don't need to worry about anything." Coincidence? No.
Three foundations for youth ministry
What's your role as a youth leader in helping to keep the dust off the highchairs? Well, the youth leader's responsibility centers around three different words that must be foundations to youth work. "Encouragement" is the first word. The psalmist writes in Psalm 127:45, "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior, are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them." Les Christie says that when the Scriptures compare children to arrows, it communicates the truth that kids need to be aimed in the proper direction. Some of you have been blessed with a quiver full of 20, 50, or even 100 kids. That's a big responsibility.
I've read that Michelangelo, the great sculptor and painter, was pushing a heavy rock up a small incline to his work area so that he could do some sculpting. A neighbor watched him for over an hour as he worked to get this rock in place. Finally he asked, "Michelangelo, why do you labor so hard over that ugly, heavy piece of rock?" Michelangelo said, "Because there is an angel inside that wants to come out."
Some of you may be saying, "Well, Dave, evidently it's been a while since you've been in youth ministry, because my kids are not angels. They're more like devils." I would say "I guess it depends upon which direction you aim your arrow." You may be the only person who can influence them spiritually. You may be the only person who can convince them that they are valued by God and precious in his sight.
I tell you this next story with the permission of a young lady in our church. Her name is Lori. About two years ago, she tried to drive off a cliff to commit suicide. Her car tires got stuck in loose dirt and saved her life. I visit Lori in a psychiatric unit here in Louisville. She talks about her poor self-image and her low self-esteem. I asked her what makes her feel that way, and when it began.
She said, "I think back when I was in high school. It really started to affect me during my senior year of high school. I was one of the princesses on the homecoming court. I came home from the homecoming dance late that night, and as soon as I walked in the door, my mom grabbed the crown off of my head, threw it to the ground, and she crushed it with her foot. 'You are no princess!' she said."
It is hard for us to imagine people could be that cruel. Can you believe that a parent could be that cutting and mean? If you've been in youth work very long, you can believe it. You may be the only adult who will bother to give young people a word of encouragement. Wouldn't it have been great if somebody had said, "Lori, you are a princess. You are a child of the King."
In the New Testament, the disciples thought they were Jesus' Secret Service when children came running to him. They said: Hey, he doesn't have time for you.
Jesus said: Oh, yes, I do. Step aside, guys. Unless you become like these little ones, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Today's kids are saying, "Will somebody please love me? I'll give you my body if you'll love me. I'll take drugs if you'll take me into your group. I'll terminate my relationship with my family if you'll just take me and make me part of your gang. Will somebody please love me?" Many of you are laboring for the Lord because a youth leader took a personal interest in you years ago. First Thessalonians 5:11 tells us to encourage one another and build each other up. The more you encourage your youth, the less need you'll have for a damp washcloth for a dusty highchair.
The second word I want you to consider is the word "evangelism." We have a responsibility to take the changeless gospel to a world that is constantly changing. The goal of your youth group should be the same as the goal of your church—to seek and to save that which is lost.
My dentist is a member of my church. One of his employees has been considering coming to our church. She has no relationship with the Lord. She and her husband haven't been to church since they got married, and they're quite skeptical of Christianity. Last month they came to our Christmas Eve service bringing, for the first time in their lives, their six-year-old and two-year-old daughters. Later, as they were watching the evening news, they saw a feature on our church's Christmas Eve services. As soon as she saw it, the six-year-old daughter said, "Look, Mommy, there's our church." The impact you can have on kids, and the impact they can have on their parents, is immeasurable.
That leads us to our final word. The youth leader's biggest responsibility is to be an "example." Most people tend to go to one extreme or the other. They either feel that they are indispensable or they are worthless. Both feelings are anti-Scriptural. Paul said in Romans 12:3, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you."
The youth leader has a sphere of influence. God has planted you there to be an example. Don't ever feel you're worthless or your job is unimportant. You have influence; you have impact. Your example will speak volumes. Albert Schweitzer said, "Example is not the best way of teaching. It is the only way of teaching."
Young people today have incredible odds to overcome. Students are told either they came from an ape or are a result of some accidental, cosmic explosion. We wonder why our kids suffer from low self-esteem. Frank Peretti says "If you were told you're here by accident, would you feel like you really have a purpose in life?" High schoolers are taught to think: Condom first, commitment second instead of: Jesus first, marriage second. It's tough out there.
Several months ago, our family went to a swimming pool. I was down in the deep end, swimming around by the diving board, and my four-year-old, Savannah, came tottering into the shallow end of the pool. She can't swim yet, but she wears these big orange floaties. She can't sink with her huge orange floaties on. Savannah came down the steps, and as soon as she got out there in the water, she said, "Daddy, I'm scared. I want to come where you are."
I chuckled at her naiveté and said, "Savannah, it's a lot deeper down here." She said, "I don't care. I want to be where you are." "Okay, come on," I said. She began dog-paddling across the pool: 3-foot, 6-foot, 9-foot, 12-foot-deep water. When she came up to me, she grabbed my neck, and her look of panic gave way to relief. Next to her father she felt secure, and it made very little difference how deep or how dangerous the water was.
Life in these United States for a kid in the 1990s is difficult. Today, there are more risks and more dangers, as society keeps trying to pull our kids under. The water gets deeper and deeper. Would you do your best as a youth leader to help those kids stay close to the Father? Will you teach them not to put their trust in you, but to put their trust in him and stay right by his side where he can hold them, guide them, and keep them?
I want to close with these poetic words:
I took a piece of plastic clay,
and idly fashioned it one day.
And as my fingers pressed it still,
it moved and yielded to my will.
I came again when the days were passed,
and the bit of clay was hard at last.
The form I gave it still it bore,
but I could change that form no more.
I took a piece of living clay,
and gently formed it day by day;
And molded with my power and art,
a young child's soft and yielding heart.
I came again when the days were gone,
it was a man I looked upon.
He still that early impress wore,
but I could change that form no more.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Dave Stone is the former Senior Pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky,