I thought about the relationship that we developed, and how the time that we spent together years ago was now directly tied in his mind to his men’s discipleship planning group. Whatever it was that we did together was discipleship, and it pointed him to Christ and the church and a faith that he still holds today.
I received a message the other day from Evan (not his real name) who was one of the students in the first youth group that I led after seminary. I served four years in that church and spent a lot of time with Evan. During that time, he graduated from high school and then had some difficulties launching. His family situation wasn’t always the best and he wasn’t sure what his goals were or what his future held. His message said this:
“Spiderman (a nickname I earned for some reason I can’t now remember)! I miss you. I was in a men's discipleship planning group today and couldn’t help but remember all you had done for me in my life. Thank you for all your intentionality in investing in my life! I wish we stayed more connected throughout these years, but I can’t help but always look back and be thankful for the times we did have together.”
It’s been 14 years since Evan and I have spent significant time together. Since then he’s gotten married and has a family of his own. But 14 years later he remembers the time that we spent together and acknowledges what a difference that made in his life. I was blown away by his message to say the least.
One of the things I typically regret about my years in youth ministry is not talking about Jesus more. That might sound a little strange, but it’s true. I spend a lot of time with students doing all sorts of things: serving together, playing games together, talking about life and goals and struggles. Jesus flavors all of those conversations no doubt. But I seldomly pull out the Bible or stop to pray. I build relationships and pray every day that through those relationships and conversations Jesus is unveiled in front of students. And while I’m never totally sure that happens in every circumstance, messages like the one above make me think that maybe, just maybe, God is doing something through my feeble attempts at Christ-centered relationships with students.
I read a Barna study a while back that talked about relational closeness as one of the markers for human flourishing and how relational flourishing and a flourishing faith are connected. I thought about the message I received from Evan again. I thought about the relationship that we developed, and how the time that we spent together years ago was now directly tied in his mind to his men’s discipleship planning group. Whatever it was that we did together was discipleship, and it pointed him to Christ and the church and a faith that he still holds today.
A few weeks after I received that message from Evan, I had the opportunity to spend a Sunday morning with some of our church's youngest members in what we call “Children in Worship.” It’s a time during the sermon when our kids, ages three through first grade or so, get to hear a Bible story in a different setting. The story that morning was Zaccheus. We talked about how much Zaccheus wanted to see Jesus, how sorry he was for the things that he had done wrong, and how Jesus loved him and truly saw him as a child of God. After the story was done we sang a song (I bet you can guess which one), we took a walk outside around our church building looking for which tree we might climb to see Jesus, and we played “I Spy” before we prayed and rejoined the rest of our church members to finish off the morning worship service. It was a fun morning, but I wasn’t sure I had made a huge impact for Christ on these students.
The following Sunday morning I was standing in the back of our sanctuary when our children were again excused for Children in Worship. One of the kids caught my eye as she walked past me and gave me a huge smile. She remembered the time we had spent together, as did a few other kids I came to know. Her smile made me think of Evan and the Barna study I had read.
Maybe discipleship isn’t as difficult as we make it out to be. Maybe what we all want are people that we can live life in relationship with. Maybe those relationships are what point us to Christ and his deep desire to be in relationship with us as well. Maybe we don’t need to feel bad if we don’t always pull out our Bibles or pray together. Maybe we just need to love others and invest in them and then get out of the way and let the Spirit work.
As you reflect on this blog, consider the ways your worship services are encouraging and fostering relationships intergenerationally. Are there moments present where everyone can connect in age-appropriate ways? Are there moments where everyone can interact with people of all ages and feel as though they belong to a larger community of believers? What are ways you can encourage relationships through your worship and through your preaching?