The key to sports is the follow-through. Long after the ball is on its own, your actions still affect it. I remember learning how to throw a football when I was a kid. “Follow through with your whole body.” “Point toward where you want the ball to go.” I was learning how to think about throwing; finding the way to best attain my goal. If I want to throw a pass to a receiver, I need to put my whole body into it, I need to know where I want the ball to go. The goal isn't to release the ball into the air, but to send it off with a purpose.
The same is true with youth ministry. The goal is not to get the kids off to college with a touch of Christianity floating around in their heads. The goal is to send them off into the world following Jesus. I think most youth groups do a good job telling their kids about Christ. It's sort of expected, I guess. But what happens when the wide-eyed Freshman confronts the world? What happens when the seasoned college student is faced with temptation, depression, loneliness... life?
Follow-through is the key. If you want the receiver to catch the ball, you need to follow through with your pass. If you want your students to truly receive the message of Christ, you need to follow through with your ministry. When a student graduates and moves on, we, as ministers, are not off the hook. Our duty to “...make disciples...” connotes a life-long process, not a four-year mission.
I work with both teenagers and young adults within my church, so maybe the whole ordeal is a little bit easier for me, but I stay in contact with many of my former students as they move on from high school. My relationships with them grow and mature as they grow and mature. They all know I am only a phone call, text, or Facebook comment away. I still meet with them when they have breaks from college, and I enjoy watching them take ownership of their faith on a personal level.
As hard as youth ministry can be, with the drama, the issues, the apathy... it gets harder for the students as they transition into adulthood. The temptations are greater, but the support is diminished. There are no parents badgering them, professors don't usually put forth much effort into their personal lives, there are no youth pastors watching out for them, and they are not forced to go to church on Sunday. Not all of the students lose their faith in college. I have known a lot of amazing teenagers who love Jesus, but when they went to college, they felt lost and didn't know what to do. So, they called me, and we talked about it. When the students realize that they aren't alone, and that I wasn't lying when I said I am here for them and that I love them, they find encouragement and strength to keep trying. It's at those moments that their faith becomes personal, something to cherish and protect.
I think the hardest part of youth ministry is watching students turn away from God. Sometimes that happens in high school, but it definitely happens to many after graduation. The pain is the same, but the perception is different. When a 16 year old loses faith, we contact parents, meet with other leaders, and we try hard to reach out and help that student. When a 21 year old falters, we might hear about it over a conversation with a friend of a friend, or maybe when we happen to notice progressively darker Facebook status updates. Maybe a prayer goes out, or a "word of encouragement" is sent, but how often do we jump into the fight with those former students?
My goal here is not to point fingers or contribute to the current fad of Christians bashing Christians. My hope is that when you read this, you will take a look at your personal level of involvement in the lives of students. If you work hard at building relationships with your students, cultivating lifelong relationships, I want to encourage you. Keep up the good work! If you read this and realize that you haven't been maintaining relationships, I want to encourage you to start. It's never too late.
Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10: 11-15). Youth ministry is more than a job, or a stepping stone into "big church" ministry. Youth ministry is a calling. The sheep needs shepherds, not hired hands. Your students need you. Christ calls us to be like Him, be the good shepherd.
I have been working with youth and young adults for about 5 years now. My passion is helping young people connect with Jesus and live a life devoted to Him. I work for a school district in their IT department for a living. I have a BA in Leadership and Ministry from Ohio Christian University, and I look forward to getting into full-time ministry. For now, I'm good where I am, though. You can follow me on twitter (http://twitter.com/fattychris) or wordpress (http://fattychris.wordpress.com/).