It is 2017 everyone! As we enter our fourth year of YMC we are continuing to have yearly themes. This year’s theme is “The Story/The Stories.” Each week our blog will focus on a story from a youth minister. We hope these stories help inspire you in the great work you are doing, as well as let you know you aren’t alone in the crazy, sweet, often hard to fathom world of youth ministry. This week we are hearing……
“The Story Of My First Youth Group”
Adam Tarver is the Minister to Youth at West Hills Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He studied Religion and Applied Psychology at Carson-Newman University and received his M.Div. from McAfee School of Theology. Adam is an avid Atlanta Braves fan and disc golfer.
I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be a youth minister one day. Sometime during my early high school years I began to feel the call into ministry and to work with teenagers. For me though, this always seemed like a distant dream that may or may not ever happen. It was also something that honestly I was a little afraid of. As I graduated from high school, I put that call on the backburner to deal with later. What I didn’t know at the time was that later would be coming very soon.
I started my freshman at Carson-Newman University and just like any good college freshman I switched my major three times in my first semester. First, I was a music major, then an athletic training major, before finally declaring religion as my major. I could ignore my calling no longer.
I floated through my first year of college, still holding the idea of being a youth minister at an arms distance, when I received a phone call one afternoon- it was the associate pastor of my home church who now was the pastor of his own church in town. I answered and after some small talk he asked me if I would consider coming to his church to be their past time youth minister. I was 19 years old at the time and scared to death. I told him I needed some time to think and pray about it. After about a week I had this sense of peace that this was the right thing for me to do. So I called him back and before I knew it, I was a youth minister. My dream of being a youth minister sometime later had come to reality right then.
There was one catch to this whole gig though, they barely had a youth group. The entirety of their youth group was five people, four of whom were related. The pastor told me this upfront and told me that basically they weren’t looking for someone to come triple the size of their youth group, they basically just wanted someone to come and love their students, teach them, and organize events. I remember thinking to myself when he told me about their group, “yeah, yeah yeah. I will show up and be awesome and the students will flock to the church so fast the church won’t know what hit them.” How foolish I was.
I served at this small church for two and a half years and in my time there we added one student (which by percentage is pretty exponential growth!). There were many days where I became very discouraged because youth ministry turned out to be really hard; students were way more complicated than I had ever imagined; and the church down the street with all the bells and whistles proved to be way more appealing for some reason…
But all things considered, I would not trade this experience for the world because it forever changed me as a youth minister. I learned that youth ministry is not about numbers, it’s about relationships. Now don’t get me wrong, numbers are nice, but they are nothing in comparison to relationships. The bond I had with those students was strong, and over those two and a half years we grew a lot, while only adding one new student. The type of growth we had couldn’t be measured and was hard to explain, but it was there. The lesson I learned at that church saved me a lot of grief later in my ministry as I learned that my time was much better spent ministering to and with the students who came through our doors than worrying about those that weren’t. When I think about on that first youth group I can’t help but smile. We had a lot of good times- like the time we pulled off an amazing youth Sunday with five students. We had a lot of rough times too- like when the grandmother of my four related students passed away unexpectedly. I made a lot of mistakes- like the time I left one of our students at an event. We had three students at the event. I left with two.
There were a lot of highs and there were a lot of lows in my first youth ministry position, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My current pastor often describes the way that God works through Jesus, is that Jesus came to teach us what we refused to learn on our own. I think this rings true for this first youth group I had. I came in thinking I was about to set this little youth group on fire, and we burn so bright so fast that everyone would want to be a part. What I learned instead is that sometimes ministry is slow. Sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes you will want to quit and never look back. But, when you finally realize that ministry is about people and not about numbers everything changes, and it is worth it.