This year’s theme is “The Life.” Today we explore that theme with….
The Life of a youth minister of a barely existent 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 started in youth ministry when I was 19 years old. I graduated from high school in May, moved off to college, and in November received a phone call from a mentor of mine asking if I would come to his church and be their youth minister. At 19. I gave it some thought, prayed about it, and foolishly said yes. I knew I wasn’t really ready, but I thought, “If I show up and just be awesome there’s no way people will be able to stay away.” That was the entirety of my ministry vision- show up, be awesome.
So that’s what I did. I planned a lesson and showed up. I couldn’t wait to meet all my students. My first week I had four students show up, and they were all related- two brothers, a sister, and their cousin. We had a good time, but this was far from what I had envisioned this being like. To be fair to the pastor of the church, he had told me that the youth group was really small, and he told me that basically all they wanted was someone to come spend time with their students, plan lessons and events, and provide some leadership- not grow their youth group exponentially, but all of that fell on deaf ears. I knew if I showed up and was awesome, things would explode.
I was wrong. Week two we had five show up (which really was significant growth in percentages!). Things stayed pretty consistent over time. We would have anywhere from three to six on any given week. I was there for two and a half years and we never gained one student. That was really hard on me at the time. I came in with these big expectations of our group growing so big we would have to build a new youth building, and instead here were some of my experiences:
One week, I planned a knockout lesson for our Sunday night youth group time. I showed up and waited…and waited…and waited. After thirty minutes I decided to text the mom of three youth siblings. She text me back that one of the boys was sick so the other one decided not to go, which lead to the sister not wanting to come either, and then they called their cousin and said they weren’t coming so he decided not to come but didn’t want his other friend to be the only one so he called him too and told him no one was coming. All of that happen, and yet somehow no one realized to call and tell me, so I showed up and waited and then just went back home.
After awhile the oldest girl quit showing up. Finally, I asked her mom why, and with much reluctance she told me she thought it was weird that I was only one year older than her and I was her youth minister- fair enough.
One week we had a meeting with a group of church leadership and the pastor asked me to come give a report about the youth. I came and talked about all the great things we had done, and all the fun we were having, and how well I thought things were going. I finished and asked if there were any questions. A lady raised her hand and asked, “Who exactly are our youth?”
A couple years into my ministry at this church one of the boys quit showing up. I finally set up a meeting with him to ask about why he wasn’t coming anymore. He told me that one night he was driving to church with his windows down when he passed the church down the street (you know, the one with all the bells and whistle- live band, food, inflatables, etc.). As he passed by he said he heard the music and saw all these teenagers having fun, so he turned his car around and joined them.
There were a lot of funny, frustrating, and discouraging experiences in my first few years of youth ministry. I wanted to give up, I felt like I had failed, and I had pretty much decided ministry maybe wasn’t for me. But toward the end of my time there I realized that I had been looking at this all wrong. We hadn’t grown in size one bit, but we had grown together and built some incredible relationships and friendships, and those students that I got to know over those years were some of the most decided students I have ever had. I hope that I taught them something along the way in those two a half years. They certainly taught me a lot. Most importantly they taught me that as much as people want youth ministry to be all about the numbers, it’s not. It’s about relationships. Whether you have three students or three hundred, the relationships are what make youth ministry. I learned that lesson the hard way, but it has forever changed the way I do youth ministry.