Our theme this year is “The Life.” Today we explore that theme with…..
The Life of “Those Students.”
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.
We all have “those students.” “Those students” who show up and cause nothing but problems. “Those students” who come and don’t get anything out of our lessons. “Those students” who if we are really honest with ourselves, we wouldn’t mind if they missed a Sunday or Wednesday every now and then. You know… “those students.”
In my youth group one time I was gifted a number of “those students.” There were three of four students who just knew how to get under my skin. They showed up every Sunday and Wednesday. They came early and showed up late. And they would come on retreats and trips only to defiantly break boundaries set up right in front of me. They drove me crazy. I couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t show up and do what they were supposed to, and if they weren’t going to do that, then maybe they just shouldn’t show up at all.
I was still new to the church at this time and I didn’t have a ton of experience working with difficult students so I really didn’t know how to handle it. I tried killing them with kindness- that backfired. I tried to be stern- that only spurred them on. I tried making sure I communicated clear rules and boundaries- those might as well have been challenges to see who could break those worse and faster. I was quickly running out of ideas.
Finally, one day I had the opportunity to talk with one of these students one on one while we were walking from one service site to another. I was still knew, so I struck up a conversation about what was going on in his life. I decided that a safe question was to ask him about his sister, who was special needs, because I knew that she meant a lot to him. He began telling me about his family life and how he loved his sister so much and wanted the best life for her, but what was hard was that the best life for her often came at his expense. His sister required so much attention he often felt overlooked, forgotten, and an afterthought. Suddenly the pieces for me started to come together.
A few weeks later I had another conversation with the grandfather of another one of “those students.” He began telling me about how he came to live with them full time, and how he didn’t know his mom or his dad very well, and basically everyone was doing the best they could but life was really hard. The pieces started coming together in that situation too.
A few months later another particularly difficult student came in to talk to me about their home life, and how their parents had divorced years before and she had really struggled with that. She felt like her life was always in motion and lacked stability. The pieces were coming together again.
Over that three month stretch, “those students” behavior and actions didn’t change a whole lot. They still caused some problems and stretched the limits, but my actions and behaviors change significantly. I came to realize that their actions and behaviors had little to nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the hurts and challenges they faced on an everyday basis. Those conversations opened up a whole new perspective to me on youth ministry and on difficult students. As much as I wish it wasn’t the case, I have found that often the most difficult students are the ones who need church the most, and if I treat them like they are treated in all other aspects of their lives then I have failed them and I have grossly missed the core of Jesus’ message. They need the hope of a God who cares about them and loves them. They need the love and support of people who don’t give up on them or tell them not to come back because they cause too many problems. They need a place where they can come and be who they are. They need church and church needs them.
Years later, I look back on those students that were so difficult when I first came and I can’t help but smile. They taught me a lot about youth ministry and about how to be a better minister. They taught me a lot about hope, and they lived out the reality that God restores our brokenness and hurts. They taught me that “those students” are my students.