in praise of doubt

Doubt.

It’s a word that makes a lot of Christian people squirm. We don’t really like talking about it in general, and particularly not when it pertains to us. We certainly don’t want our Christian friends and family to know we have doubts, because they’ll think we’re on the verge of apostasy. We just sit there, smile, and try not to think about those questions hanging around in the backs of our minds.

Here’s a confession: I am well-acquainted with doubt and I’m not ashamed about it. However, I think the way doubt is commonly handled in Christian circles is a travesty. Discussing doubt is uncouth in many settings, and questions regarding foundational doctrines like the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ are as good as a renunciation of faith.

But in my experience, doubt is not as bad as we’ve made it out to be. In fact, I think that doubt could be a very good and necessary thing. That might sound like a contradiction to what you believe about faith, but I want to make three statements about doubt and see if I can make my point.

So here we go.

Faith is not the absence of doubt.

I believe many of us have an unfortunate misunderstanding of what it means to have faith. To many people, having faith means believing something without any trace of doubt. If someone is experiencing doubt, it’s often viewed as a symptom of a faith that’s lacking vitality. Doubt is a fault in faith, some may think. To have a strong faith, you must completely rid yourself of all your doubts.

But not only is this untrue and nearly unattainable, but it isn’t what the Bible calls us to.

Faith that is bereft of all doubt is not faith, but certainty. I will agree that, theoretically, certainty sounds great. How fantastic would it be if we could believe everything the Bible teaches—even the really wild things like a man killing a thousand other guys with the jawbone of a donkey or dead men walking out of their graves—without the tiniest fleck of doubt?

Here’s the problem with this: the Bible does not call us to certainty, but to faith. Certainty, while it may be nice to have, is hardly commendable. It’s easy to be certain. There’s nothing particularly special about me proclaiming that a ball will fall to the ground if I drop it, because we’re all certain about the function of gravity.

Faith, on the other hand, is messy. Faith isn’t easy, because it’s belief with imperfect knowledge. There’s always a chance that what you’ve put your faith in may end up being false. That’s precisely what makes it faith. Faith requires the potential for doubt, or else it ceases to be faith at all.

When you’re living the life of faith, doubt is inevitable. Your faith isn’t sick if you experience doubt. In fact, if you don’t experience doubt at all, then there’s likely an issue with your faith. Doubt is a natural result of critical examination of the things you believe, and if you’re not critically examining what you believe, then you’re choosing willful ignorance about faith and the world around you.

As the well-known Christian intellectual William Lane Craig said, “Any Christian who is intellectually engaged and reflecting about his faith will inevitably face the problem of doubt.”

Doubt is an opportunity to grow.

When I was in Bible college, I loved the various theology classes that were offered, so I tried to take as many as I could. I didn’t know it then, but the professor who taught those courses was dealing with his own doubts during the time I was in his classes. Eventually, he announced that he no longer believed the tenets of Christianity and resigned his post at the school.

This professor was one of my favorites in college because his classes were so intellectually stimulating for me. Because of what he was experiencing with his faith, he asked questions and brought up many points in class that challenged what I believed in a way I had never experienced before. What began as a quest for knowledge and understanding became a downward spiral into debilitating doubt.

Few people know this, but I spent a very rough few months wrestling with these doubts, trying to figure out if I could still believe everything I’d grown up believing. I was teetering on the edge of agnosticism, terrified that I might end up like my professor and renounce my faith.

Despair was certainly a very possible outcome of my doubt. In fact, for awhile it seemed like it was the inevitable end result. But I found that it wasn’t the only possible outcome. On the opposite side of the doubt coin was the possibility for growth in my faith. Thankfully, this was the outcome I realized.

Through this difficult time, I learned that doubt is not just one of the inconvenient inevitabilities of life that we all must face at one time or another. Instead, doubt is an opportunity: it is either an opportunity to grow or it is an opportunity to despair.

For me, doubt was my opportunity to reexamine what I believed and correct some of my wayward theology. While this time of doubt was miserable, it ushered me into the rich, vibrant faith I now enjoy. By far the most growth I have experienced in my faith has come through the valleys of doubt.

Obviously, growth is not a given when it comes to doubt. There are those—like my former theology professor—who deal with doubt and succumb to despair. So what’s to account for the difference in outcomes?

In most cases, I think the key difference between someone who experiences growth as a result of doubt and someone who experiences despair is their response to doubt in the first place. Before doubt can be an opportunity for growth, it is an opportunity to trust in God when things don’t make sense.

The object of your faith is more important than the amount of it.

In Mark 9, we find the story of a man who asks Jesus to heal his son. This man is the one who proclaimed the famous biblical statement, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” He expresses imperfect faith that is riddled with doubt.

What is interesting—and encouraging—about this story is that Jesus does not dismiss this man for his doubt, telling him to come back when his faith is stronger. Instead Jesus sees the man’s imperfect faith and he honors it by healing the man’s son.

The man’s faith was small, but it wasn’t the amount of faith that caused his son to be healed. It was the person in whom he put his faith. From this we learn an important principle regarding faith: the object of your faith is more important than the amount of it. In other words, it’s more important who we put our faith in than how much faith we have.

The father’s knew his faith was imperfect, otherwise he wouldn’t have said, “Help my unbelief.” However, it’s okay to have an imperfect faith if the object of your imperfect faith is a perfect savior.  When you believe in Jesus, it’s okay to not have everything figured out. It’s okay to have doubts, because Jesus is willing to work with you in the midst of those doubts. He isn’t surprised or intimidated by your doubts, but he does want to help you overcome your doubts.

If you put your faith in a political party or a theoretical concept or a government or a constitution or a truck brand or anything else that isn’t Jesus, it will inevitably fail you because it is an imperfect object of faith. But if you put your faith in Jesus—even if it’s shaky and weak—he will never fail you because he is a perfect savior.

Jesus can handle our doubts and disillusionments and disappointments. And like he did with the father in the Mark 9 story, he will help us grow our faith if we seek him in the midst of our doubts. In Jeremiah 29:13, God proclaims that, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” So even in the worst of our doubts, we can take comfort in the fact that we will find God if we seek him with all our hearts.

Doubt is inevitable, but we shouldn’t be content to wallow in our doubts. Instead, we should be relying on God to help guide us through our questions and doubts. And, like we said earlier, we should use these questions and doubts as an opportunity to grow in our faith.

Seek Jesus as the object of your faith, because even when your faith is imperfect, he is perfect. Seek Jesus in prayer. Seek Jesus in Bible study. Seek Jesus in books that deal with difficult questions of faith. Seek Jesus in your conversations with other Christians who may know how to respond to your doubts.

When you’re experiencing doubt, don’t seek after some amorphous theological concept. Seek after Jesus. And as the Bible promises, you will find him when you seek him with all your heart.

A final word (actually, it’s 184 words).

If you’re currently dealing with doubt, there are two things I want to say to you:

One: You’re not alone.

Two: You’re not hopeless.

When you’re in the violent throes of doubt, it can be easy to believe you’re the only one asking the questions you’re asking, that no one could possibly understand what you’re going through or have answers you need.

While it may feel that way, it’s simply not true. The Bible is filled with people who experience various kinds of doubt, and post-biblical history even more so. There has never been a question or doubt that hasn’t been asked or experienced before.

You are not alone in your doubt.

When you’re being tossed about by the vicious winds and waves of doubt, it can also be difficult to see any hope for an end in sight. How could you possibly withstand all these challenges and come through on the other side with your faith intact?

But doubt is not a death sentence. Experiencing doubt doesn’t mean that your faith is dead or decrepit. Doubt is just a storm. Storms can be weathered, and inevitably they pass on.

There is hope for you in the midst of your doubt.

the Bible is not a love letter

If you’ve languished in the Christian subculture long enough, you’ve probably heard someone describe the Bible as “God’s love letter to us.” I’ve heard it countless times, and probably used such language myself before. But I’ve been rethinking that phrase a little bit recently. If, as a whole, the Bible is a love letter, then it is certainly the strangest love letter I’ve ever read. I’m guessing not too many suitors try to woo potential brides by relating the story of a man getting a tent peg hammered through his head and into the ground while he is sleeping.

I don’t think the first person to utter this phrase meant any harm by it. In fact, I’m positive that it was intended to help people understand how great and important the Bible is. However, I think something unintended–and untrue–is communicated by this statement. When we convince ourselves that the Bible is God’s love letter to us, we start to believe that everything in the Bible was written specifically to and solely intended for us.

But here’s the problem with this: the Bible was written to a specific people group in a specific period of history, and those people lived on the other side of the world two-thousand-plus years ago. When we read the Bible as if we–21st century Americans–are the original intended audience, then the potential for poor interpretation is massive. The Bible isn’t God’s love letter to us; it’s a collection of historical documents written to a specific people at a specific time with the dual intentions of helping those people learn about God as revealed in Jesus Christ and teaching them how to live their lives accordingly.

This isn’t to say that the Bible is irrelevant today simply because it was originally written to a people from a culture that is vastly different from our own. As a Christian and a pastor, I believe the Bible is among the most relevant pieces of literature currently available. However, I also believe that we need to be wise about the way we read and interpret the Bible. Two thousands years and half a planet is a gigantic chasm to cross, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build a bridge anyway.

Misinterpretation of the Bible happens all the time. I think that a great deal of that misinterpretation is due to a misunderstanding of what the Bible is. When we convince ourselves that the Bible is written just for us, we ignore the fact that it is richly wrapped in a culture and language that is hardly anything like our own. This can be dangerous if we rip certain verses out of their cultural contexts and impute to them the status of universal truth.

A fairly innocuous example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 11:14: “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” Taken by itself, this verse seems to condemn me as vile for no other reason than the fact that I currently have long hair. If the Bible was written specifically for us today, then it’s pretty evident that I had better quit writing and head over to Great Clips, lest I risk facing God’s wrath. But this verse was written to people living in the ancient city of Corinth (which is in Greece) in the year 53 AD (which is a long time ago), and it would be highly irresponsible for us to ignore that fact.

In first century AD Corinthian culture, a man who wore his hair long was likely a prostitute. Prostitution, so far as I am aware, has never been an occupation that is held in high esteem. Nor am I aware of too many prostitutes who get into the sex-for-pay business due to a love of the work itself. Typically, people are forced into prostitution either by someone else or by the fact that they see it as their only means of survival. Therefore, Paul’s declaration that a man (a first century Corinthian, mind you) wearing long hair is disgraceful was probably not hotly contested.

In contrast, ancient Jewish culture viewed long hair on a man as an outward symbol of his extreme but venerable dedication to God (see Numbers 6:5; Samson is a well-known, if fatally flawed, example of this).

In 21st century America, long hair on a man can have a variety of connotations: rockstar, hippie, karate master, motorcycle rider, Willie Nelson aficionado…but certainly not prostitute! Long hair on a man is not disgraceful in 21st century American culture, just somewhat uncommon. Now we find a cultural gap between us and Paul’s original audience.

So what are we to do with this verse? Ignore it? Of course not. We need to cross that cultural gap by uncovering the heart of what Paul is saying, instead of taking it at face value (after all, God has always been more internally focused than externally). Perhaps Paul is a making a point about how Christians are to conduct themselves in public spheres, not as prostitutes (or the cultural equivalent) but as people who have been saved by God’s grace. For me as a 21st century American Christian, getting a haircut would be a pretty lame excuse for conducting myself in a manner worthy of the gospel. After all, I highly doubt my long hair is leading anyone astray. Instead, I should be more careful with my words and more giving of my time.

Like I said, that’s just one example. I could explain others, but I don’t want this post to be insufferably long.

I’m not trying to rebuke anyone here. Rather, I simply intend to challenge the way you think about the Bible. When we turn the Bible into “God’s love letter to us,” we are in danger of making it all about us. This would be not only a great injustice to the culture and history in which the Bible was written, but also to the word of God.

Now, is the Bible made up of letters? Yes. And is it the primary communication of God’s love for us? Of course. But it isn’t God’s love letter to us. It is a collection of historical documents written to a specific people at a specific time with the dual intentions of helping those people learn about God as revealed in Jesus Christ and teaching them how to live their lives accordingly. It is my hope that we will view the Bible in this accurate light, lest we misinterpret it according to the fickle whims of our earthly desires.

the lost virtue of masculinity

Joy, in all its potential interpretations and misinterpretations, doesn’t seem like a very masculine virtue. Perhaps it is because Joy is a common woman’s name; or perhaps it is because the word “joy” in and of itself evokes images of butterflies, rainbows, flowers, and things that are egregiously yellow; or perhaps it is because most books asserting what it means to “be a real man” tackle topics such as honor, wildness, integrity, suffering, humility, and sacrifice (and yes, I did just go through the table of contents of one such book) yet leave joy mysteriously unsung. Whatever the reason, it seems—to paint with a broad brush (though painting with a broad brush is certainly superior to finger painting when a broad brush is all you have)—most men, and particularly men in the church, would likely not be characterized by joy. Words such as angry, disgruntled, cynical, or petulant might better suit us. Yes, this includes me.

But before we continue, I must include a word or two regarding the nature of joy. You may have heard it before, but joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion that is usually quite fleeting and is easily affected by circumstances; conversely, joy is a state of being that transcends circumstances and can be present in times of sadness, anxiety, and even anger. Joy is rather like the sun which affects the goings on down on Earth but is not reciprocally affected by the goings on down on Earth. Does this sound like the state of men you know or the men at your church?

So how did we as men get this way? I can’t say for sure. It’s certainly not, for my purposes here, a biblical precept. If you consider Pauline authority, joy is a command that is nowhere near gender-specific: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) “Rejoice always.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) James presents joy as a central figure in a passage that, for all intents and purposes, has a rather virile tone: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) Again, nothing in this passage suggests that estrogen is a requisite catalyst in the production of joy.

But the greatest indictment of joyless men is found in Nehemiah 8:10: “Then [Nehemiah] said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’” Now we find the quintessential masculine virtue: strength. And from whence, says Nehemiah, does that strength come from? Joy; specifically, joy that comes from God.

For those of you wondering, Nehemiah was not some pipsqueak who declared that joy was the source of strength to compensate for his lack of muscle, chest hair, or fighting ability. In the fifth century BCE, Nehemiah led the Jewish people in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in just fifty-two days, a feat which was completely remarkable. But not only did Nehemiah lead these men in rebuilding the walls in an astonishing amount of time, he also had to lead them in fighting off enemies who constantly assailed them during this time. Nehemiah was forced to split his men into two groups: one group to rebuild the walls, and the other to defend them from their enemies. Even some of those who built the walls “labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.” (Nehemiah 4:17) It would be difficult to argue that Nehemiah and his fellow laborers were anything other than supremely masculine, and yet what does Nehemiah remind them is their strength? Not the mighty strike of their swords, nor their fervent faithfulness in the face of fierce hostility, but the joy of the Lord, the very thing that quite a few Christian men today seem to lack the most.

So, it seems to me, joy is not only a very good thing to have, nor something we are merely commanded to have, but a rather manly thing to have as well. The problem with joy, however, is that it requires us to rely on something that cannot be attained through our own doing, and that, I think, is something with which a lot of self-made American men are not comfortable. Finding joy in the Lord requires vulnerability, which is just about the last thing myself and many other men desire for ourselves. And yet, that is where strength can be found.

Seems backward? Well, what else should we expect when it comes to the way God works? I must admit, joy still doesn’t seem all that manly to me, though I suppose the way I perceive things is among the least important determinants of truth. It’s exceedingly difficult, as I could be described as somewhat of a curmudgeon, but I am striving to pursue joy. Those who remain unconvinced may consider what I’ve posited to be further feminization of the church or whatever hogwash terminology you wish to use, but, to quote a somewhat obscure song, “I’d rather be called weak than die thinking I was strong.”

saturday night service

Saturdays in the fall and early winter play host to some of the greatest moments of the calendar year. From the beginning of September to early January, hundreds if not thousands of young guys (and girls, on occasion) get their college tuition paid for by playing in twelve to fourteen football games in a given season. People show up in droves to get a glimpse of these games, and even more watch them from their couches at home. They spend hours watching the games, hours reading about them, and hundreds of dollars on merchandise and tickets and cable packages and tailgating victuals. They interpolate intense emotions between goalposts, at times predicating their entire satisfaction in life on the success of their team of choice and feasting off the plate of other men’s success.

I am one of these poor milksops enslaved by the college football machine. No matter how much I would like not to, I can’t keep my mind off of football. Somehow, football always seems to seep into my brain, whether I want it to or not. I feel a tug in my chest if I know there’s a game on and I can’t watch it. I feel like less of a man if I can’t engage with someone in a well-educated conversation about the past weekend’s games and each team’s outlook for the season. I feel naked if I don’t wear the correct apparel on a given Saturday. I feel like a complete and utter failure in life if I miss one K-State—my team of choice—game.

But my love for football doesn’t simply end there. Oh no. If only! Each week, myself and another friend rank all 128 of the NCAA FBS teams from worst to best, and this is a process that probably takes a good two hours per week, not to mention all of the time I spend watching games, listening to podcasts, researching statistics, reading articles, and playing college football video games. Even when I’m at work or just doing something inherent non-football related, I frequently find myself consumed with thoughts about football. At times, it seems like a religion dressed up as a hobby.

Or perhaps it could be likened to a drug. There’s never enough college football for me. College football games can be found on television at least four nights a week—if not more—and yet it seems like games are spaced out by eternity. College football keeps me from working on Saturdays—which, in my job, is a prime opportunity for accomplishing requisite tasks—much like a drug might preclude its addict from working. And, of course, the worst thing in the entire world is the college football off-season. Those eight-plus months are positively torturous. My “withdrawals,” so to speak, have created within me an unusual affinity for Canadian football, which begins its season the first week of June, two months before American college football.

No matter what you want to compare it to, my love for college football is dedicated and obsessive. It’s the kind of thing that characterizes fairy tale love relationships. It’s the kind of magnetism that keeps a puppy on the heels of its owner when treats are at stake. It’s the kind of diligence that inspires a dutiful employee to quality work.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me lament that I cannot seem to follow Jesus nearly as closely as I follow college football.

what’s deadlier than the deadliest sin?

When I was in high school, I went to youth group at my church every Sunday evening and I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that I basically got my degree in youth group. I would not be the man I am today if I didn’t have my youth group. I’m a youth minister now because of my youth group. (I said “youth group a lot in that paragraph. No apologies.)

Unfortunately, youth ministry as an institution of the church is not perfect. Some things—like so many youth groups’ obsession with incorporating puns into everything they do—are pretty excusable. Others have the potential to be damaging to a young person’s theology, or even their self-perception. As much as I hate to publicly criticize the field in which I now hold a job, I feel like I need to shed light upon an issue that has been a major stumbling block in my life.

Back in my youth group days, a tradition at nearly every Christian youth camp or retreat was a specific guys-only and girls-only session. Without fail, the people putting on the event found a way to split us up. Even sometimes at youth group we would split up by gender and have specific talks.

The girls would go off with the female adult leaders, where most often (from what I have heard from women who grew up in youth group, not firsthand experience of course) they would be affirmed in their beauty—inside and out—and their identities in Christ. They would be taught that they are princesses, daughters of the king, and as a result they should be very careful what guys they let into their heart. Not just any dude is worthy of dating them. This was a time of love and encouragement, and probably a time of a lot of crying too.

All of these are great and true things that I believe every young woman needs to be taught and reminded of frequently. It’s unfortunate that so few outlets are providing this affirmation for the ladies in our society. I have absolutely zero problem with this.

What I do have a problem with is that when the guys would go off by ourselves, it seems that we got a much different message. I can’t really think of a single “guys-only” session that had a primary focus other than “quit that lusting, dude!” And yeah, for 90% of guys (and the other 10% who are lying [that joke isn’t mine]) lust is a very serious deal that is almost always very destructive. I agree that it absolutely needs to be talked about openly, and I know that these “guys-only” talks were genuinely well-intentioned. However, I do have two major qualms with them:

  1. Lust ain’t the only sin.

Lust is not even the worst sin, really. After all, few people in my Christian tradition believe that there is an actual systematic hierarchy of sin (in God’s eyes, at least), even if the consequences of some sins differ greatly in severity from others. And yeah, we treat some sins like they’re worse than others (usually if they aren’t the sins we struggle with), but we do understand deep down that sin is sin in God’s eyes.

However, as a teenager I had it hammered into my head that I had to focus all my strength on getting to sleep that night without lusting so I could mark my calendar with a smiley-face instead of a sad-face. By the time I did finally get my lust wrestled into submission, I found to my great surprise that I was a prideful, angry, hateful, apathetic jerk. At the risk of sounding dramatic, my heart had atrophied.

Somehow, I got it into my mind that lust was the absolute worst thing, and if I could somehow get over it I would be okay. My attention was so focused on the giant of lust that I didn’t notice those other things slipping in, things which were just as sinful and just as destructive. My life became defined by struggle rather than by grace. When that happens, I believe, it eats away at you until there’s not much left.

  1. Guys need consistent affirmation too.

For some reason, our culture has this perception that guys are so tough that they could never be in need of encouragement or affirmation. You can kick a dude in the teeth with truth and tell him got walk it off, knowing he’ll be okay soon enough. That’s just the way guys are. That’s what it means to be a man.

I bought into this lie hardcore. I have always been obsessed with being viewed as strong, emotionally if not physically. In high school, I made certain that externally I always appeared self-assured and needing nothing from anyone. But on the inside, I didn’t think too highly of myself. I was lonely and depressed. I was dying for someone to affirm me as a man.

However, it felt like the only message I heard was “be a man” when what I really needed to hear was “you are a man.” I craved for someone to gush over me about how much God loves me and how strong I am in Christ, like it seemed the girls were always getting in their “girl talks”. Unfortunately, that was rarely the case.

Instead, it seemed that everyone was telling me to just cut it out with the lust stuff already. As a result, I couldn’t imagine that God could love me all that much, and he certainly couldn’t like me at all. Each time I failed, all I felt was shame, emasculation, and depression. My entire faith became predicated on mollifying what I perceived as God’s inexorable wrath against me. Grace wasn’t a factor at all. I couldn’t even understand it.

I was completely beaten down and defeated by what I saw as my terrible moral failure. Each time a “guys-only” session came up and I still hadn’t conquered my lust, I felt more and more hopeless. It was a rare occurrence when I truly felt like who I was more important than what I did. I wondered, “If God really loves us all the same, and wants to forgive us no matter what we’ve done, shouldn’t that be spoken loudest and clearest? Why do I—and so many other guys—feel like I have to behave before God will love me?

Now I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying we should quit talking about lust, or that we should excuse it as a natural part of growing up. That’s absolutely not what I’m saying. Rather, I’m saying that we should talk about God’s love and forgiveness just as much if not more. We should go out of our way to let people know that a struggle with any sin isn’t going to stop God’s love for them, just like death, life, angels, demons, the present, the future, the powers that be, heights, depths, or anything else.

For me, it wasn’t until an adult leader from my youth group came alongside me and pulled me to my feet that I started to see hope for myself. He spent time with me and listened to me and showed me unconditional love. He reinforced grace over sin management and Jesus’ blood over my blunders.

Kids are always going to fail. You’re always going to fail. I’m always going to fail. And while sanctification should certainly be our goal, we should be screaming out that the gospel starts with love and salvation. If that’s not our primary message, then there’s a problem.

The difficulty, though, comes in balancing truth and grace. Both are absolutely imperative, but too much of each can be dangerous. An overemphasis on truth can become Puritanism, whereas an overemphasis on grace can become moral relativism. Achieving a healthy balance of each would be an act fit for a circus.

What does that mean for the subject at hand? I still believe we need to teach the truth about lust (that it’s destructive, but that it’s not the only bad thing out there), and do so in an overwhelming context of grace. Too often, I think, grace is treated as a footnote rather than the overarching theme. “Yeah, there’s grace—kind of as a back-up plan—but you really need to get your act together, dude.” Thankfully that’s not the way the gospel works.

Truth convicts and grace restores. When I was in high school, I got the truth convicts thing down perfectly. But it wasn’t until I understood grace that my faith became real and my heart began to change. That’s when I realized that the joy of the Lord is my strength, not my ability to resist temptation. That’s when it was clear to me that I was not a man because of anything I did or didn’t do, but because of what God has already done on my behalf.

five things i’ve learned in five years of volunteer youth ministry

It’s Little League World Series time, which is one of my favorite sports events of the year. It’s just a bunch of eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old kids who go out and perform ridiculous feats of athleticism that are typically performed by grown adults. Not only is the baseball talent spectacular, but the sportsmanship is top-notch and unfamiliar in most other sports contexts.

When I was the age of the boys in Williamsport, I craved to play in the Little League World Series. Now, as an adult, I still love watching the Little League World Series and there’s a part of me that’s still jealous of the kids who get to play in it. Too bad I’m way too old to play, and I don’t know enough about the mechanics of baseball to coach.

I really wish I could coach a team to the Little League World Series. When ESPN “mics up” the coaches, they’re always speaking words of encouragement and occasional hilarity to the kids on their teams, even when those teams are down eighteen to nothing. Getting to do something like that would be awesome, especially within the context of competitive sports (which I love).

I have to remind myself during these times that I already have opportunities like this, and have had them for the past five years. While volunteering with youth at my church never got me on ESPN (and would probably have been a pretty boring show), it allowed me to be the kind of influence in the lives of youth that I saw played out on TV. And I guess that’s more important than getting famous on TV…

Unfortunately, I don’t think the seventeen-year-old kid I was when I began working with the junior high youth ministry at my church was the most effective youth volunteer on Earth. I mean, I was still a student in the high school ministry myself, and a rather immature one at that. However, I’ve changed and learned a lot in the five years since then. I’ve graduated from high school and college, gotten married, acquired a full-time job, and, most importantly, grown a full beard.

Granted, I’ve learned a lot about youth ministry because I have a degree in youth ministry, but I would also say that the most important things I’ve learned have been learned from experience. I think most people would agree that experience is usually the best teacher.

For the purpose of this blog post—and just for you—I’ll recount five of these things I’ve learned posthaste. Five things learned for five years of volunteering in ministry. Poetic, huh?

But first, a disclaimer: I am not an expert. My experience is embarrassingly miniscule compared to most people in the profession, so please grant me grace where I’m wrong or arrogant. I can only convey the things that I’ve learned in that short time, even if they’re simple or silly. If you disagree, that’s cool. Let’s discuss it.

Okay, here we go.

Lesson #1: It’s not about me.

This is number one on my list because it has been the hardest lesson for me to learn. In fact, I would consider this still a work in progress. When I first started working with the youth group, I saw it as an opportunity to feel good at myself. Whether it was kicking middle schoolers’ butts in basketball while making them die of laughter at my remarkable wit or getting showered with praise for my “martyrdom,” my primary reason for working with youth was largely a selfish one. I know that doesn’t sound nearly as spiritual as it should, but at least it’s honest. I wanted to baptize kids, not because of any care for their eternity, but because it would make people stop and say, “Man, he must be one heck of a youth leader. Do you know how many baptisms he’s done?” Yeah, I know, pretty despicable, isn’t it?

However, I will say that in my five years of volunteering, my attitude toward the work I was doing took a definite shift. The more I grew up and came to an understanding of what I was actually doing, the less youth group gatherings, trips, and special events became about me. Now, I can’t say that I all of a sudden became completely selfless because that’s not true. Sometimes I really want it all to be about me, but I truly believe that those are the times when I am the least satisfied and effective in my ministry.

If you’re reading this right now and you work with youth, let me just remind you: it’s not about you, and it’s not about me. It’s a tough pill to swallow, for sure, but I can’t stress enough how important this maxim has been to me in my short time working with youth. If you’re working with youth primarily because of how it makes you feel about yourself, please get out because you’re wasting your own time. There are a thousand better things you could be doing than hanging out with kids who are quite a bit younger than you.

But if you, like me, feel like there is a deeper impetus for why you’re drawn to spend time with middle and high school aged dweebs, then I implore you to get this through your head as soon as possible. It will make you a much better youth worker, and it will save you a whole lot of heartache when you realize that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t be as cool as a fourteen-year-old with bombin’ Nike socks.

Lesson #2: There is power in presence.

Note that I said “There is power in presence” not “There is power in presents.” For the love of God, please don’t start buying the kids in your youth group iPads and stuff so they’ll like you. That’s weird. Spending money on people, I think, is not nearly as important or meaningful as spending time with them. (You like that wordplay? I sound almost like a preacher.) This is particularly important with teenagers, who may not necessarily have adults who invest much time in them—although a good number of them do, so don’t try and replace those relationships if they’re already there!

The best part of spending a good amount of time with students is that you don’t always have to be diving into really deep spiritual conversations. In college, I had enforced small groups in several classes, where nearly 100% of those relationships involved deep spiritual discussions, and those relationships mean precisely nothing to me. The relationships that do mean something to me are the ones that are a) characterized by a great amount of time invested into them, and b) 40% sports conversation, 35% literature conversation, 20% laughing about poops and farts, and 5% deep spiritual conversation.

I think relationships with teenagers should be similar. Time spent with someone is so very important to developing a strong and meaningful relationship with them. And let’s be honest, if you try to force spiritual discussions anytime you spend time with a student in your ministry, they will invariably get burned out and freaked out. That might make me sound like a bad youth worker, but in my experience as a student and a volunteer it seems to make sense. Sometimes drudging that kid in Mario Kart can mean way more than making him spill his guts regarding the spiritual ramifications of his parents’ divorce. (This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t engage in spiritual discussions with kids. If the opportunity presents itself, of course you should take it. All I’m saying is don’t force things where they don’t need to be forced.)

But before you can even begin to consider what you’ll do with a kid, you’ve got to decide that you’re committed to spending time with them. You don’t have to have an extravagant plan or a minute-by-minute itinerary; just be there, be loving, be a good role model, and be willing to dive deep should the appropriate opportunity make itself available.

Lesson #3: Get away sometimes.

This one relates back to the previous. As important as presence is in youth ministry, it’s also important for you to get away from it sometimes. I know that fifteen-year-old kids seem like they’re really awesome, but letting them be your only friends will burn you out so fast. Taking time away, time for yourself or with people your own age, will (most likely, I hope) preserve your longevity in youth ministry.

There have been times when I’ve had to tell kids no when they ask me to hang out with them because I had just spent the past week at camp or something, and one more second with a teenager would drive me absolutely insane. It sucks to say no and the students usually have a hard time understanding why, but in those times it was really important for me to have that time away to recuperate.

Even Jesus took time away from ministry, and if the Son of God could do it then you can do it too. It might feel wrong for you to take a week off of youth group or say no to a kid who says he needs you right this second, but you’re only human. Do yourself a favor, man, and get away for awhile. I promise it’ll be worth it.

Lesson#4: Sometimes I’m the heart, sometimes I’m the sole.

No, I didn’t misspell “soul.” I meant to write “sole,” like the sole of your foot, that disgusting part of your body that no one in their right mind would want to touch or even see. It’s a play on words, see? “Heart and soul”; “heart and sole.” Anyway.

Some days you’ll get to be the metaphoric heart of the youth ministry. Maybe you get to teach the lesson at youth group, and three thousand students get baptized as a result. Maybe you introduce the best game that has ever been played in the ministry (probably the most exhilarating experience of my life). Maybe your answer to one of the youth minister’s discussion questions makes the whole room bust up with uncontrollable laughter. Those days are the best. Those days you’re the heart.

Other days you’re the sole, like when you get back to the church after a long trip to camp and the youth minister asks you to unhitch the trailer from the van by yourself. It’s pouring rain, it’s one in the morning, and all you want to do is go home and sleep. Not to mention the day before—the last day at camp, the day when everyone cries and seeks counsel from adults—none of the students wanted to talk to you about what God’s doing in their hearts, so you feel like a second-rate youth leader, like you just wasted your whole week. Those days you’re the sole.

I’ve learned that nearly every youth worker has days where she’s the heart and days when she’s the sole, and I think both experiences are valuable. The days when you feel like you’re the heart of the ministry are the days when you’re instantly reminded that what you’re doing really matters. However, some of my greatest growth as a youth worker has come from experiences of being the sole, when I feel inadequate and incapable. Not only am I forced to grapple with my own humility, but I’m also able to identify and learn from mistakes as well as learn to rejoice with others in their successes.

Obviously, the “sole days” are not nearly as fun as the “heart days,” but without the “sole days” I’m pretty sure it’d be easy for us to get really thrilled about ourselves and how awesome we are and how much we are doing for the kingdom. A balance of both kinds of days, I think, keeps our attitudes and motivations where they need to be for us to be successful in ministry. Being the sole can feel demoralizing, but it’s important to realize that it’s okay to be the sole sometimes because good growth can come from it.

Lesson #5: It’s okay to not feel qualified.

When I first started working with the youth at my church, I was under the mistaken impression that I had to have everything figured out, and that it was cause for alarm if something came up that I was unprepared to handle. Luckily, I’ve learned that this isn’t the case. I say “luckily” because I’m not a very smart dude, and the chances of me getting things even remotely figured out are slim-to-none.

Of course, a basic understanding of the Bible and adolescent development is imperative when it comes to working with youth in a church setting, but thankfully a dual-PhD in child psychology and systematic theology are not required. The most important things to have are a willingness to serve and a genuine care for the students. Those two things are foundational, not optional.

It’s okay to be asked a question and not know the answer. A youth minister expecting each volunteer to have the ability to answer each and every question accurately would severely narrow the list of candidates. In general, I would say that youth aren’t primarily looking for people who can answer all their questions. I think they’re more concerned with finding a caring adult who is willing to help the find out the answers to their questions.

If you got involved in youth ministry and you feel unqualified, then join the club. History is filled with people doing things they’re totally unqualified to do, whether that’s biblical history or not. What that means for you is that you can’t use this as an excuse to quit. Guess you’ll have to work a little harder then.