I have been serving in the middle school ministry at my church for nearly four years now. It is hard to believe it has really been that long! I was blessed to lead the same group of girls through their 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years, and now I have come full circle to begin with a new group of 6th grade students. I have learned so many things throughout these years about both middle schoolers, and myself. If I were to write them all down, I could probably fill a book! One of the biggest and most humbling things I have learned is how I have much less influence than I would like to believe.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not think I am unimportant or that I have no influence at all. I truly think girls in this age category need older women to mentor them and be another voice besides mom and dad speaking truth into their lives. We female leaders are such a valuable asset in the lives of these young girls, but we can talk and model as much as we’d like, but ultimately, we cannot make them into the young women we wish them to be.
Last night I was reading through Proverbs 4 (I am reading a Proverb per day this month) and the latter part of verse 4 stood out to me.
“Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments and live.”
I have read this chapter more times than I can count, yet there were no markings on this verse yet, and no notes along the side of the page. For this reason, I know I have mindlessly skimmed over these words in the past, but with what I’ve learned over the past four years, this verse nearly jumped from the page. Solomon here does not say, “Let your mind hold fast to my words.” or “Let your heart consider my words.” Let your heart. hold. fast. This is precisely what I have seen over and over again in the lives of my students. Let me explain.
Let’s consider the example of modesty. I purpose to be modest myself, and I speak to my girls about modest dress, conversation, and behavior. Many of them intellectually agree with what I say, but when they are confronted with their sinful desires to dress or behave immodestly, their intellect caves to the desires of their hearts. Regardless of what I say or do, unless a girl purposes in her heart to be modest, she will inevitably fall into promiscuity at some level. Also, some girls may agree in their hearts that modesty is important and God honoring, yet they do not feel a strong conviction toward it. They hold to other things in their heart (popularity, admiration, vanity) most strongly than modesty, so they succumb to the pressures of the world to show themselves off.
I have seen this scenario play out over and over in the students I have ministered to over the years, whether it is modesty, purity, cleanliness of speech, dedication to spending time in God’s word, discretion in media choices, or any of the ways we try to encourage the students in righteousness. The students who follow the training and encouragement we offer are the ones who internalize and personalize the information; their hearts hold fast. Those who merely entertain the concepts we preach will, time and time again, stray from the path set before them and wander about in worldly passions.
So, what are we to do? As I said above, I believe adult leaders are a vital part of youth ministry, but how do we reach our students and encourage them to believe for themselves the things we preach? Here is my list of the best things we can do in encouraging our students in righteousness.
Ultimately we must recognize each and every child is in the capable hands Jesus, and this is not merely an earthly fight.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Prayer is our most valuable resource. Beg the Holy Spirit to be at work in the hearts of your students. Ask God to reveal Himself to each one of them in a way that is real and personal. Pray for sensitivity in the spirits of those present each night you meet. You can accomplish nothing in the hearts of your students; Christ alone can change hearts. Pray fervently.
2. Recognize you are a tool in the Father’s hands, not the craftsman.
It is so easy to think we are really doing something amazing for God. We tend to think we are accomplishing so much for God and may even tell Him our plans, merely asking for His help and blessing. When we have this mindset, we set ourselves up as gods in our own right. We think we can save kids. We easily and subtly believe we have all the answers, that we are God’s gift to teens, that our power to influence is great, and we are the ones changing hearts. Brothers and sisters, this is such a wrong view! God can choose any means He wants to accomplish His work. We know His Word does not return void, that Jesus will not lose even one of the sheep the Father has entrusted to Him, and that He alone is wise and powerful. We are lost sheep, just like our students. We are not the shepherd, potter, or master of their lives. All we can ever be is a tool in the hands of our amazing Redeemer. He can use us to guide and admonish at HIS bidding, not our own.
3. Continually bring your students back to Scripture.
Of these three guidelines, this is the one I am most apt to fail on. It is so easy to get caught up in sharing my heart with the students, all the while forgetting to share with them God’s heart. Most of the time, our hearts as leaders are very much in line with that of Christ. Our words, however, do not have the power to save. Whenever possible, take your students directly to the Bible when answering their questions. We need to show them Scripture is vitally useful and important. The Bible is not just a story book or rule book, it is useful in every aspect of our lives. Knowing who God is changes us, and we learn who He is through His Word. We must show our students we are not asking anything of them that we do not require of ourselves. Each and every one of us is under the authority of Scripture and benefit from spending time each day with our Savior. Making sure your students clearly understand they should obey their parents, guard their hearts, build others up, etc. because GOD said so, not because pastor so-and-so or leader whomever said it, is SO important. These kids will not always have a leader or pastor with them, but they will always have the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to run to God and His word is the most valuable thing you could ever do, and is a life lesson they will never lack the need for. We also need to model this. Honestly share with your students how you handle problems and situations. When they see how we run to Christ as our refuge, we show them in a tangible way what we preach with our lips.
This list is by no means exhaustive; it merely scratches the surface. Even if we do everything perfectly (ha ha, yeah right, like that could ever happen), we may not see the fruit of our labor. Hearts are complicated things which Christ alone can manage. I will leave you with this verse which is simultaneously a comfort and challenge, and pray God does a mighty work in the hearts of the students in this generation.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”