One of my students has an older sister named “Ashley” (this of course is a made up name to protect her anonymity from the two people that currently read this blog). Ashley’s brother, “Kyle”, has been attending our programs pretty regularly. Ashley came once. The night was Good Friday. If you could only come one night to see what our Church and our Youth Group is all about, this night would be it. We began with a church-wide Good Friday worship service that was deep, spiritual, and passionate. Afterwards, the teenagers retired to the youth house where we watched a movie (The Chronic- The Chronic- The Chronicles Narnia!) while some of the parents hid Easter eggs for our late night Easter egg hunt! No one actually watched the movie but they laughed, played games, ate pizza, and had a great time! I like to think they absorbed C.S. Lewis’ classic allegory about the hope of resurrection by osmosis.Then we did our late night Easter egg hunt. It was a blast! We played in the dark with flashlights and had capture the flag type rules where if someone from the other team tagged you, you had to give them one of your eggs. We gave out prizes for the team and the individual that got the most eggs and, of course had some cash eggs. The candy was equally distributed into goody bags that went home with each student. We ended with a short devotional on Jesus being the greatest treasure of all.
It. Was. Awesome.
So when I talked to Ashley in the parking lot a couple of months later and asked why she hadn’t been back, I was stunned by her answer. She said, “When I came, no one talked to me.” In that moment, I was shocked, my heart broke into a million pieces, and somewhere between here and Never land, a faerie died. “No one talked to me.” Recently I was at Buffalo Wild Wings and they were showing a mixed martial arts match on a plasma television roughly the size of a billboard. One of the combatants kicked the other combatant in the area where the fruit meets the looms and he doubled over in pain. Apparently this is illegal because the whole time while they were officiating, they kept replaying this shot over and over from each cringe inducing angle, back in forth between slow motion and regular speed. This is about what Ashley’s comment felt like to me.
Now I have plenty of excuses. I had only been the youth pastor at Central a week when we had our egg hunt so I was new myself. I haven’t yet put together a Student Leadership Team who would specialize in making newcomers feel welcome (that’s this fall!). It was a crazy action-packed event so I was pretty busy attending to details. Some of these excuses are more valid than others but they all miss the big point.
Jesus tells us over and over again that the Kingdom is about small things. It’s like a pearl, a mustard seed, a lost coin, a bit of yeast. I’ve been strutting around about my Good Friday program because it was big, fun, and splashy. But for at least one person, the whole experience hinged on one tiny thing: Is someone going to say, “hi” to me? So often in youth ministry, we forget that what truly makes a difference in students lives are those small acts of kindness and acknowledgment. Some of the students in our care are ignored EVERYWHERE THEY GO! They are ignored at school, at home, and out in their community. They come to Church hoping and hungry for something different. When we fail at that task, our ministry is, let’s face it, a stumbling block between them and a life-changing relationship with Christ. When we fail at serving the smallest needs of our students, we are failing at loving Christ. Remember what He told Peter after asking him “Do you love me” for the third time? Peter may well have answered: “Lord you know I love you. I’m going to do all these amazing things! I’m going to give these great messages! I’m going to put together a top-notch church for you!” But Jesus simply replies, “then feed my lambs.” The way leaders show their love for Christ is by shepherding those that have been trusted to them. A small word can be that mustard seed of faith that begins to move those mountainous obstacles between a student and Christ. Small things matter. In fact, the whole kingdom rests on small things.
I smiled and encouraged Ashley to gives us another try. I told her I’d changed deodorants. Maybe she will. I hope so. But if not, I am going to at least resolve that no one else will be able to tell me that they didn’t come back because they weren’t welcomed. Because if they do then there will be a very heavy millstone with my name on it.
What small things are important to YOUR ministry? How do YOU make sure new people are welcomed?