A Tale of Two Ministries
- Keith Cotton
- 2012 22 Mar
I would like to tell you a story about two ministries I was involved with at a church where I once served as the hired youth director.
The first was a lunch ministry. A nearby high school would release juniors and seniors every day for lunch and these students had the option to walk down the street to a number of fast food restaurants instead being cramped like sardines in the school cafeteria. The church was also within walking range of the high school and decided years ago to begin offering a weekly pizza lunch. The idea was simple. Students got their lunch quickly and cheaply, PLUS they got inside the church, where ideally they would be ministered to. The primary goal was to serve as a bridge ministry, leading students to get involved in the church's other youth ministries.
What quickly became clear to me as I served in this ministry was that most of the students already had a church home somewhere else. For those who didn't, the lunch was viewed as just another restaurant choice and not as a ministry. As the leader, my priorities reflected this; rather than spending time with students, I was bogged down with logistics: ordering pizzas, organizing volunteers, buying supplies, and counting money.
That's not to say that ministry never occurred. Over time, I was able to make meaningful connections with students, but the goal of becoming a bridge to other church ministries was never achieved. It became clear to me that the lunch ministry was fundamentally flawed because it was a fundraiser disguised as ministry. The issue was that it was a highly successful fundraiser. We experienced exponential growth, eventually adding a second lunch day and serving nearly 300 students a week. For the church at large, these large numbers equaled a good ministry.
The second ministry didn't have this same success. It was a weekly after-school program designed to be a safe place where students could study and play. In addition, we would offer a short devotional and prayer time. As I led this ministry, some trends became immediately evident; only boys were attending, many of them came from broken homes, they didn't attend church regularly, and their passion was sports. Over time, the ministry evolved into a devotion and prayer followed by an hour and a half of intense physical activity.
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During the three years that I led the ministry, I developed deep relationships with a core group of about 10 guys. A number of them graduated high school in that time, but still attended weekly. In my mind, this ministry was far more successful than the lunch ministry. The priority was relationships instead of logistics. These students, who didn't have church homes, felt at home in our church. And yet, volunteers flocked to the lunch ministry, while I sometimes struggled to get any volunteers for the after school ministry.
When the time came for me to leave that church, both ministries were at a crossroads and their fate was not mine to decide. The church's priorities became clear as new leadership was quickly brought in for the lunch ministry while the after school ministry was put on hold indefinitely. Clearly, the more "successful" ministry deserved the chance to continue.
I made an announcement at lunch the week prior to my leaving that I would no longer be there but that the lunches would continue. The students listened patiently and then returned to their food and continued their conversations with friends. My last day ran smoothly, not unlike any other lunch day. The last of the students returned to school and I handed over the money box and folder containing all of the lunch logistics.
I had made a similar (albeit much more tearful) announcement at the after school program, although I was unable to assure the continuation of the program. On my last day, we played basketball. As we headed back to the youth room to gather our things and say goodbye, the guys presented a cake they had bought and offered encouraging words.
It's been over a year since I left, and I hear that the lunch is still thriving and continuing to grow. The new leader has reached a conclusion similar to mine, that the ministry is basically a fund-raising restaurant. The after-school program is long forgotten, at least by the church. I still see some of the students from those ministries from time to time. To a majority of them, I am that vaguely recognizable "church lunch guy," but to others I am an old, familiar friend. We spend a few minutes catching up and reminiscing about the good ol' days and I am reminded what the true purpose of youth ministry is.
Publication date: March 22, 2012