From time to time I find myself listening to podcasts of different authors and preachers. Recently I have been listening to David Platt’s “Radical Together” podcast which essentially just plays clips from his sermons. In a sermon titled “Counter Culture”, which is the inspiration for his book titled the same thing, he covers several topics about making commitments and following Christ. As he was speaking, one thought kept going through my head: I am a really, really bad youth leader.
An Impossible Standard
When I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to attend churches with full-time ordained youth ministers and in my eyes these people could do no wrong. Even after I moved from the Lutheran church to a more contemporary one, I still had this idea that youth pastors were divinely ordained by God to reach the next generation. To a certain extent, I continue to believe that many pastors are ordained by God, and not just their own decisions, to serve those on their flocks.
With this idea in my head, you can imagine the slight insecurity that runs across my mind when I consider the task I am trying to support leading the youth at my church. It has really caused me to spend time in the Word and look at what God requires of those who serve Him.
In 1 Peter 2, Peter gives instruction on how we are to prepare our hearts when following Christ.
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice, of all deceit, hypocrisy and envy, and of all the ways there are of speaking against people; and be like newborn babies, thirsty for the pure milk of the Word; so that by it, you may grow up into deliverance. For you have tasted that Adonai is good. (1 Peter 2:1-3, CJB)
Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and temporary residents not to give in to the desires of your old nature, which keep warring against you; (1 Peter 2:11, CJB)
…and again in Chapter 3…
Finally, all of you, be one in mind and feeling; love as brothers; and be compassionate and humble-minded, not repaying evil with evil or insult with insult, but, on the contrary, with blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)
When I read these passages, and read them as instruction and not just pretty words in a gold-paged book, I begin to realize how insufficient my faith truly is. I can’t say that there are many things in this book, or many of the other books in the New Testament, that I haven’t done in one way, shape, or form.
I am a hypocrite. I do things that I preach others should not do.
I hold malice in my heart over the things my flesh can’t accept.
I have and still envy other what others have materially and non-materially.
I continue to war day-in and day-out with the desires of my old nature.
I crave the opportunity to ‘repay evil with evil’ and ‘insult with insult’.
Honestly, when you sit back and look at what is required of us as followers of Christ, the standard appears nearly impossible. Actually, it is impossible.
If we claim not to have sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, then, since he is trustworthy and just, he will forgive them and purify us from all wrongdoing.
If we claim we have not been sinning, we are making him out to be a liar, and his Word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10, CJB)
My inability to satisfy even a fraction of the ‘good works’ described in the Bible is paralyzing. It terrifies me to think how Christ might judge me on the day He comes again. Further than that, it makes me wonder how I can possibly be qualified to instruct and lead our youth, especially without formal training or the same ‘divine ordination’ from God that I view as being given to our clergy.
The Bible offers comfort to the sinner, but what of the leader? The only conclusion I’m left with is that I am not only bad at following the perfect standard of God, but I am bad at being a role model to others.
Leading Others Through Imperfection
The Bible offers a lot of instruction on being a leader in the church. When I was ordained a deacon, we talked a lot about 1 Timothy 3:8-13.
Likewise, the shammashim (deacon) must be of good character, people whose word can be trusted. They must not give themselves to excessive drinking or be greedy for dishonest gain. They must possess the formerly hidden truth of the faith with a clean conscience. And first, let them be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them be appointed shammashim. Similarly, the wives must be of good character, not gossips, but temperate, faithful in everything. Let the shammashim each be faithful to his wife, managing his children and household well. For those who serve well as shammashim gain good standing for themselves and much boldness in the trust that comes through Yeshua the Messiah. (1 Timothy 3:8-13, CJB)
Here, we see more of that perfect standard: free from drunkenness, greed, or dishonesty. Some of these may seem relatively easy to avoid, but knowing that God’s standard is much different from ours, are we honestly going to fool ourselves into thinking that our deacons are not guilty of at least one of these on a not-so-infrequent basis? At work, I find myself in situations of not always being forthcoming with information all the time. It’s easy to hide behind culturally convenient excuses like “well, you have to be sensitive to the politics of things” or “that information will just upset that person so it’s better to tell a little white lie”, but that’s still not being honest. I’m sure we could come up with examples of greed and even “drunkenness” that we also fall guilty of.
The simple conclusion I’m left with is that attempting to be ‘good enough’ is simply a lost cause. You can’t be ‘good enough’. It’s an impossible standard that is confounded by the existence of sin in our lives. All that we can hope to do is continually be returning to the well to be renewed and redeemed of our sin so that as we engage in spiritual leadership, we can take the alter with white consciences, free from guilt or the burdens of sin.
But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes toward heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God! Have mercy on me, sinner that I am!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home right with God rather than the other. (Luke 18:13-14a, CJB)
This is what leading through imperfection looks like. It doesn’t mean you’re always right or always going to have the right answers, but it means acknowledging that we are all ‘bad Christians’ and ‘bad youth leaders’ so that we might be forgiven by Christ’s grace over and over and over again.
A Plan Moving Forward
If we feel called to minister to youth, we simply can’t leave them hanging and ignore our calling due to our guilt. Did God not use David through his guilt? Did God not use Moses through his guilt? Many of the disciples were tax collectors and other dishonest people. They continued to sin throughout following Jesus, yet Christ never pushed them away. Through the grace of Christ we are made whole and through Christ’s love we are qualified to represent him.
With our renewed purity in Christ, we read again in 1 Peter about leaders in the church.
Therefore, I urge the congregation leaders among you, as a fellow-leader and witness to the Messiah’s sufferings, as well as a sharer in the glory to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is in your care, exercising oversight not out of constraint, but willingly, as God wants; and not out of a desire for dishonest gain, but with enthusiasm; also not as machers domineering over those in your care, but as people who become examples to the flock. Then, when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive glory as your unfading crown. (1 Peter 5:1-4, CJB)
When I was taking number theory in college, we learned a lot about how to prove out different concepts. Sometimes you prove a concept through positively making your case and other times you can make it through negation. In 1 Peter, we have leadership proven through both means; Peter describes how to lead by describing what not to do and what we should do.
- Do not act out of a desire for gain.
- Do not be dominating over those in your care or assistants
- Do exercise constraint.
- Do willingly listen to and execute God’s will.
- Do be enthusiastic.
- Do be an example to those you lead.
Even here, I find myself constantly screwing up. When it comes to not acting out of a desire for ‘selfish gain’, who hasn’t done things because they thought it would boost their numbers or make their program appear more “sexy” than the others? If you know anything about me, you’ll know that being heavy-handed isn’t something I tend to shy away from. Society doesn’t have a huge issue with that, but if we are truly being an example to our students and student leaders, that’s a big, big problem!
Honestly, I’d like to think I do a decent job and those around me are constantly telling me that they think I do a ‘good job’. I sincerely appreciate the love and support I continue to get each week from those around me. Unfortunately, the standard of man is not the one I hold as success. It is God’s divine standard of perfection that I hold as my standard of success and in that standard I fail miserably day-in and day-out.
My prayer for my own ministry as an individual follower of Christ and my prayer for the students I minister on a weekly basis is that my life of constant failure and God’s overflowing and abundant love would serve as an example of the Grace and love so freely offered to all. I pray that they would know that no matter how far from the cross they wander or how distant they feel their faith is, the Holy Spirit will descend upon them at a beckon’s call with little regard of their sin. The sacrifice of our Lord has paid the price and covers all of our sins. Though we may all be bad Christians, bad leaders, and bad emissaries of Christ, we are made Holy through Jesus Christ.