Optimism and Realism in Youth Ministry


If you’re going to do youth ministry for any length of time, there are two perspectives you need to balance. First off, you need a good amount of optimism–a passion for seeing life change and believing that God can change anyone.

But you also need a dose of reality, realizing the truth of brokenness in the world and our own limitations. Because sometimes students come to Christ, and sometimes they walk away. Both optimism and realism are needed if you’re going to have longevity in ministry.

The unfortunate and inconvenient truth is that sometimes life is messy. We can do everything in our power and sphere of influence to share the message of Jesus. We pour our lives into students. We hang out over the weeks, months, and years.

Our calendars are filled with copious trips to Del Taco, In N Out,  and Starbucks. Every season, we enjoy camps and events and conversations and times of prayer. We preach sermons and lead Bible studies and see students baptized. And still, sometimes, they walk away.

Still, choices are made that baffle us and confuse us. We stand there flabbergasted, thinking, “But last week you preached that sermon! You were a leader in the youth group for crying out loud and now this!?”

The optimistic youth worker sees the good and beauty in every student and trusts that our God is a God who saves. He saves again and again and again. We know that God’s heart is for every student and regardless of their situation, He can redeem and restore.

But the realists also knows that sometimes students walk away. They might have all the answers and all the experiences to guide them deeper into faith, and yet, they leave our ministries and walk out the door.

The same thing happened to Jesus, you know?

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus challenges him, inviting him to give up everything in order to follow God, and he turns and walks away, unable to depart with the one thing in his life more important than Jesus.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of something being ‘more important’ than Jesus. It’s the simple reality that, as humans, we pick ourselves over God. It happened to Jesus and it will happen to us.

Over the years, the realist in me recognizes that I can’t save anyone. Nor can I make anyone take responsibility for their faith. I can love and teach and guide and lead. The rest is not up to me.

Being a pastor means to shepherd the flock entrusted to my care. Shepherding is hard and often times thankless work. Especially when sheep wanderer away from the fold. It’s easy to blame the shepherd. But the thing about sheep is, they are prone to wander.

So, I’m learning to balance optimism and realism. I’m learning to hold onto optimism for the change God can produce, but also being aware of the need to be realistic.

Sometimes people fall away from God.

Sometimes a crisis in faith arises that rocks its foundation.

Sometimes students make horrible decisions (Wait, sometimes?)

Sometimes students who are so committed and so attached to Jesus, still choose to walk away.

I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Perhaps we should just call it, “normal adolescent behavior.” Or, more simply put, “normal human behavior.”

When this happens, I don’t freak out. I love them and continually point them back to Jesus.

Maturity is a process and I trust God with the work. I just keep shepherding the flock, knowing that God is the one, who, ultimately guides the sheep onward.

Good youth workers are those who balance optimism and realism in their lives and ministries.

Let’s never stop practicing the kind of faith that says, “With God, all things are possible.” But let’s also have the outlook that says, “Life is messy and unpredictable.”

It’s a joy to live life with students in the beauty of the Kingdom and the messiness of life. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that God is at work even when we can’t see it. We can trust Him with the students who stay and with those who go.

We can learn to balance optimism and realism.


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1 Comment

  1. Denise

    I’m reading The Problem of Pain and so am thinking a lot about how my primary calling as a Christian is to die to self and allow God’s will more scope in my life. It is making me aware of all the thousand tiny ways I choose me over Him. But he doesn’t worry, and he doesn’t leave. I am therefore hopeful.

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