Joel Stepanek

I Thought I was the Youth Ministry Messiah

Five minutes before Life Night began I was standing in the janitor’s closet, and made a decision.

I was going to quit.

It was halfway through my first year as a full-time youth minister. As a recent college graduate I believed I knew everything there ever was to know about the world and leading teenagers closer to Christ. I accepted a ministry position at a parish that had a floundering youth ministry program, and was confident I would rebuild it. In fact, at one of my first staff meetings I boldly declared that, “by the end of the year, there will be at least 100 teens at every Life Night.”

I am the youth ministry messiah, and I have come to save your parish.

But that isn’t how it happened. Things had actually gotten worse since I had started ministry, with several Core Members unhappy with some changes I had made and subsequently resigning, and fewer and fewer teens showing up every Life Night. That is how I wound up in the janitor’s closet. That night we had hit a new record low – eight teens from a parish of over 5400 families had showed up, a far cry from my prediction.

I became indignant. “It isn’t me, it is them. It is the lack of support from Core Team, it is this crummy community, it is the poor facilities.” I listed off excuses in the janitor’s closet, and decided that, just like LeBron, it was time to take my talent’s elsewhere. I would quit and go somewhere I could really flourish.

I needed to get through Life Night, first. The topic was prayer.

With only eight teens (almost exclusively freshmen) we kicked off with a small group discussion about prayer. I asked if anyone had ever said a prayer and not had it answered. Many hands went up. Then I asked if anyone had ever said a prayer and had it answered. One girl spoke:

“Last year when the old youth minister was leaving, I was worried that Life Teen would stop. I love the community here, so I prayed that God would keep things going so I could continue to grow in my faith. And God has kept Life Teen here – so my prayer was answered.”

Cue the sound of humility – I’m pretty sure it sounds like shattering glass.

I was stunned. Ten minutes earlier I had made it all about me – what I was going to do at the parish, how I was going to save teens, my talents, my future… and through the inspired words of that teen my heart was changed. This ministry isn’t about me. It is about Christ. I’m not the messiah – and thank goodness for that – Christ is the savior. It took an inspired response from a teen to help me see that.

When I looked at the youth group, all I saw was failure, a dead end, and humiliation. When those eight teens looked at the youth group they saw community, hope, and a place where they could grow closer to Christ.

After the teens left I made a new commitment; I wasn’t going to quit. I was going to use that teens comment as inspiration; I was going to give the teenagers that showed up each week the best that I could offer in ministry. I was going to invite the Holy Spirit in to do the heavy lifting, and I would take care of the paperwork. I was going to ask Christ to send me some great Core Members, and I was going to diligently invite them in. It didn’t matter if there were eight teens or 1,000 teens – they all deserved someone who was going to point them to Christ, rather than try to be a hero. Above all – I realized that I needed to reassess my relationship with Christ. If I saw myself as a messiah – that certainly put Jesus in a number two spot, and that is never a good thing.

Yes, in the coming years the ministry did grow. I took five of those eight teens to the Life Teen Leadership Conference their senior year, and all eight stayed involved as seniors. God worked miracles in the ministry – and I got to see them.

I started a new routine after that Life Night. Five minutes before Life Night I would go back to that janitor’s closet and say a prayer of thanksgiving, rather than a prayer of defeat, and praise God for front row seats to witness his glory unfold. I was thankful for each small moment of inspiration that God revealed in every Life Night, always reminding me that I was not the youth ministry messiah – but that I was tremendously blessed.

Editor’s Note: This blog is part of a series of blogs that relate to our 2014 theme Inspire[d]. If you would like to submit about a blog about an Inspire[d] story that you have, please see these guidelines.

Categories: Inspire[d]Life Teen Community

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Joel Stepanek

About the Author

I spent most of my 8th grade year in detention because there wasn’t a dare I wouldn’t accept. But in high school, my youth minister dared me to follow Christ and I haven’t looked back. I love all things Wisconsin, especially the Green Bay Packers. I can probably eat more cheese than you. (Please don’t dare me to prove it.)