Blog/CYM Blog

Gold Stars and Bloody Crosses

As an elementary school student, I was a people pleaser and a teacher’s pet. I always wanted to be the first one with the right answer. I thrived with the affirmation that a teacher would give me when I got it right. I covered my desk with the gold stars that often adorned my tests and assignments.

When I became a youth minister, my people pleasing ways didn’t go away. I became more of a people pleaser because I found way more people to give me affirmation. I could give the precise response to my pastor when he asked a question about growing the youth group. I gave the correct answer to teenagers when they were in distress or struggling. I fielded parent calls with ease because I was brimming with the right replies. Give me the gold stars – I’m fantastic.

I know I wasn’t one of the twelve disciples, but I would’ve beaten Peter to his confession. I would’ve proclaimed the Messiah way before it even crossed Peter’s mind.

Gold Star Ministry

As youth ministers, we are looking for the right things to say. Whether it is the best response to a teen or the holiest response in prayer, we want to have the correct words for a given situation. When it comes to our faith in Christ, we have the right answer:

Jesus, you are my Lord!

Then Jesus says, “Yeah, and there are going to be crosses.”

Peter’s mistake was misunderstanding the Messiah. He thought the Messiah was going to be a great ruler. James and John may have had a similar thought when they asked to be at Jesus’ left and right. Peter thought since he nailed the response and then Jesus told him he would be “the rock” that he would have a lead role in this new kingdom. And Peter is right, but it isn’t coming the way he expects.

I often make the mistake of thinking that my faith should give me something. After all, I’ve given my life to the Lord – I even work for the Church! Where is my gold star? I have the right answers – where is my reward?

Our reward is the cross. In ministry, sometimes that means we offer a teen the right answer, but it still isn’t good enough. It means that the parent conversation where we give the “home run” response still ends with the parent upset. Our grand plan for the new youth room gets rejected by the pastor – even though we can fully fund it. The right answers don’t always bring us the reward we hope for – at least not initially.

Cheesy Christian Plotlines

It is one thing to apply this to ministry; it is even more insidious when we apply it to our personal faith. Movies like “Facing the Giants” and (insert any other Christian movie here) paint a picture of being rewarded in significant ways for our belief in Jesus – big material ways. It can create an expectation for us as youth ministers that we are owed something for our faith. Right now, my wife and I are trying to find a house. Unfortunately, the market in Phoenix is competitive, and it is tough. A few days ago we found a great house that wasn’t even on the market yet and we put in an offer. The place was perfect, and it looked like we were going to get it. I’ll be honest with you: I looked at that house as a reward for serving God well and making sacrifices for ministry. I thought, “This is my gold star!”

But then the offer fell through. The seller wanted more money than we could offer up, so we lost it. And I was upset for a moment – this was my gold star moment. I realized quickly that, in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty petty to be upset about that house. I am blessed to have an apartment to live in with my family, all of whom are healthy.

I’ve walked with other people of faith through the loss of a child.

Through the loss of a close friend.

Through a divorce.

Through bankruptcy.

I’ve walked with people of faith who’ve lost their “gold stars,” the very blessings they should have received for their fidelity. Things that are bigger than losing an offer on a house.

Jesus doesn’t promise us gold stars. He promises the cross. And this is where the beauty of the cross shines – it is through that cross that we find everlasting life. It’s why all of those I mentioned above fell deeper in love with Jesus after those crosses. They found new life, even amidst death and suffering. That is hard to take because it isn’t what want to hear. We want the reward for our faith, but Jesus doesn’t promise material rewards. Jesus promises an eternal reward, but we find it through a splintery, dirty, cumbersome chunk of wood.

We aren’t owed anything for our faith. Our belief opens us up to the greatest thing that we can’t earn and don’t deserve which is everlasting life. Rejoice in that; it is better than a gold star. It is eternity.


Image via FlickrCC 2.0 Logo added

About the Author

Joel Stepanek

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.) Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @LT_Jstepanek.

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