A Person. Not a Problem.
When my car breaks down, I take it to the mechanic. When my computer has a virus, I take it to the computer people. Problems. Turn on any news station and you will see and hear an endless stream of news stories of problems that need fixing, and multiple opinions on what needs to be done to fix them.
If we’re not careful in our ministry, we can start looking at the people we serve as problems to be fixed. But people are not problems. Those you serve in ministry are more than merely the problems and issues they present.
It’s quite easy to slip into this mindset when doing ministry with high-maintenance teens or young adults (confession: I, too, was a high-maintenance kid!). There are a number for reasons for doing this. Here are just three of them (do you see yourself here?):
- I like fixing things. Men are really good at this. We think we know what someone needs and we are really good at telling them what to do. We love to give advice all the time.
- I hate chaos and disorder. I need to fix it—fast. Get control quickly.
- I feel pressure from (insert: parents, pastors/leaders, etc.). I need to show them that I know what I’m doing and can do it well. Otherwise, it’s curtains for me.
Ministry leaders can especially find themselves here when the problems that a particular student has involves sexual issues. What if John comes to you and says, “I’ve been struggling with looking at porn,” or Sue opens up and says, “I struggle with lust”? Sexual issues can be complicated, hard to talk about, and unpredictable. They can dominate a person’s life (and oftentimes they do!). And, what’s more, they don’t tend to be fixed quickly or easily. So, after a while, we let their issues become the “face” we see rather than the whole person whom we are trying to help.
How might this play out in our ministry? Here are five litmus tests to see if we view students as problems to be fixed rather than people to love and walk alongside of, showing them how Christ is their helper.
- We get involved when an issue arises, but once we feel they have “conquered” their sin, we then move on to others with their problems.
- We think of students only in terms of their sin. “That” becomes their identity and how we think of them all the time.
- We don’t recognize the good and godly things that are also going on in their lives.
- All we ask students about are their particular struggles and sins when we talk with them.
- We focus on their behavior, and fail to see that their struggles spring from so many other desires, beliefs, and fears within them.
Please don’t misread me. The problems and sins we face are serious things. They should be addressed (and God is clearly interested in addressing our sin—look at practically the entire letter of 1 Corinthians as an example).
But to miss the person because we are centrally focused on the problem is to miss really knowing them as the Lord knows them. This is the beauty of relational ministry.
One of the most relational passages of the Scriptures is Psalm 139. The entire Psalm is an exploration of the ways in which the Lord intimately knows David (you know, the guy who led Israel, whom God anointed as the archetypical leader of his people and the foreshadow of Christ, and the one who committed adultery and murder, as well).
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” Psalm 139: 1-6.
Our God is a personal God. He delights to know us intimately, through and through, and David is equally enraptured by being known this way (“such knowledge is too wonderful for me”). It’s obvious that God would know all these things about David. He’s God. He knows these things about all of us!
But the main point is this: He doesn’t relate to us solely on the basis of our issues and problems. No! He really loves his people (Psalm 149:4: “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people”), and as the prophet Zephaniah exclaims, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing,” (Zephaniah 3:17).
The LORD rejoices over his people? The LORD sings as he delights in us? YES! Our God doesn’t simply see us as problems; He sees us as people to be known and loved. He has loved us with a greater love than we could hope for, having purchased us and adopted us into His family. This isn’t simply about fixing us. This is about family.
How are you doing at reflecting this quality of God to the students you serve? Do you desire to know and love your students as children of the living God? Do you rejoice over the good fruit that is also there in their life? Do you desire to plumb the depths of their hearts, to know their fears, beliefs, and hopes instead of just responding to the issues you see on the surface? Do you desire to know them for who they are?
Here are five ways, mirroring the five litmus tests above, that help us relate more in depth to the students we minister to:
- Pray that the Lord would help you to see students as unique individuals and not as problems you need to fix. Prayer for the Lord to reshape your vision is the first step to take.
- See your students not simply in terms of their struggles and sin, but as a mixture of sin, beliefs, desires, fears, hopes, dreams—the light and the dark of their lives. Recognize that they live in a messed up world, and coupled with their youth and immaturity, let that guide your approach to them.
- Rejoice in the good you see in your students’ lives. Rejoice with them in their successes, and let them know that you praise God for the work you see.
- Ask students about the good things that are happening in their lives. Be intentional here, and in doing so, help them to give thanks to God for his goodness in their life.
- Recognize that you are more like your students than you realize. You don’t have it all together, either. As you cry out to God in your own weakness and struggles and sin, and as you embrace Christ’s grace and forgiveness, and as you then walk forward in faith after you have stumbled and fallen—this is the same life you want to model for them, as well.
It’s an astonishing thing that the Lord takes our problems and sins seriously while simultaneously treating us as the sons and daughters he delights in. The Lord help us to mirror this in our relationships with our students.