Monday, November 26, 2012

Remembering What's Important: Part 2- The Humble Servanthood of Christ

Jesus redefined leadership as servanthood in taking on a humble form to most genuinely reach and minister to people --in particular, the last, the little, the lost, and the least; why do youth ministries attempt something different?

One of the places I’ve most often seen the gospel hit home in a tangible way with teenagers has been during service events or on mission trips.  It is a concrete depiction of incarnation, of love being fleshed-out.  And the physical interaction amongst the kids and between the folks they are serving provides a vessel, a metaphorical and literal vehicle for the message of laying down your life, putting others before you, and trusting yourself to the bigger picture of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world.  In an era where instant access to information, ‘relationship’, and entertainment rules our kids’ lives, the sometimes-awkward, new, and eye-opening experience of spending time in a soup kitchen, amongst elderly folks, or in another service capacity breaks through the familiar, stale, and often-consuming patterns teens actually really long to be liberated from.  They are invited into something different, something oriented outside themselves -- something that pulls the veil back a peak to let them glimpse the kingdom of God. 

I think that we, as youth ministers (and, honestly, as the forgetful, broken human beings we are) lose sight of the fact that something approximating this same experience of glimpsing the kingdom of God is what drew us in, to Jesus, in the first place.  Whether you grew up in a family where the story of the gospel was woven into everyday life or you had a specific break-through moment of encountering the love/power/presence of God, a Way different than the way of the world became a reality to you at some point. 

So why do we fall into the snare of thinking that our ministries should be successful according to the world’s way (standards/measures)?  And why do we see so many business-like models for youth ministry that functionally use power, control, and popularity to convince kids of the gospel -- or maybe just to convince them to come to church?

Indeed, we forget the backward leadership of Jesus, the Way Himself.  We forget the reality that the kingdom of God is at-hand, and that an emptying of self, a laying down of our lives is the call we live by.  Servanthood is the invitation for us -- the alternate to the world’s way of power and control.  Contrary to glorifying ourselves, building ourselves up, or gaining more and more competence/pride/feelings of success, Jesus invites us as youth leaders to continue in His Way even as we head-up our ministries.  This means that we get to point to what He has already done, is doing, and will do in lieu of worrying as much about the success of the retreat we just did, the small group we’re currently doing, and the lock-in we’ve got next week.  We get to rest in the laying down of our lives and in the struggle to trust God with our ministries.  We get to know that His strength is in our weakness, and He values the offering of our gifts and selves.

A youth ministry shaped after the heart and ministry of Jesus isn’t going to look pretty, folks; as much as we are inclined to maybe think it should, it is more likely to look like the nitty-gritty relational pursuit, perseverance, constant proclamation of the Word, and God-reliant sacrifice of time, effort, and energy.  It is likely to bring you to your knees everyday with outstretched hands if you aren’t already there, and it’s likely to be one of the sweetest tastes of the kingdom of God you will ever experience – a taste much, much sweeter than the appearance of worldly success or the feel of finally having some control or power.  It is a taste of eternity, and of Love, Himself, who laid down His life for yours.

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
                                                                                                  - Mark 10: 43-45

Liz Edrington previously served as a youth minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA. Liz presently is pursuing a masters in counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL .

Monday, November 19, 2012

Remembering What's Important: Part 1- Student Ministry and the Sovereignty of God

Some youth ministers labor for years on end without ever seeing a conversion or they see very little spiritual growth.  Others, however, seem to have it all together—big crowds, mass baptisms, teens singing Ke$ha to the tune of Kumbaya.

How much of the success of student ministry is up to you?  Where does your ministry and God’s sovereignty connect?  And if God is completely sovereign (which He is), does it affect your daily approach to working with youth?

Sovereignty “Displayed”

The sovereignty of God is one of his holy attributes.  It means that His divine will is omnipotent and supreme over all (Eph. 1:11).  God’s sovereignty is displayed or expressed in two distinct ways.  First, God’s sovereignty is displayed in his eternal decrees—God has decreed the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10).  All things come to pass according to his eternal purpose and plan.

Second, His sovereignty is displayed in his temporal providences—his eternal decrees executed in time and space.  For example, God has decreed salvation for his elect (“predestined”), but it comes to pass when the Spirit of God performs divine heart transplant and causes His beloved to be born again (1Pet. 1:3).  That is the sovereignty of God displayed and nothing—not even the tiniest molecule, as R. C. Sproul would say—falls outside of the sovereign control and plan of God.

So where do you fit in?  How does this relate to student ministry?

Your Part: The Means of Grace

God has not only ordained (“decreed”) the ends, but the means by which He would accomplish those ends.  This can be illustrated in both evangelism and prayer.  While God elects His people by sheer sovereign mercy, He sees fit that those people come to faith in Christ through the hearing of the gospel message.  Thus, He has ordained both the means and the ends.

A similar theme can be found with prayer.  I sometimes get asked, “Does prayer change things?”  My answer:  No, God changes things, but He uses your prayers to do it!  Both the outcome in time and space as well as the means to accomplish that outcome are wrapped up in His eternal purpose and the “secret things [that] belong to the LORD” (Deut. 29:29).

The usual and ordinary means by which God saves and sanctifies His people—including teenagers—are the Word of God, prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Historically, these have been called the “means of grace.”[1]  However, God also uses other means to save and grow His people, including gospel-motivated service, grace-centered community, and worship.

While God remains sovereign, He calls you to plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:7).   But how do we faithfully plant and water the gospel?  Through the means of grace that God has already provided His church.  We don't have to invent new foundational paradigms and strategies for saving and sanctifying teenagers.  We have a role and responsibility:  to simply be faithful to the various means—the six listed above—that God uses to grow his people.  In fact, the early disciples “devoted” themselves to such a ministry (Acts 2:42-47).

Two Common Pitfalls

As youth pastors and those working with teenagers, it is easy to fall into one of two theological and pastoral pitfalls, when considering the sovereignty of God and ministry.  One is to think that—because God is sovereign—it really doesn’t matter what I do; the ends all turn out the same.  While it is true that “faithfulness” is always more important than “success” in ministry, we should heed Timothy Keller’s plea for an emphasis on fruitfulness as well.[2]  As noted above, God uses our ministries of the Word, prayer, sacraments, etc. to accomplish His eternal decrees, in time and space.  We have, therefore, a great responsibility in our ministry to students.

The other pitfall is to think that the “success” of my student ministry is really determined by my programs, special events, or my cool soul patch.  This, I’m sad to say, is the default ministry paradigm in student ministry in the American church.  There is so much emphasis on creating the greatest show on earth, that we have lost the centrality of the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners.  Instead, we gimmick and game students to the point that the youth themselves are left confused by the essential character of the gospel.  In the end, what’s missing is God himself!

Some Practical Suggestions

Let’s put this together.  Let me give you three practical suggestions for leading a student ministry in light of the sovereignty of God:

1.    Study the attribute of God’s sovereignty.  Yes, study!  Scripture is replete with references to the sovereignty of God and many books have been written to help us explore, discover, and take delight in this holy attribute.[3]  Such a study and focus will undoubtedly lead to a greater daily reminder and awareness of the truth that we serve a God whose sovereign will reigns supreme from all eternity.  My failings in ministry, therefore, will not thwart His plan.  Rather, my failings and weakness are used by God as part of His sovereign plan—often pointing to the reality that God’s grace is sufficient and that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
2.    Evaluate your student ministry by the means of grace.  These include the Word of God, prayer, sacraments, gospel-motivated service, grace-centered community, and worship.  Do these provide the backbone of your current ministry?  If not, the pitfall of self-reliance might be lurking up ahead.  But a faithful and fruitful ministry will seek to plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ through these divinely ordained and established means.

3.    Don’t Apologize for God.  I hear this all the time: “I’m sure God wouldn’t let that happen.”  There is a temptation to apologize for God when bad things happen, or when things happen that we don’t understand.  No, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job. 1:21).  Just because we don’t understand why something happened doesn’t suddenly render God impotent.  Just because all of your event planning and financial resources didn’t provide the desired effects, we must not say, “If only God could give a little help here!”  Nothing is sweeter and more comforting than serving in student ministry for a God who is, at once, good and sovereign.  Let God be God and praise Him for His sovereignty!

[1] See The Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 154.
[2] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 13.
[3] For a true classic, see A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Our Response Matters: Being Christian in light of the Election


The election has come and gone. Now what? It seems that all sorts of pastors, parents, and professionals are claiming that the sky is falling with blog titles like, “The End of America,” “The Tragedy of the 2012 Election,” and other apocalyptic-themed facebook statuses, tweets, and protests. Why? Did the “right guy” not get the vote? What were you expecting? The bottom line is: Barack Obama is President. And according to Romans 13:1-2, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” So now, not only is He president, God “instituted” him. Now what?

Four More Years
Romans 13:1-8: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for [Barack Obama] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [Barack Obama] does not bear the sword in vain. For [Barack Obama] is the servant of God, an avenger who carried out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

First things first, as Christians we must be done with the whining and complaining. Adults in general, but especially parents and pastors. The reason is because future generation is looking to you to learn how to respond. A standing principle of being an adult, parenting, or doing ministry is that the kids we are around, when they don’t know what to do, they’ll do what they’ve seen us do. So I ask you as I’ve had to ask myself: How are you responding? What kind of attitude have you had about the election? What kind of things did you say on election night? What kind of things have you said about Obama being president? The truth of the matter is that its not about the election. For most kids, they have no idea what is going on, what’s at stake, and are completely unaware of the policies and/or consequences of what happened last Tuesday. What this is about is authority. They are learning how to view, respond, interpret, think, and believe about authority. So slandering the president only teaches them to badmouth authority. Disrespecting the president only teaches them to disrespect authority. Complaining about the president only teaches them to complain about authority. The most ironic part of it all is that you, pastor or parent, are their authority. You are modeling to them how to respond to you. Therefore poor actions are only cutting the knees out from under future leaders and ourselves. Usually we hear adults talking about teenagers as “having no respect for authority these days! They are just so disrespectful!” We must ask ourselves: Where did think they get it from? What kind of model are you providing? Is it one of submission, honor, respect, and love? Or slander, disrespect, discontentment, hate, rebellion and hopelessness? How about to your spouse and family? To your congregation? To your friends and neighbors? Bottom line, do you exhibit the Christian virtue of faith in that you trust that God is sovereign and has put Barack Obama in authority over you and this nation?

The beauty of the Gospel is that it is Gospel of Grace and Mercy of a God who is Sovereign and Omnibenevolent. And therefore despite the areas of which our country is incompetent or inadequate, God is not, and He alone is our Hope. Glory to the Trinity alone! For it is only through the Grace of recreation by the Holy Spirit through the incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and second coming of the Son as predestined by the Father. Therefore may no man boast, for as it is an act of Grace and Mercy, we must respond in Grace and Mercy. For who are we to be selective with our Grace and Mercy? Our leaders are just as much men as we are and we are just as much capable of evil as they. May the Grace of God abound in our lives in order that we might be agents of Grace in the name of Christ our Lord, Savior, and King.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Comforting Words for New Youth Ministers - Part 5: Where Your Credibility Comes From

Dear First Year Youth Minister,

I know that one of the biggest questions and insecurities you face in your first year regards questions of credibility. You are probably in your early twenties, but to some, you look like you’re sixteen. You have a bachelor’s degree (and maybe even a graduate degree), but people talk to you like a high school student. You work sixty to seventy hours per week, but people still ask you if you’re paid for your job. (You resist the temptation to say, “By third world standards, yes.”) You take your position seriously as you plan, study, relate, manage, encourage, budget, teach, counsel, and basically fulfill the management functions of the director of a non-profit organization, and yet people ask you what you are going to do when you grow up, as if you play kickball eight hours per day. In essence, you are an adult with a very serious job, but often people condescendingly patronize you as if you are one of the kids you lead. They talk about your calling as if you do little more than entertain and babysit.

 Meanwhile, you face the reality that you have little experience. You probably have not attended seminary and need to deepen in your biblical and theological knowledge. You see a great deal of education in adolescent psychology and pastoral counseling. You may be finding your way in the “real world” for the first time as a young adult. 

 Be encouraged: You have credibility. What you do is important; it is serious business. You have authority in your space. But from where does this authority and credibility come?

1.) God chose you for the job.
You approached accepting your position prayerfully. You discerned God’s will for your next career step. While the church offered you a position, God ultimately called you to the position and you followed. He did not make a mistake. He has plans and intentions for your ministry. A great quote that I like to lean on is that “God equips the called; he doesn’t necessarily call the equipped.” 

2.) God gave you gifts.
The Lord gave you gifts for such a position, or else you likely would not have received the job. The leaders that offered you the position saw an ability in you to relate to students, a maturity in your faith, and a level of responsibility such that they would not trust you to take other people’s precious children on trips. While you do need to develop those gifts, understand that God graciously gave them to you.

3.) God gave you the Holy Spirit.
Whether you have been in ministry for eight days or eighteen years, you ultimately sink or swim based on your dependence on the Holy Spirit. God is with you in the Holy Spirit; you are not alone. Christ encouraged his disciples in John 16, by saying, “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” You will face impossible situations. You will teach Bible lessons without any clue whether they are efficacious. You will grow weak and discouraged. Understand that the Holy Spirit will work in measures infinitely greater than what you ever will know in this life. The Holy Spirit will minister to your teens. You simply need to trust Him in every step and faithfully follow him to what He calls. 

4.) You are the foremost expert on ministry to teenagers in your church.
Within about six months, you will be the expert on ministry to teenagers in your church. It is unlikely that any parent, pastor, or volunteer will know as much as you do. Your life will involve dozens of conversations with teens, where you are on the front row to the ever-evolving youth culture. You will spend weeks and weekends on trips with them. You may attend youth ministry conferences. You may read blogs and magazines about youth ministry. Trust me: you will be the expert, and it will happen fast. Take ownership of this and use this gift to help parents understand how to love and disciple their adolescent. Help your pastors understand the mentality of the youth in your church, so that their sermons and teachings will connect with the younger crowd. 

5.) You are enough; you are not enough.
You will wrestle with feelings of inadequacy right from the beginning. The reason for this is because as a sinner without the Lord, you are hopelessly inadequate in your position. Recall, though, that Christ has imputed his righteousness on you. Christ has perfected you in God’s eyes. You have nothing to prove and nobody to impress, because you are enough before the Lord by the righteousness of Jesus. You must constantly remember your adoption as a daughter or son of God, and that his grace is enough for you and your ministry.

Cameron Cole is the chairman of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry and the Director of Student Ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL. He is a candidate for a Masters in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Where We Need to Point Kids after the Presidential Election


Four years ago to this date, I had the privilege of speaking to a class of ninth grade students in an inner city area of Birmingham, AL, known as Woodlawn. Imagine the intrigue of having a conversation with a classroom of all African American students in one of the most violent, segregated sites of the Civil Rights Movement, on the morning after America elected its first black president. Students told stories of their grandparents, who lived under the threat of the Ku Klux Klan and used “colored” public restrooms, sat in front of the television praying and weeping as they saw President Obama chosen for office. 

Since that morning, which stills gives me chills when I recall the spirit of redemption in that classroom, I have had my eye on Woodlawn, where several friends serve, minister, and attend church. I can say definitively that there has been no mitigation to the suffering, poverty, estrangement, addiction, and violence over the last four years. Children struggle without fathers. Men and women fail to find work. Teens fall into gangs. The only real effect government has made in Woodlawn has been a bribery scandal among county commissioners that has led to the bankruptcy of their county and increased burden on residents to pay their utilities.

Simultaneously, during the past four years, several churches have established new ministries that are bringing real hope to the Woodlawn community. The Church of the Highlands has established its Dream Center that includes ministries of mercy, such as affordable healthcare, financial counseling, tutoring, and Bible study. They have a satellite church location that includes an integrated congregation. Church of the Redeemer, a church plant led by pastor Joel Brooks, has a thriving congregation with powerful relational ministry and strong biblical teaching in the Woodlawn area. Hungry families can depend on Grace Episcopal where meals are served daily. A rush of tangible hope and redemption has rolled through Woodlawn in a new way, probably not at a macro-level but to a degree like not before in decades.

I bring this up only because, today, I have dealt with students with very powerful reactions to the presidential election. Some have threatened to move to Canada, fearing that America will collapse. Four years ago, many kids unrealistically believed that America had found a messiah, who would redeem all problems. Teenagers are filled with passion that we can channel in a fruitful direction. Today, I will remind students of three important truths.
First, Christ reigns as King. His Kingdom already has come and will continue to increase. Only Christ will save and redeem this world. No government can do so.

Secondly, God ordains all elected officials. We are called to pray for them and respect their authority.

Third, the Church is the worldly vehicle through which God will redeem the world. The government can improve circumstances, but only God through the Church can revive desperate, sinful hearts through the proclamation of the Gospel, teaching of the word, prayers of the people, and missions for our neighbor. The Church relates to people face-to-face and heart-to-heart, not through policy, regulation, or bureaucracy. Policy operates at a surface level, while the Church (when functioning properly), engages at the epicenter of all the world’s problems: the human heart. It would be irresponsible not to acknowledge that, like the government, the Church can be a source of injustice and oppression, when its people do not have their souls anchored in Christ and the promotion of His Kingdom.

Therefore, let all of us- student, ministers, and parents alike- be encouraged that the most powerful change agent in the world remains Jesus Christ working through His bride, the Church. Let us not waste energy fretting over political elections, obsessing over cable news, or making inflammatory remarks on Facebook. Instead, let us exalt Christ the King and focus our energy on our role in God’s Church as agents in the complete redemption of the world. 

Cameron Cole is the chairman of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry and the Director of Student Ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL. He is a candidate for a Masters in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary

Monday, November 05, 2012

Comforting Words for New Youth Ministers - Part 4

Dear Youth Worker or Pastor,
I am very excited that God has placed a call on your life to work in student ministry. There are some amazing things about working with teens that I know you will enjoy. Throughout your time in student ministry, many of the students will be in a place where God moves them to make life decisions for Him. From time to time, God will bless you to be part of this direct change in their life. It is great to see students fight sin, devote their lives to Jesus, and grow spiritually.
The all night events kinda suck, mostly because staying up all night is not as fun as it used to be, but playing sports, hanging out at sporting events, playing Halo and Call of Duty are all way fun, and I know the students will love doing them with you. Also, make sure you take the students to concerts. It is a blast, and you can always charge the church for your ticket cost. When you look at all those things, add in lunch out, time at Starbucks, late nights talking; working with teens is great. But I must warn you that you need to be prepared for:

-Students who get pregnant
-Students who get other students pregnant
-Students who are addicted to pornography
-Students who won't stop masturbating
-Students who have sexual attraction to someone of the same gender and don't know what to do
-Students who hate their parents
-Students who will attempt to kill themselves
-Students who are addicted to drugs
-Students who smoke cigarettes, weed, or about anything else they can get their hands on.
-Students who are caught drinking
-Students who post images of others naked online
-Students who will be attracted to leaders
-Students who are attracted to you
-Students who will put you in a place to sin
-Students who will make you mad, annoyed, ticked off, hate life, and wish you had another job.
-Students who Facebook, twitter, text message, call, and stop by your house all the time because they think its normal
-Students who put you against their parents
-Students who  get kicked out of school

-Students who go to jail (so be ready to go to court)
-Students who end up in the ICU, ER, or on Life Flight
-Students who don't understand what it means to read their Bible, fight sin, be in community
-Students who go crazy (so be ready to go to the psych ward)
-Students who run away from home
-Students who  are attracted to someone twice their age
-Students who get kicked out of their house by their parents.
-Students who steal from you
-Students who bring porn on camping trips, overnight events, missions trips, youth group events (pretty much everywhere they go)
-Students who threaten other students
-Students who don't make it on the sports team, drama team, into college and as a result their life begins to fall apart.
-Students who cheat on their boyfriend, girlfriend or even husband or wife
-Students who get in relationships with leaders (this one is a real fun one)
-Students who text message the whole time you are teaching
-Students who 'talk' to satan, worship satan, and think its all ok
-Students who see dead people, talk to the, and have a deep fear about the spirit world
-Students who have 'peered into hell' and seem to think its normal
-Students who cut themselves
-Students who choke themselves until they black out, and think this is fun and normal
-Parents who want you to simply 'make their student good'
-Parents who catch students having sex or looking at porn
-Parents who hate their kids and tell them constantly
-Parents who beat their kids
-Parents who molest their kids
-Parents who offer/expose/encourage drugs, sex, and alcohol.
-Parents who teach their kids you're an idiot, all pastors are corrupt, and the church is evil
-Parents who constantly berate you, slander your name, insult your spouse and kids
-Youth leaders who fail you
-Youth leaders who lie
-Youth leaders who don't listen (I know, shocking)
-Youth leaders who talk behind your back
-Churches give you no budget, but expects you to do what the mega-youth group down the road is doing
-Churches who overwork you
-Churches who threaten to fire you over numbers
-Churches who fire you over numbers
-Churches who cut your salary in the middle of the year for 'the new sanctuary'
-Churches who cancel your benefits just because
-Pastors who don't back you up
-Pastors who talk bad about you
-Pastors who don't respect you because, 'you're just the youth pastor"
-Pastors who sabotage
-Pastors who throw you under the bus
-Pastors who think (and tell you) what you're doing is worthless.
-Pastors who think that what you do doesn't matter because, 'their just kids'
-Pastors who try to get you fired
-Pastors who start rumors

If you're not ready for all of those things, and I am guessing many more, then I am not sure you are ready to work with in the church with students. And see, none of us will truly ever be ready to address these issues. No class on earth can prepare you for when a student kills them-self. This is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, must be central to our thinking, we must be ready to bring the theological truth to bare on all of these situations. Simply teaching students, parents or other leaders a nice devotional and playing games after group will not help address any of the issues listed above. Even though you may feel inadequate, remember this wonderful truth - you are! But Jesus is not. Cling to Him, trust Him, run to Him. He will give us the things to say, the response to have, and the message to bring when these, and many other things, come up in your gospel ministry.
I know, it does not sound all that glorious. Trust me, it is not. But remember, we don’t merely serve students, parents, and fellow youth workers. No, we serve Jesus, and He is the one from whom we receive our power.

Josh Cousineau is a graduate from New England Bible College with a bachelors in Theology and Christian Ministry, has planted Redemption Hill Community Church, and has a passion to preach the gospel to those who are in need of Jesus.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Alone I Would Not Have Done It

In a recent high school youth group meeting I was teaching on Psalm 51. To illustrate a point about the nature of sin, I shared a passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which he remembers stealing pears one night with a group of friends. This thievery, as he recounts, was not because of hunger, or even a particular delight in pears. Rather, it was because of a desire to do what was not permitted: “I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.” I found this to be very insightful as I reflected on the nature of sin with our high school students. 

And yet, perhaps the most helpful part of this anecdote comes a few pages later. St. Augustine continues to reflect on this incident and discerns another, perhaps deeper, root for his thievery: “Had I been alone I would not have done it – I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time – alone I would never have done it. Therefore my love in that act was to be associated with the gang in whose company I did it.” Here we are reminded that at the very root of so many of our choices to pursue evil is a desire for acceptance among our peers (as well as an ignorance of our acceptance in Christ). St. Augustine concludes, “Friendship can be a dangerous enemy.” 

This is true. But we must avoid the simplistic conclusion that “friendship is dangerous.” The lesson here is deeper, teaching us that friendship is powerful, able to produce great goods as well as great evils. Certainly many of us have done evil things that we never would have done if we were alone. But the converse is also true. Many Christians have been inspired to pursue goodness, mercy, and justice precisely because of their company of friends. If this story teaches us anything it is that because of our associations we may do things we never would have done alone – whether for good or ill. 

As I reflected on these things with my students, I also thought more broadly of fellow youth workers and their ministries. Let us continue to remind our students (and remember ourselves!) that Christian community is essential for so many reasons, including this one that St. Augustine teaches us: because of friends we may be inspired to do things – for good – that we would never have done alone. 

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). 

Bijan Mirtolooi is part of the Youth Ministry staff at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.