What brings success to a ministry for un-churched youth?
Do you ever look back over the years and find yourself marveling at something amazing that God has done? If so, you’ll understand where our family now stands as we look back and see a special work God has done, and is still doing, despite our inadequacy.
When my wife Anita and I were married twenty-five years ago, we had a common passion for working with youth. Through this interest, God enabled us to consistently invest in the lives of young people in a variety of places along the East Coast. Our youth work continued when I took up a pastorate in Lexington, North Carolina, twelve years ago.
Lexington is a small factory town. Blue-collar workers comprise the majority of the population, and many struggle to stay above the poverty line. In this place where misery and want are familiar companions, there are many opportunities to reach into the lives of young people who are hungry for something more than what the world has to offer.
Devastating Change Brings Deepened Purpose
Three years ago, life as we knew it was shattered. Our church split and many of those we had grown to love and respect, those who had become part of our lives, left the church. Our plans and dreams for the things that God could do through our congregation were crushed, and we were left wondering what to do. Was God finished with us here? Why had He removed His hand of blessing from us?
As everything changed, we were left with huge responsibilities and few people to meet them. Some of the ministries our church had taken part in had to be dropped. Little did we realize that through these changes, God was removing the responsibilities of some ministries in order to free us up for the things He wanted to do in and through our family.
We considered allowing our outreach to un-churched youth to end since our church had become so much smaller. However, though we felt apprehensive about the future, we decided that the Lord would not have us give up investing in the youth in Lexington. Continuing the ministry required the commitment of myself and my wife and also our two daughters, but we couldn’t bear the thought of these precious souls drifting off into the future following the patterns they saw around them. The light of Christ is too valuable a treasure to be kept for oneself! It is something that must be shared, passed on, and given to those who are steadily walking towards an eternity without Christ.
Learning to Love Through Christ’s Strength
The ministry that God has given us currently is not the result of some glorious dream or light-encrusted vision of revolutionizing Christianity. This ministry is the result of God opening our eyes to see young people as He sees them. The world labels them as “disadvantaged,” yet God sees them as full of potential. From all outward appearances these kids are tough, dirty, and angry. God sees hearts that are hurting and hungering for the love of Christ.
We are reminded every day of our own failings, our limitations in reaching hearts, and our weakness. We are inadequate to meet the challenges around us, but our God is not. He is the God who arranges battles and created hummingbirds. He is fully capable of working through us, despite our deficiencies and flaws. Our responsibility is to die to ourselves daily, to surrender constantly, to rely on the strength of El Shaddai, the Almighty, for this work to continue. Only as we are emptied of ourselves can God work. Until this happens, we strive in vain.
Love: A Stepping Stone Into Another World
Relating to these kids has been difficult. We have had to step into their world, to experience their pain, and to understand their hurts. We have had to learn a whole new vocabulary and have delved into the issues they face each day.
Broken homes are normal. Many parents move through a steady succession of temporary relationships that bring insecurity and inconsistency to the home. Many youth live with their grandmothers, seeing their parents only occasionally. Children are destitute of resources and fail in school. Abuse is common, divorce is the trend, and gangs and witchcraft are no strangers to the streets. This is the life these young people live. This is the background painted for their future. Christ is the only hope to be found.
Just as God sent Christ to bring light into our world, we seek to enter the world of these youth and bring the light of Christ to them. Reaching into the lives and hearts of these youth involves very practical things, such as going to see them in school plays, teaching them to sing, spending time talking, and being available to meet practical needs. As we enter their daily lives, they can sense the deep, daily love of Christ.
Going out with the youth in public is another way we identify with them. It startles people when our family walks into a restaurant with nine or ten rough-looking kids. People stare and whisper speculations as to why a typical-looking family would have a bunch of kids from various ethnic backgrounds with them. The young people sense how uncomfortable others are with our unusual group, but they also sense that we love them. That love is what gives us an opening to their hearts and what keeps them coming back to us.
Teaching Youth to Share the Love They Have Received
Showing love to these youth involves helping them show love to others. At times we have loaded everyone into the church bus to go to a store and pick out cards for the sick and elderly in our congregation. Each one tries to find a card that expresses what they want to say. Back in the bus, they add their own messages as we head for the homes of the elderly. Gathering in a circle around the bed, the eyes of distress meet the eyes of pain. Hands and hearts hardened by the world but touched by love, meet hands twisted by pain and hearts in agony. The tired eyes of the elderly brighten, and smiles warm their faces.
The kids give to others out of the love they have received. They marvel that they are used to help someone else, and their lives are changed as a result. Each one goes away with a sober tenderness on his or her face. There is an indescribable beauty in seeing youth who have been hurt so much ministering to those in pain.
Loving as a Family
One of the most special things about all of this is that it is a family venture. We work together as a close knit team, each member vital in the lives of the others. Our daughters, Brittany and Gabrielle, are actively involved in discipling the girls in the group, and are able to use their musical skills. There have been many opportunities for them to stand alone and to show the power and love of Christ through their responses to the challenges we face.
Our family has found that our personal relationships with Christ are crucial as we work together to invest in others. Time spent alone with God is a high priority for each of us, and without it we would quickly burn out. It is only as we support one another and strive as a team to serve Christ, our Captain, that we can succeed.
We constantly see that we are inadequate and unable to bring about good, except for the mercy of God. He is the only reason that we have had an influence on the youth of our town, and through Him we have seen hearts transformed, young people united, and lives changed.
The love and concern the youth feel is nothing our family could conjure up in ourselves. It is only as we surrender to God that we can love these kids with the love of Christ. God’s love is deeper than the darkest ocean, stronger than the most powerful storm, and more beautiful than a breathtaking sunset. This love empowers us to reach into the hearts of others, to invest in these young lives, and to persevere when we are exhausted.
Relying On the Only Source of Love—Jesus
God desires us to be the living demonstrators of His love, that through us others would see visible expressions of Himself. We have the unspeakably amazing opportunity to do the work of God’s hands, to speak His words, to see our perspective on life become identical to His.
God looks on each of us with loving eyes and tender kindness, and He desires that we would see others as He does. May we all experience the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that they power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Related Command of Christ
This testimony illustrates the command of Christ to Let Your Light Shine. (See Matthew 5:14–16.) The Richmeier family chose to share the love and light of Christ with the youth of their town, even when continuing the outreach required more of their time and energies. God is working through their openness and reaching hearts and lives who are seeking for Him.