Rev. Dr. Nate Landis is President and founder of Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC), a coalition of churches that support student leaders at over 100 middle and high schools in San Diego County.

 

Thousands of young people share spiritual and physical food with friends each week as they discuss the big questions of life.​

MEET NATE

GOD’S CALL TO YOUTH MINISTRY IN FRONT OF A PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL​

My life changed forever one afternoon in 2006 as my car sat at a red light beside a McDonalds across the street from San Diego High School.  Three thousand students go to school there, 90% of them do not have a regular or meaningful relationship with a local church.  The congregation where I served as youth pastor sat just eight blocks away.  Several years before, I approached the football coach and asked if he would be open to having a team chaplain.  I explained that we could do pre-game meals, a motivational pep talk, and be available for students on and off the field.  He responded by saying, “Sir, we were 1-9 last year.  Prayer couldn’t hurt.”  That year they had 18 academically ineligible players on the team who could not keep a 2.5 grade point average.  It takes discipline to keep you grades that low in this school district.  You need an accountability partner making sure you’re not turning assignments in and not going to class.  On this particular afternoon, I was getting ready to pick up football players for the optional pre-game meal and chapel service that we put on for them at a nearby church.  Suddenly, before I could do anything, the bell rang.  This sea of multi-racial faces can pouring out into the intersection.  I couldn’t drive or I would have literally some of them over.  That’s always a bad way to start a campus ministry – with distrust and lawsuits.  So I had to just sit there in my car watching all these faces go by.  The first thought I had at that moment brought great clarity for me.  It went something like this, “These kids are never going to accidently stumble into the well-endowed Presbyterian stone castle I work at down the street,” I said to myself.  “We need to go to where they are, to meet them on their own turf.”  I’m glad Jesus did it that way and did not wait for us to find our way to heaven on our own.  The word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1).  My second thought hurt to admit but followed from the first observation.  “If I bring any more of these urban kids into the youth group, there will be great debate inside the church about whether they should be there.”  I delivered on my promise to grow the youth ministry, but some parents privately questioned why I had to do it with those kids. At that moment, I heard a still small inaudible but unmistakable voice that did not come from me.  It asked, “Who will go for us?  Who will reach these kids?”  Immediately I started to cry, raised my hand in my heart, and whispered, “Here I am LORD, send me.”  That night after the football chapel and game concluded, I went home to my wife.  We were eighteen months married at the time, had a mortgage, and live in the expensive land of Southern California.  Presbyterians do buildings and budgets pretty well, so with a Masters degree in Divinity, I had a good youth ministry job with a solid salary, medical benefits, and a little retirement each month.  “I’ve got a great idea,” I told my wife.  “I’m going to quit my job and go after the kids that not enough people are reaching.”  Without hesitating, my wife said, “I think that sounds fantastic sweetheart.”  “Thank you, God” I thought to myself.  I didn’t know what she would say.  No sincere Christians would have given her any flack if she said, “Let’s pray more,” or “Are you sure you heard?”  She could have even found support for saying, “You’re hearing voices in your car?  Let’s make an appointment with a good shrink and I’ll support you through the process.”  But instead she was willing to risk it all and step out in faith because she could tell that God was up to something.  Fishers of Men and Women When Jesus called Peter to leave everything and follow him, he said, “Follow me, and I’ll make you into fishers of men and women.”  I find this comforting because it says that Jesus is willing to do on the job training.  He will make us into fishers of men and women if we are not already there yet.  We just have to be willing to leave behind what we think our lives are supposed to be about and what we think we are good at.  Then we let Jesus make us into what he had in mind when he created us.  One important step in following Jesus and becoming a fisher of men and women is to realize that fish usually travel in schools.  (Rimshot! Thanks, I’ll be here all week).  You may be groaning now but you will never forget this important truth that so many youth ministries overlook.  Many congregations and youth pastors spend the majority of their time caring for the caught fish in the tank instead of heading out into the oceans that are teeming with uncaught fish.  Some churches and youth ministries actually fight over the few fish that are already caught and miss the millions out in the oceans.  In my home of San Diego County, for example, there are over 400,000 middle and high school students in public schools alone.  Public schools are the last place left in our culture where everyone gathers on a regular basis.  God has created an incredible opportunity for churches if we can learn to love and serve schools well. It can also happen by crossing the street and coming alongside a public school in meaningful ways.  Several years ago, Crawford High School in San Diego reported having one student from every country in African represented in their student body of 1,600 kids.  In America’s cities, the nations have literally come to us.  As a church, are we willing to go to them?  This is the challenge Jesus issues to the church when he calls Peter to fish differently and become the leader of this new movement.  Immediately Peter left his boat to follow Jesus.  He began catching dead people so they could become alive again.  That’s a much more rewarding vocation than catching living fish that die after you’re done with them.  Nothing is more exhilarating than watching kids in front of their friends in a public school raising their hands saying “I want Jesus in my life.”  That’s the best.  It can’t be beat!​

MORE REJOICING OVER ONE THAN OVER NINETY-NINE​

I lost a kid on my shift at camp one summer.  Our church was up at Forest Home, a large and beautifully expansive camp near San Bernardino.  I had 65 middle school students under my care.  After three hours of free time, a volunteer came running up to me in the cafeteria with a look of panic on his face.  “Markus (name changed) did not check in after free time,” they told me, “no one knows where he is.”  I thought to myself, “Not on my shift.”  There’s a lot of paperwork when you lose a kid at camp.  So I started asking around during dinner, “When did you see him last,” “when did you see him last,” “when did you see him last.”  There kids told me the same story.  They said, “We saw him in the creek playing down by the river bed right before the flash flood washed through this afternoon.”  Every few years at this camp, storms can push a surge of water down from the mountains.  It overflows the banks, floods the cabins, and then subsides as quickly as it came.  The alarms, sirens, and flashing lights had gone off that day to warn of the impending high waters.  So immediately we all started looking for this lost kid.  All of my staff put their forks and knives down and start canvasing the camp.  The entire paid camp staff put their utensils down and starting looking.  No one filled out a spiritual gifts inventory to find out if they felt called to youth ministry, evangelism, service, or search and rescue.  They just knew this is a life and death emergency and we had to find this kid at all costs.  We had to go get him and bring him back.  I started crying and I prayed some of the most sincere prayers of my life as I walked throughout the camp frantically looking for him.  I know I have about twenty minutes left before I have to call his mom.  Can you imagine that conversation?  “The kid you love and trusted me with, your own flesh and blood,” I would have to say, “is lost on my shift.”  I got to the big bridge over the river that separates one section of camp from the other.  I looked right.  I looked left.  I shouted his name and listened to it echo in the mountains.  As I surveyed the river, I was praying to God that I did not see a brown hump shaped like a junior higher washed up alongside the bank.  But that’s what was going through my mind.  I’m praying.  I’m crying.  I’m hurt.  Nobody is answering. Finally, I get to the center of the camp and arrive at the bookstore.  The double doors of the bookstore suddenly burst open and groggy-eyed kid, Markus – the one we were looking for—comes staggering out.  Now I’m an appropriate side hug –I love you but I’m not getting sued—youth pastor usually.  But when I saw this kid who was dead and now is alive, who was lost and now found, I lost all composure and I just ran to him.  And I picked him up and I pulled him close.  I think I really scared him.  I said, “Markus, you don’t know how good it is to see you.”  “What happened?”, I asked.  “I found a really good comic book series and lost track of time,” he told me.  “I have been reading in the bookstore for the last four hours.”  Now when you work with kids that are into gangs, and drugs, and homicides, as long as they’re alive, it’s a good thing.  So for me, he could have said anything.  He could have said, “I was sampling crystal meth for the first time in the bookstore.”  I would have said, “Markus, I don’t support that behavior but at least you’re still here and we can work with you.”  There is always a chance to make a wrong decision right if you are still alive. I was so overjoyed at having him back that I literally threw him onto my shoulders when we got back to the cafeteria.  When we entered the room together, there was more rejoicing over the one junior higher that was lost than over the 64 others that never needed to be found again.  It was exhilarating!  That’s what fishing for men and women is all about.  That’s the joy of seeing the lost come home again.​

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