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.
GOD WANTS HIS KIDS BACK
The greatest day of my life was April 19, 2008. That day, I became a dad for the first time. After 24 hours of labor, my son Russell Anthony Landis came into the world. A sense of wonder filled the room as I held him in my arms and looked deep into his clear blue eyes. He starred attentively back at me during a sacred encounter that changed me forever. I could see my face in him and he could see his face in me. I thought to myself, “What a good looking kid; he looks a lot like his dad.” No, I’m kidding. Seriously though, my first thoughts as a father fixated on the fact that I was holding a literal miracle in my hands. I donated some DNA but I did not string his organs together inside his mother’s womb. I did not tune his eyes to match the frequency of light on our planet. Nor did I place a hunger for eternity and transcendence inside his soul. God did all those things, not me. In that breathtaking moment, I found myself the steward of another human life. What an awesome, scary, and humbling reality. A sense of selfless love for Russell rushed over me. For the first time ever, I personally felt a fraction of the love God must feel for every person on planet earth. Almost spontaneously, I began making commitments to my son. I would provide for him. I wanted to protect him. I vowed to do everything in my power to give him life to the fullest. Then, without warning, two nurses hurried into the hospital room and fastened an electronic ankle bracelet on my son’s ankle. “Mr. Landis,” they said, “do not take a wrong turn while holding your son in our hospital because we are monitoring his every move electronically.” They continued, “If you go down the wrong hallway with Russell in your arms the entire hospital facility will immediately go into lockdown.” I thought to myself, “Great, my kid is only two hours old and he’s already on parole. I have failed as a father already.” So I had to ask them why they put a baby LoJack on my son’s ankle. One of the nurses explained that one out of every 2,000 babies in California get stolen from hospitals at birth. Now I have read different statistics. Some sources report that 1 out of every 200,000 babies get stolen from hospitals at birth. But the point is the same. Hospitals in California take definitive action to make sure that not one baby gets lost on their shift. Loosing just one kid is completely unacceptable to them. According to Jesus, God the Father has a similar acceptable casualty rate for young people. In Matthew 18:10-14, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and makes it clear what God the Father’s acceptable casualty rate is for kids in our city. He asks: “Which of you if he has 100 sheep and one goes astray will not leave the 99 and go in search of the 1 that was lost? And when he finds it there is more rejoicing over the one that was lost than over the 99 that never needed to be found. In the same way, it is the will of my father in heaven that not one of these little ones be lost.” According to Jesus, then, God’s acceptable casualty rate for kids in America is zero. In my home city of San Diego, the math looks different. Where I live only 10% of public middle and high school students have a regular or meaningful relationship with a local church. That means we have to ask churches if they are willing to leave the 10 in the church to go after the 90 in our public school system. This does not mean that we neglect or ignore the 10, it simply means we make finding lost people a priority. That is the mission Christ has called me to: to seek and save the lost…while mobilizing churches to do the same. Followers of Jesus in my city and throughout America cannot settle for a higher youth casualty rate than God or hospitals.
The father's broken heart
I grew up in the Mennonite tradition – a rich heritage that emphasizes non-violence, reconciliation, simplicity, communal living, and other positive aspects of the Christian faith. Many of those ideals still shape my life and ministry today. But I have to tell you, if someone snuck into the hospital and stole my kid out from under my nose on the day he was born, I would stop at nothing to get them back. I would go find some of my Baptist and Presbyterian friends that do go to war –and who really know how to hurt in the name of Jesus—and we would go get my kid back no matter what. The passion of the Father God drove Him to send Jesus to earth. He will not rest until the kids He loves are back safely in His arms. THINK ABOUT IT WITH ME THIS WAY… Every summer, my organization takes over a hundred kids to camp at UCLA through our partnership with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Students from the inner-city get to experience life at a Division 1 university. They sleep in the dorms, eat in the cafeteria, play a sport of their choice all day, and then worship and hear about Jesus in Pauley Pavilion, where the Bruins play basketball, each night. This exhilarating week benefits students athletically, academically (by experiencing college life for a week), and spiritually. We see many lives transformed through this experience each summer. Imagine with me, though, if I took 100 students in several charter buses with me to camp. No matter how excited kids and parents are to be apart at the beginning of the week (I once had a parent ask, “Can I pay you to keep my son for two weeks), both parents and students look forward to the reunion in the parking lot when we return. If I leave with a hundred kids at the beginning of the week, how many kids do parents expect me to bring back when I return? Rough estimates are fine. I have to come back with 100 students – and they have to be the exact same kids, funny how that works. What if I left with 100 kids, came back, and got off the bus with only 10 kids. Those are the statistics for youth in my home city. What would happen to me as a pastor? Some neighborhoods would sue me, others would try to get me fired, some might straight up jump me…why? Because I lost their kid on my shift. If fallen, flawed earthly parents will not tolerate a 90% casualty rate for their own children, what makes us think our perfect heavenly father is pleased with similar numbers of kids going to school but not to church? What I would not be able to say to earthly parents after loosing their kid is, “The kids who made it back safely had a great time at camp.” This misses the problem that so many are lost. Yet I often hear youth pastors and church leaders making similar statements when evaluating the health of their ministries. Statements like, “Everyone is feeling good about the youth group” or “the kids that are coming are having a great time” may not indicate that a proper measure of success has taken place. Just because the majority of parents and the senior pastor are happy with the youth ministry does not necessarily mean that the kingdom of God is being advanced into the next generation or that new people are being reached. The higher standard and the bigger question becomes, “Are we joining with Jesus to seek and to sake the lost?” Since that is what Jesus came to do, we cannot claim to be his followers unless we dare to do the same. THIS IS OUR SHIFT, CHURCH. When we stand face to face with God the Father he is going to ask us what we did with his kids on our shift. When we view our neighborhoods, schools, and cities through the eyes of Jesus, every young person —inside and outside of church—becomes part of the church’s high calling and kingdom mission statement.