For the past 7 years my youth ministry has been "hanging in there" with a student named "Wyatt". Wyatt was first caught by the former youth director at our church spray painting the church with some friends. The group's punishment was to have to come to youth group at our church. When I got to the church I did everything I could to hang in there with Wyatt. I tried connecting with parents, tried persistence, getting other youth to link up with him, tried hiring him for jobs, tried camps, and tried one on one discipling. But, at every turn Wyatt seems to hang in for a while and then disappear. He gets consumed by the chaos at his home or just some kind of inability to do much of anything with consistency. My Youth leaders sometimes have looked at me with sympathy and it's a look that seems to indicate failure, that we have somehow "lost Wyatt", or that he hasn't turned out the way we wanted him to. But, we haven't lost Wyatt.
No, Wyatt keeps showing up. He called me from the E.R. the other day in a health crisis. He came over for dinner the next night. Then he showed up in my office one day for no apparent reason where I learned he had broken up with his girlfriend and hadn't eaten in 3 days because of the break up. And Wyatt isn't the only one. There have been about 5-6 other students that have showed up lately for various reasons. We haven't seen many of them in a long time.
I have learned in ministry that no single thing has ever "worked" with students like Wyatt except patience. I have learned in 14 years of youth ministry that teens do all sorts of crazy things and that the most important role I can have with them is to hang in there. This truth has become the most important truth in my ministry other than Jesus himself. Patience (or faithfulness) isn't one of the necessary virtues of youth ministry, it is the foremost virtue in youth ministry. We have to just wait.
Patience matters primarily because the world needs faithfulness. The more I am around teens the more I realize that they live in a world of partial faithfulness where love deserts them regularly, and often at the most critical moments. They have classes with great teachers that end. Their sports world with all its goal setting, camaraderie, and mentoring melts away after a few years. Their families and high school friendships dissipate rapidly the moment they move on to their college age years. What they need is someone/something that accompanies them for the long haul and increasingly I believe the church is one of the few groups in our society that can do that kind of doggedly un-flashy and presence filled work. Teens need faithful communities and individuals who will be there for 7-20 years of their life or more.
The reality is that as adolescence seems to be extending itself further and further into what were once considered the adult years, teens need more investment and not less. Some of that investment clearly needs to be to challenge them and equip them for the adult world, but there is only so much pushing you can do. The most important thing is providing them a home base to come back to. That might be you or the church itself.
Patience is also needed in youth ministry because to be patient and faithful is an act that relinquishes control. Every youth worker is tempted to try and control their students at some point in their ministry. You invest hours and hours in a student only to see them "walk away". You inevitably develop a vision or picture of what success might look like with a particular student. And while that picture looks good from our perspective as leaders, it may not from theirs.
The problem with our picture of success is that it is not their picture and certainly it is not God's picture. It can never fully take into account the complexity of their reality. And so many youth workers end up becoming somewhat (or overtly) manipulative of students when things don't work out they way the youth leader hopes. When our picture of what it means to be successful gets violated our worst tends to come out. We get anxious or afraid. Some of us get angry and frustrated. Some youth workers get that nagging sense of worthlessness.
But, one thing know for certain is that the worst sorts of ministries are controlling. They tend to end up treating people who don't fit their picture as expendable. Ministries and ministers who don't exercise patience with people end up feeling just as cold and efficient as a sort of factory that cranks out product. At their very worst they can become angry and cut off relationship abruptly or even become abusive. The gospel is never about control.
What is not needed in our world are youth workers who get everything "right". in point of fact, I have come to believe that most "successful" youth workers simply have constructed a facade of success that probably hides hordes of kids who were treated as expendable when they didn't get with the Jesus program.
What is needed are ministers and youth programs who are there for students on the other side of the craziness that most teens display at one point or another. Craziness can take all sorts of forms with teens and young adults, but the church should always have one posture. A posture of quietly and prayerfully waiting on the other side of the crazy. If the gospel way of living really does bring life, and I believe it does, then eventually after enough mistakes most people will start to re-approach it once they have made enough mistakes to see its goodness. But, that re-approach will only happen if they haven't been discarded as a sort of ministry dud on the factory floor along the way.
So, if you are wiped out right now with a student, or are feeling angry, or like a failure because you haven't seen one or twelve of your students in a while, hang in there. They need you to. Chances are if that if you stay patient and prayerful they will swing back around. The saltiness of your witness, the fact that you neither seem desperate nor distant, is something that they will not often find elsewhere in this world. They know their world is a storm. Who will model calm for them. Stay patient with their crazy and hang in there.