BY MARVIN JACOBO
I remember the day I arrived home emotionally empty and mentally weary of ministry. With jolting words only a loving wife could say, she confronted me.
“Look at you! Where is the man I married 15 years ago, who had a sparkle in his eye and a love for people? You can’t go on like this! Things have got to change or you’ll never finish! You’ll end up on the pile of burned out youth pastors like so many others before you! You just can’t go on like this!”
To drive the situation home just a bit more, the next day I heard a prominent church growth expert share his life experience. Many of his years were spent doing the work of God in such a way that it destroyed the work of God inside him. As he spoke, tears flooded my eyes as the Holy Spirit gently said to me, “Son…I’m talking to you. You have been spending too many years doing My work in such a way that it is destroying My work inside of you. I have never wanted this for you or the rest of My servants. I love you. I have always wanted you to do My work in such a way that it would build My work in you. Remember when I said that ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light?’ I want to show you how to do My work so that it builds My work inside you, not at your expense.”
I LOVE TEENAGERS
I was saved at 17, and six months later I sensed God calling me into youth ministry. Why did I want to serve God in full time ministry? Because I wanted to spend my life teaching His Word, spending time in prayer with my heavenly Father and building disciple-makers to reach their generation for Jesus!
Over the years something changed. I don’t know when and I don’t know why. I allowed the distractions, heartaches and pressures to steal my joy of serving my Lord and His people. The lack of God’s peace plagued me. My mind constantly drifted to the same haunting questions. “Is this all there is to working with students? How many kids can I get out to a program? What new program idea can I come up with? Is life-change happening in my students and their families? Is my program-based youth ministry evangelizing this generation or am I merely perpetuating religious heritage? Could the way I was doing ministry be destroying God’s work in me, my marriage and the very people I was trying to serve?”
I just couldn’t get all this out of my mind! From all outward indications, our ministry was impactful and it appeared healthy! But here’s the truth…the Lord was not pleased with us. He wanted something better for us, but I had no idea what to ask for or how to change.
AGONIZING BEFORE THE LORD
I got in my car, alone with Him, and drove around to beg Him for an answer to the holy discontent that was pressing against me. He brought to mind the walk of Moses, David, Jesus and Paul. They all had training times in the desert, or what I call God’s School of Character Building. As I headed out of town, I cried, “God, open my eyes to see what You see and what You want us to do! Work in us like You did in the Book of Acts when You added to their number daily those who were being saved!”
The Lord knows me too well-He answered in a way I didn’t expect, but needed to hear. Alone with Him, I heard him say “Marvin, I love you and I want to answer your cries, but you must wait. You are too full of yourself. If I blessed you like I wanted, you couldn’t handle it. You’d take too much credit and get proud. You’d think this ‘new thing’ was your idea. First I need to break you and then I will rebuild you and answer your longings. Don’t despair. Do your homework. Ask the questions.”
Ask the questions? What did he mean? I guessed right off the bat He didn’t want me to stagnate or brood over this situation. I was reminded of what was said of the men of Issachar, “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). I devoured every book I sensed the Lord was leading me to read. I found books on students, their generation, families, leadership, biographies, motivation, revival and restructuring corporations. I had to understand the times so I could proceed!
Through this investigation, I made some interesting observations. Throughout history, the Church of Jesus Christ has responded slowly to social and generational needs. We are always lagging 10-15 years behind the generation, reacting late to its peculiar characteristics. Our ministry needed to answer the questions and concerns of this generation and not of generations past. Could we create a ministry that could quickly and effectively respond to the generation instead of reacting to its rapid changes years later?
Another generational dynamic I discovered was that many youth ministries are no longer seeing numbers of students come to large youth group activities just because it is the “place to be” or because the “cool people” are there. This generation wants to be intimately known by another human being. They want someone to know their name and what is going on inside of them.
Large assembly style ministries can’t meet this need. In previous years, kids would come to a “mob scene” because it was the place to be. That is not as prevalent today as 20 years ago. Back then, kids could be categorized into a few broad subcultures. This is no longer true. In Modesto alone, we have identified over 100 different student clusters on the public school campuses.
The light went on in my head. No wonder when I arranged for a band to play at a church concert, half the kids hated them or walked out early! I couldn’t find a music group that would please everyone. We were a “one-size fits all” youth ministry, and our guest retention rate proved it. There were specific types of kids that stayed connected to our ministry, but the large diversity in the generation resulted in a great loss. Sadly, we found we were asking kids to “fit” into our program mold, to look and act like us, and then they could be a part of our ministry.
The way we were doing ministry connected with a small subculture of the overall generation. This generation has an inherent distrust of any organized institution. The studies show today’s kids don’t have a problem with Jesus, but with the church itself. They are open to the saving message of the Gospel but the organized traditional church is preventing them from seeing the message clearly. This told me that keeping our programs alive was more important than the objective of reaching this generation. I was more concerned about keeping students busy on good church projects than making disciple-makers.
We had to change. Today’s generation wants to contribute to the agenda and not merely be pawns or spectators. Was I empowering students by plugging them into the workings of our ministry? Was my ministry mechanism fully utilizing and training up students? NO!
The questions and research didn’t fill my emptiness. Then the verse came to my mind, “For God is not a God of disorder, but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). Applying this to my studies, I looked for any pattern in history that God used to bring revival to a spiritually starved land. The common denominator God had used to stir revival in His people was a small group of young men and women committed to God and each other, meeting regularly together and united in prayer for the revival of the given nation.
My heart raced with excitement. “Lord, I see it! Is this your answer to my restlessness and questioning?”
The Lord’s gentle response to me was, “Marvin, you’re now ready to return to the basics. I want to use you, in this generation, to help bring revival in my church-a youth ministry of small groups is not a church growth gimmick or fad.
It is the clear command of God. If you are weary of a “successful” ministry, there is hope!
Marvin Jacobo is Associate Pastor of High School Ministries at First Baptist Church Modesto, California. He ministers to 250 high schoolers weekly in 32 youth-led cells. Marvin has a special love for high schoolers and a rapport with them built on trust and understanding.