A New Concern for Youth and Lost People
One of the remarkable and enduring things that the Lord did in me during the move of God we experienced in 2006 was to give me a new love for youth.
Our church was hosting a Bible quiz competition with students grades four through 12. I was eager to share with the group a testimony of the powerful things that were happening. It was late in the afternoon and I knew that teams from around Oregon and Washington would be eager to get on the road after a long day. Nonetheless, I went through with my testimony believing that God was bigger than physical weariness. God moved on the hearts of those young people and they poured forward for prayer. As I prayed individually for them, He gave me an appreciation for them as precious to the Lord and I felt a love for them like I had never experienced. My concern for their spiritual condition was very intense. The compassion I felt for these young people was only the beginning of what God was doing in me regarding teens.
The church I pastored is located right next to the high school. For decades students from the school have come on or near the church property to smoke. There were large numbers of students there before school, during lunch and after school and smaller numbers throughout the day.
One time at lunch I counted about sixty students in our parking lot.
Over the years I had observed fights in our parking lot, drug deals, vandalism and even the remains of a fire that could have burned the building down. The biggest problem was the massive amount of litter that they left behind each week. For years I ignored these students and viewed them primarily as a problem.
But then God softened my heart toward these kids. He opened my eyes to the mission field we had in our church’s backyard. I realized I could keep my distance, judge them, and agree with others about horrible they were or I could see their presence as a God-given opportunity to engage with them and to share the gospel.
In my final three and a half years as pastor of the church, I chose to spend time with these students almost every school day. Not everyone was happy with my decision to do that. The police, who sometimes had to be called to deal with problems, were baffled when they saw us serving the students hot chocolate or donuts. They expected us to chase them off, not befriend them. One officer said, “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.”
Some in the church were unhappy because of the extra work involved cleaning the litter. Others felt that we were encouraging under-age smoking by reaching out to the kids and being friendly. There were even some neighbors who called to express their anger that the church was encouraging bad behavior.
As the months went by, the criticism sometimes caused me to question whether I was doing the right thing. Was God really calling me to this? Maybe befriending sinners as Jesus did was a great principle but not practical in this case.
At one point I was alone in Florence when my wife called to inform me that students had put cigarette burns all over the church’s front porch carpet. I felt terrible and wondered whether this outreach was such a great idea. That very day in the midst of my struggle, I received a letter from a woman I had taught school with and had prayed for over a twenty year period. She wrote to tell me she had become a Christian. God encouraged my heart with this news. God knows what we are going through, and in His mercy, sends what we need at just the right time. I was strengthened to persevere with these students, being convinced that this was God’s heart just as it was His heart to save my teacher friend.
In Luke 15, when Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees and teachers of the law for hanging out with “sinners” and tax collectors he told them three parables that all made the same point. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son teach that heaven rejoices whenever a sinner repents.
God’s heart is for lost people to come to Him. Not everyone understands this. Some people are like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son wanting justice to be carried out rather than grace shown. But when we understand that we ourselves deserve God’s wrath and that it is by his mercy and grace that we are saved and changed, then we will have a heart of compassion and not one of condemnation toward “sinners.”
I learned to overlook the tattoos, piercings, boys’ low-lying pants and foul language, to see those kids as people that God longed to have a relationship with. I learned that love and respect were languages they understood very well and responded to.
On one occasion I was preparing to eat breakfast in the parsonage and I could see that the students had gathered as usual before school in front of the church. I had spent lots of time with them and began to debate with the Lord about going over there. “Don’t I have a right to enjoy my breakfast now?” “I spend enough time with them already!” Often when I start debating something in my head, it is an indication that the Holy Spirit is prompting me to do something.
So I left my breakfast and walked over to the church. It turned out that one of their friends had committed suicide the night before and kids were in tears. God opened a wonderful opportunity for ministry and prayer.
On another occasion, I was talking to a couple girls with a Catholic background and was trying to see whether or not they understood the gospel. As I talked with them they showed a moderate amount of interest in the gospel but a fifteen year old guy standing nearby heard the conversation and was very interested. After talking more with him, he gave his life to Christ.
What is your attitude toward “sinners”? In view of the mercy and grace you’ve been shown, is it becoming more in line with God’s heart? In Ezekiel 18:23 God asks:
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? ...Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live”?
Copyright Ed Skipper 2013