What I’ve learned by leading young people in Portland.

I am one of those youth pastors who started doing youth ministry right after I left the youth group. In fact, since I was 14, I can’t think of a time where I was far away from the weekly buzz of youth ministry.

Until now.

My wife and I recently decided to pursue the completion of her training as a doctor in Palo Alto, California at Stanford University. When this opportunity arose, we began praying with our church family here in Portland and we felt led by the Spirit to move.

Ten years ago this summer, I started a Bible study and watched God move in the lives of people like I had never seen before. I saw them sell Xboxes, dump boyfriends, and rearrange post-high school plans all for the sake of the gospel. When I saw these changes, I was hooked. I began thinking I wouldn’t do anything else for my entire life. God was calling me to a life of ministry.

Since that time, I’ve certainly hit some snags. No ministry journey is painless or convenient. But I wouldn’t trade the past decade for anything. And looking back, I’ve learned some incredible lessons. Here are a few lessons the Lord has been gracious enough to teach me:

Without love, it’s all noise.

“If I speak with the tongues of angels and have not love, I’m like a resounding gong,” St. Paul wrote. I thought of this verse after completing my first year of homeless youth ministry. My church had partnered with a non-profit in downtown Portland that focused on our street youth population. Portland has long been in the top five for teen homelessness per capita. Each Monday night, I would lead a team of young adults to serve and just hang out with these awesome kids. They were, for the most part, my age, and many of them seemed like they could be any of my friends or brothers or sisters. They would slowly become this to me.

When you serve the poor, you start to see Jesus more clearly. And as I kept serving, I began to learn a strange lesson. To my surprise, most of the kids in our street ministry had homes they could go back to. More often than not, the kids were either kicked out of their home or they left their home because they did not feel accepted.

A common story involved some moral tension in their home: they came out as gay and their parents flipped out, or they told their dad they were pregnant and he started yelling, or they had special needs or mental illness and their parents stopped seeing them as a priority. It was incredibly sad.

At the same time, it was revelatory. These kids had homes they could go back to and fridges they could eat from and beds they could sleep in—but they didn’t go back.Instead, they exchanged the warm and stocked home with no love for a cold, empty street where they felt accepted.

These students showed me that our primary need as human beings really is love. It doesn’t matter what comes after that. If you don’t have love, you won’t survive. The community they found on the streets became the siblings and parents they needed when their biological family rejected them. It didn’t matter if you were gay, poor, pregnant, or mentally ill on the streets. All were broken. All were loved. Without love, it’s all noise.

Being faithful is better than being famous.

I remember sitting with youth pastor Jon Furman at a Starbucks outside of town when he first told me he didn’t drink coffee. A youth pastor who abstained from any kind of caffeinated beverage was a mystery to me.

I met with Jon because he was sort of a legend in our community for doing youth ministry so right for so long. When we met for this particular meeting, I had no idea I would have the honor of working with him for five years. At this point, I just wanted to pick his brain.

“So, tell me what’s up,” he said flatly.

So much was up. I had just started a new job in youth ministry. I was 22. I was going to get married in six months. And I was graduating college. I needed wisdom and I needed it to be good. Jon had done great youth ministry and I knew he could tell me something—anything—to help me as I started in a new church where the largest night of youth group was 20 kids. I didn’t want to ruin it. They had hired me part-time and I wanted to make a good impression.

I asked Jon for advice: what do I need to do in my first year to help grow the ministry?

His answer surprised me: “Show up on time, dress well, and when you say you’re going to do something, do it and do it really well. If you do that for one year, you’ll be great.”

I was a bit disappointed. I wanted him to talk about teaching series ideas, event planning, camps, trips, and anything he could help me with to make everything I was doing seem really awesome.

But Jon knew something I didn’t back then: none of that is that big of a deal.

In the kingdom of God, big things are small things and small things are big things. Jon taught me that day (and has continued to teach me) that being faithful is better than being famous—doing extraordinary things for God is not as good as doing everything with God. Faithfulness is the essential element to ministry precisely because it requires no skill. It just requires obedience.

And so, over that first year, I showed up on time, dressed well, and when I said I would do something, I did it. And you know what? The ministry flourished. I learned God can do a lot with faithful people. When I lose sight of that, I lose sight of how I can play my part in the kingdom.

The best growth is slow.

I recently found an old talk I gave at a retreat when I was 18. It was short and my leader had required me to write out every word and simply read it. In my memory, this was a great talk that people enjoyed and commented on. This is a false memory. The talk was awful.

As I read through it, I felt I had no relationship to the guy who wrote it. I actually had to look at my name on it several times to convince myself that this was actually me!

I’m not troubled by that experience because I think the grace of God leaves you unrecognizable. If we submit ourselves to the process God wants to take us through, we are in for a long haul. But that long haul is the best kind of haul you can go on because it is one of transformation. We will, by his grace, be unrecognizable years from now.

With all of our mixtures of worldviews and New Age thinking in the Northwest, I often find students articulating their faith in the strangest ways. It’s not uncommon for me to hear a student say something about God that isn’t exactly biblically accurate. An oft-heard comment starts, “Well, the Bible says …” followed by something the Bible does not say.

When I hear such things, I get nervous and discouraged—until I remember that most of Jesus’ metaphors for ministry and life with him are agricultural. They involve seeds, soils, farmers, sowing, seasons, weather, and work. I want students to leave my youth group with a fully articulate faith, ready to share the gospel the way I share it now at 28. But they’re not 28, they’re 18. That’s 10 years and, by God’s grace, it will include fruitful seasons for growth.

Reading my talk made me sit in gratitude for God’s patience with me. He allowed me to give a talk that probably didn’t communicate many true things about him. To think I’ve mastered anything right now would be arrogant and to expect students to have mastered all the aspects of faith would be asinine. We’re in a process of growth that Jesus would describe as “slow.” The pastor’s task is to tend to the fruitful work of God. Even when it comes slowly.

You can find Chris’ book here.


  • Chris Nye

    Chris Nye is an associate pastor at Willamette Christian Church and author of "Distant God: Why He Feels Far Away and What We Can Do About It."

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