Today our little family got up early to make it on time for the “Runt Run”, a part of Moose Jaw’s annual Canada Day “Moose Jawg” event. My 3 year old son had been anticipating this race hungrily for weeks, and was quivering with excitement to don his racing number and to sing O Canada at the race’s start. At “Go!”, he took off, hand in hand with his mom, and was ecstatic to “snap the finish line” when he finished the race.

As I watched my wife and son run together toward the finish, just a handful of days since the conclusion of another year of youth group, I found their image to be helpful as I reflect on the year behind us and the next approaching.

For four years now I’ve been “LJ”, a leader to a ragtag community of young humans whose growth it has been my privilege to witness. Rambunctious little boys have become remarkable young men. Flighty young girls have become distinguished graduates. People who didn’t know each other existed have established strong friendships. Kids who didn’t know the first thing about God or the Church have become accustomed to prayer. The years have been punctuated by invitations to share in vulnerable, heartbreaking moments, and tough “why is life like this?” conversations.

At the end of a ministry year, I often wonder, “How in the world did I get here?” Being someone to these people isn’t something I could have planned -- it is a gift given by each of them. Who am I that they should invite me into their lives and give me a place to speak? I’m not an expert or some kind of flawless exemplar -- I’m just a person who refuses to go away.

Watching my wife and son run together today, it struck me afresh that this ‘running together’ is the essential work of youth ministry. As leaders, our job isn’t to bequeath our perfected ideas -- to “show’em how it’s done” like master to student, as if we exist in ‘final form’. We run the same race, experience the same things. The job of the older is to be a running mate for the younger, navigating together the twists and turns of the road.

Running together, I think, requires a type of rigorous humility. It is easy to downplay the stresses of the young, to respond with a “Tutt, tutt; this is only high school, the easy years.” But this response doesn’t take the young person seriously. Sure, you’ve lived more years and have seen more challenges. But for the young man in grade 9 or the young woman in grade 12, this is as far as they have travelled. This is literally the most challenging phase of life this person has experienced, just as your current place in life is likely the most challenging you’ve experienced.

As Eugene Peterson once said about the poor, they aren’t a problem to be solved, but a people to be joined. Indicating a person’s inferiority to your position only serves to diminish the person and to blunder past an opportunity to serve. God, after all, sent his Son “while we were yet sinners”, not after we wisened up. On this basis, the apostle Paul coaches running mates to “consider others better than yourselves”, and to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).

When I was in elementary school, I once ran home ahead of my sister, leaving her to walk home by herself. I ran ahead simply because I could. I was older and could run faster. But what was my reward? Arriving home a measly 10 minutes earlier, while my sister arrived home in tears.

Today it would have been silly if my wife had run ahead of 3 year old Rowan, or if all the while she chided him to “go faster; in the 5K people run a lot faster than this.” But by slowing down, by choosing to encourage him in his first endeavour, he had one of the most exciting days in recent memory.

When we strive along with our young people, our task isn’t merely to tell them what’s ahead so they know how hard to work when they get there; it’s to experience the turns along with them; it’s to encourage, to share in frustration, to rejoice in the breakthroughs and at every mile marker. It’s an intentional confession that we, too, need others to come alongside us; that we, too, are thread-bare beggars who receive an extravagant welcome from God we can never deserve; that we, too, are recipients of the same costly call of Jesus.

Running together is a refusal to bow to the dictation of cultural norms, and a testament to the gospel's outworking. It's the conscious decision to order our relationships by the lordship of Jesus, rather than the pecking order of achievment or privilege.