Youth ministry is like throwing starfish back into the sea
By Luke Johnson | August 23, 2015
Tonight we hosted our “Youth Group Parents Night” in which I got to share the theological/philosophical vision of the ministry and to give an overview of the kinds of things we’ll be doing this year. Afterwards, as I turned off lights and locked up the church, I was struck by this thought: Imagine that as our solar system rockets through the universe at 80,000km, we hit some kind of temporal-anomaly pocket and I was transported 400 years into the future, to a time when the church, though still standing, is in cobwebs. The people are long gone, and this once-flourishing place of life and worship is silent. What a strange experience it would be to walk around a place that was so central to my experience of God and to the development of my vocation, now to see it dark and layered in dust. What goes through a person’s mind at a time like that? “Was it all worth it? All that effort I put into building a sustainable ministry and good relationships… All mothballs now.”
Even without a weird sci-fi scenario like this, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the task of ministry. There is always more work to do. There are always more conversations to have and more people to reach. Even the reached ones need continual care and to be called back into a focused pursuit of the things that matter. How on earth does a ministry practitioner ‘achieve’ anything, or make any kind of lasting difference?
Like throwing starfish back into the sea
My bishop once told a story about a man who walked along a beach, throwing starfish back into the sea. The beach was littered with them -- thousands upon thousands of starfish that had been washed onto the shore. One by one, he knelt down, picked one up, and threw it back into the sea where the starfish could survive. Another man, having watched this starfish rescuer at work for hours, finally made his way down to the beach. He just had to talk to him.
“What are you doing?!”
“I’m throwing starfish back into the sea.”
“Yeah, I can see that, but why?”
“Well, they can’t live on the shore; they’ll die.”
“Sure, but look… There must be 10,000 of them. You can’t possibly get to all of them. What does it matter?”
Picking up another, the man said, “It matters to this one… And to this one… And to this one.”
The second man stared at the first for a few seconds. Then, kneeling down, he picked up a starfish and threw it in the sea.
History is long, and there is no end to need. In 400 years, standing in the cobwebs of a once-vibrant church, I’ll be able to say this: “Once, this was a place where people were fed, where lives were changed, where new thoughts about God were formed, and where prayers were spoken.” The work matters for the people who receive it. The work matters for the people who do it. It matters for Toby. It matters for Emily. It matters for Matthew. God in his wisdom gives us mere decades to live. We're not responsible for more.
Labor for those whom God gives you now, and trust him to handle the rest.
Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
I will praise the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The Lord reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.