All youth pastors love “Cry Night.”
Even if we don’t want to admit it because it feels (and probably is) a little selfish, we love it. I know I did.
In case you don’t know what “Cry Night” is, let me explain: “Cry Night” is the night (usually Saturday on a weekend retreat and Thursday or Friday on a week-long camp) when students’ emotions are most primed to respond to God’s Spirit moving. It’s the night when students surrender their past, release their sin, cross the line of faith, raise their hands in worship, hug each other, seek prayer from their leader, stand arm-in-arm while swaying during worship, and yes, cry.
The stories the next morning usually start with: “There wasn’t a dry eye in my group.” or “All my guys gathered around and prayed for Bobby who was crying.” or “My girls kept saying they hadn’t cried that long in a while.”
And it’s great! I’m not saying these kind of nights or experiences are bad or inauthentic. It’s absolutely fantastic to watch God move and watch students experience a new level of freedom and connection to Him and the people around them. In fact, it’s one of the best things I ever experienced as a youth pastor.
However, the trap I found myself falling into is the discouragement, doubt, and confusion when Cry Night didn’t happen.
Did I do something wrong?
Did I not do something I should have?
Was my teaching not good enough?
Should we have changed that one worship song?
Did I fail the students somehow?
The thesis of my book “Sow What?” (NOW FREE!!!) is based on some significant frustration I experienced in leading student ministry. While it was so wonderful to have a job thinking creatively about how to connect students to God, what I found again and again was that no matter how much I poured into students, whether through a well thought-out teaching or over the course of a season of discipling them, so frequently, I didn’t see anything change. They still talked the same, acted the same, and weren’t any more passionate about their relationship with God. They still disrespected their parents, dating girls they shouldn’t, and stood like a statue during worship.
I kept thinking I was doing something wrong or not doing enough. I got mad at God, mad at myself, discouraged, frustrated, and demotivated over and over again. I definitely saw God work and do some amazing transformation in some students, but it felt like the vast majority of students (and especially the ones I was more directly pouring into) weren’t making any progress whatsoever.
After years of this, I experienced God speaking and teaching me something: Student Ministries can be a fruitless ministry.
Or maybe a better way to say it would be: Student Ministries is a seed-planting ministry.
In “The Parable of the Sower”, Jesus uses an illustration indicates that only 25% of the seeds sown might actually take root and produce fruit. That’s a pretty terrible percentage!
25% on a test, you fail!
25% of your daily nutrition, you’re sick!
25% of your free-throws, you’re Dwight Howard!
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sow seeds. It just means we might not see their fruit.
And this is what I believe student ministries is: A time to sow seeds that God will then use to bear fruit, more often than not, at a later time.
And time and time again, as I’ve talked with wiser and more experienced student ministers, they talk about getting an email or phone call or running into a former student who thanked them for a teaching or conversation or text or prayer that significantly encouraged them from years before. Most of the time, the youth pastor didn’t even remember it or think anything of it at that time, but God used it to plant a seed that He would then later bear fruit with once the student was in college, their 20’s, or even later.
It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.– 1 Corinthians 3:7
Because youth pastors have an authentic heart to impact students, and become sometimes the students they’re ministering to don’t bear fruit right away, many youth pastors find themselves striving for some sign of their hard work making a difference. Something..anything that can be seen as a positive result of their labor!
With great intentions and pure motives, I’ve seen and experienced myself longing for some sign of God doing SOMETHING in students’ lives, especially in a way that affirms the time and energy I’ve poured out to make that happen.
And without realizing it, I began to find this encouragement at “Cry Night.” Here was a tangible, obvious indication of God impacting students that my tired heart soaked up like a sponge.
And that’s great!…until there isn’t a Cry Night.
I once heard Craig Groeschel, talking about ministry attendance, say: Don’t blame yourself for the decline, because if you blame yourself for the decline you may be tempted one day to take credit for the increase.
As a youth pastor, I realized I need to be careful to not blame myself for an apparent lack of growth in students’ lives, because then I might be tempted to take credit for those times when they do grow. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pour our and minister and pastor and strive with everything I can to connect students to God, but my job isn’t to force an outcome. My job is to plant the seed and then pray and trust God to accomplish what I cannot: transformation.
Cry-Night’s and other obvious signs of students growing are fantastic, but when they don’t happen, be encouraged. Knowing that you are sowing the seeds that God will then cultivate and use for His glory and the blessing of those students.