I moved a few times growing up and have very vivid memories of being at school, in the lobby or cafeteria or at a ball game, in the early days of being the new kid, not knowing anyone and trying to stand around in such away that hid that. Looking like I was merely in between talking to someone, instead of in the middle of a half hour, or hour, or day completely alone. Pretending that I was super interested in reading the announcement posted on the wall, or looking at the trophies in the trophy case, or, if I were a teenager now, that I was absorbed with some message or text on my iphone.
That was a HORRIBLE experience, and with each move, I was so utterly relieved when I didn't have to do it anymore. When I finally had friends.
George Fox University, where I teach, takes a day every fall where everyone on campus, from the President to each freshman goes to various sites in our area to serve. This year, I was assigned with a group of students and staff to go to Dayton, a small town near Newberg, and help out with a day of games, activities and seminars the school was putting on for its 6th-12th graders. We were there for 5 hours and got to watch the entire school community (about 300 kids in the HS) as well as spending the day with one specific group of students as they moved from activity to another.
My group started with dodgeball. I'm 48, and wasn't sure how that would go. I probably haven't played dodgeball in 30 years or so. Surprisingly, it went just fine from my standpoint. I could still play a bit and got to interact with and joke with the kids in my group. At least, the ones who played. A couple didn't.
One girl in particular, sat at the top of the bleachers the entire hour we played and stared out a window, not even looking at the game going on in the gym. After the first game, I got a drink of water and climbed up the bleachers to invite her to play. She had no interest in joining in. As we moved to the next station, I tried to talk to her a bit more and find out who she was and maybe what she would like to take part in.
As the day progressed, she and I had a couple conversations. She plays the alto sax and is trying to learn how to play the bassoon. She read the Harry Potter books, but didn't really care about the movies. Things like that.
As time went on, I found myself watching and wondering about this young woman, a sophomore at this small school. As far as I could see, other than her brief conversations with me, she did not speak to anyone the rest of the day. At all. In fact, her peers would walk around her, and not even acknowledge that they saw her. I never saw anyone be rude or mean to her, they just didn't seem to realize that she existed.
One of the things that she told me in one of our conversations, was that she had lived in Dayton all her life. This girl who had no one to talk to-at all, who I watched stand awkwardly pretending she wasn't really alone during every free moment of the day, who had no safe, welcoming place to sit in the lunch room had lived with and gone to school with these kids every day of her educational life. Nine years.
The awkward pain I had felt with each move as a kid was mimicked as I watched her move through the day. For me, though, it lasted only a few months with each move and eventually ended. She's lived in this small town, with this small group of kids forever. This is all she's ever known.
So, does youth ministry matter? What about if it's not done "very well" by talented, beautiful, athletic adults who can bring in large numbers of A-list kids? Would a ministry be a success at Dayton High if it only had 15 or 20 of the 300 kids coming? I don't know, but I know this. ANY adult that would step onto the campus of that school and notice this young woman, and take the long time it likely would take to win her trust, and be patient with her awkward social skills and do all of this because they love Jesus would be someone doing ministry that matters deeply to the heart of God.
Jesus stopped on his way to Jarus' house, a big man in town with lots of influence, to hear the long-winded story of a homeless, unclean woman. Jesus would seek out and befriend and love this young woman in Dayton. Or, wherever you live, because there are kids like her everywhere!