Archive for August, 2010


who is apollos (a.k.a. ben kerns)

August 3, 2010

A call into student ministry is a special thing. We have been called by God to participate in the spiritual development of students. For a very specific and often chaotic season, we get the privilege and honor of being adults who coach, mentor, disciple, and journey with adolescents who are exploring their faith and making it their own. What could be greater? But as we attempt to live this out, in the real world with real students in a real context, this simple and yet profound calling gets blurry.

The students we work with have joys and concerns, victories and losses, growth and set back. We attempt to be there for every student for every part of the roller coaster ride. And while we work our guts out, pouring our lives into these students our vision gets impaired. Because very slowly, without even us knowing, the joy that comes from getting to be there for students and walk with them, turns and starts to become about us. Instead of being AN adult who journeys with students for a season of their lives, we see ourselves as THE adult who journeys with them, who advocates for them, who loves them, who will get them through adolescents, who will solve their problems, etc…

It is not a difficult leap to inflate the role we have in the lives of students. We give so much of our selves to them, and in return we are part of such intimate and transforming events and conversations. We get to be a part of genuine transformation. Take these intense moments and add in the already emotionally charged reality of adolescence and it is easy to see ourselves as the lynch pin holding it all together.

This blurry lens in which I have recently been viewing my ministry through has had a refreshing cleansing. And this cleaning of the lenses happened at an unlikely place this spring. Graduation.

I didn’t plan on a graduation ceremony being the place where God was going to do a fresh work in me. In fact, I approached the day with zero expectations. Over the years I have gotten Graduations down to a science. In fact this year I managed to get in 5 graduations in a single day. Coming for the beginning taking pictures, hugging parents, saying hi to kids you haven’t seen in years, giving a nod to the other youth workers doing the exact same thing as you, jumping in the car to catch the end of the graduation across town to do the same thing. But as the day unfolded and watched speech after speech, student after student process across the podium, I saw something I have never seen before.

For the first time I looked past the students, and saw the teachers, principles, and administrators and what I saw was amazing. I saw dozens of faculty sit back and watch the fruit of their labor graduate, move from one season of life to the next with joy and pride. What was unique in this picture for me is that it is not one person or teacher who propels a student to graduation. It is 12 years of teachers, principles, and administrators that have all faithfully done their part, which culminates in a graduation. And as quickly as graduation started, it ended. The students left empowered and launched to whatever new thing they were off to do. And while the students left for graduation parties and new life, teachers returned to the classroom to clean up their rooms and prepare for a brand new group of students for them to educate, to faithfully complete their part of the process.

This is exactly what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 3. In Corinth there was some grumbling going on about who their true spiritual leader was. Some people thought it was Paul, other Apollos. And Paul’s focus was on helping the people see that it is not the work of the leader, it is the work of God that should be our focus. Paul draws a line in the sand with his confrontational question, “Who is Apollos? Who is Paul?”

This question cuts to the heart of student ministry and confronts some of the false versions of ministry while the rest of the passage actually give us a healthy view of starting, ending, and continuing to do faithful student ministry in a particular context.

Paul’s questions strikes right to the heart of one of the most challenging issues in student ministry, the personality driven ministry. Because many of us use our relational and leadership gifts well, we find success in collecting and gathering students. And without even realizing what we have done, we have managed to collect students to us. And if this goes unchecked, this version of ministry puts an enormous stumbling block in front of our students.

Students are not the ones trying to pick one person to be their end all be all in life. Students intuitively know that there are a collection of people who have been a part of molding and shaping them. If we move from seeing ourselves as an adult to seeing ourselves as the adult puts students in a challenging position.

When we arrive in a new context we don’t need to be intimidated by the history that happened with out us, with the jokes and the stories. Shutting those down, belittling the person and program before us, ignoring the parents and volunteers who have served faithfully long before we arrive on the scene actually cheapens what we are currently trying to do. This alienates our older students who’s hearts are deeply imbedded with those leaders and staff they have history with, as well as shuts down those leaders and opens the door for grumbling and conflict.

We cannot forget that God has been working in the lives of these students long before we showed up, and will continue to work in their lives long after we are gone. Are we mature enough to live into the question that Paul poses? “Who is Apollos, and who is Paul?” Paul goes on to remind, encourage, and rebuke us:

“My job was to plant the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God, not we, who made it grow. The ones who do the planting or watering aren’t important, but God is important because he is the one who makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work as a team with the same purpose. Yet they will be rewarded individually, according to their own hard work. We work together as partners who belong to God. You are God’s field, God’s building, not ours.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

What a helpful picture Paul paints for serving in a ministry context. Whether we are new, leaving, or staying put, our job is clear. We plant where there has been no seed planted, and we water the work that has been done before us. And we prepare our students to continue to grow when they move past our ministries. There is no glory in the planting and watering. It is the humble task of the youth worker. And this faithful work, partnering with the power and purposes of God is what causes growth and produces fruit.

Thankfully it is not all about us. Actually it is not about us at all. It is Jesus who is the author and perfector of our faith. It is Jesus who has the mysterious power for growth and transformation. These students are God’s building, God’s field. And while God doesn’t Need us, he invites us into a partnership. Out of his grace and mercy he allows us to participate with what he is doing.

We give all of our hearts to our students, we sacrifice time and money for them. We listen to them, celebrate with them, and journey with them. Even the words, “our students” are said with affection and the amount of love and care we have for them. But we only do this for a time. And rightly so, because these students are not our building or field, they are God’s building and field. The more we can live into that truth, the more we start well, end well, and serve faithfully for years to come.

The principles, administrators, and teachers at the local high school graduation have it right. Graduation marks the end of part of a journey and the beginning of a new one. They all gather together and celebrate the students. They understand that they play an important part in the development of the students, but only a part. And because they understand this, they are genuinely excited for students who are being launched into a new season of life, and excited for the new students to enter their classroom and do it all over again.

What a great reminder that is available every spring. Instead of racing from graduation to graduation, making sure I am seen and that students and parents know that I care for them, I can sit back with pride and watch the fruit of our labor cross the stage. What a great discipline to join with the teachers, principles and administrators and recognize that we are only part of the process. And specifically on a spiritual level, we may plant and water, but it is God who causes the growth. For who is Apollos? Who is Paul? Who am I? I am only a small part of each student’s life, for a short season. And because of that I will faithfully do my part for this time and place, finding joy as God causes the growth in students, before me, with me, and long after me.