“I’m not coming back! I know I say that every week, but this time I really mean it!”
It was a Tuesday night in November. Becky had yet again gotten into an argument with another child at our weekly Bible class. I knew enough about Becky and her life not to over react. Her dad was in jail and her family had moved again. She had been coming to Bible class for a couple of years, but had not decided to follow Jesus. I tried to calm her down and said, “That’s OK, maybe next week you’ll feel differently.”
Sure enough, Becky came back the following week, got in an argument again and again said, “I’m never coming back.” This pattern continued for several months. Then in February, Becky told me this story:
"I got in trouble one night. That night I had a dream. Jesus came to me and said, 'I can help you so you stop getting in trouble like this.' I said, 'Yes, that’s what I want.'”
Becky was different after that. Now she wanted to come to church. Instead of constantly arguing with other children, she let them have the last cookie or sit in the most desirable seat.
I wish all of the children I have been teaching over the past six years had stories like this. Most don’t. In fact, most weeks, it’s hard to believe that what we are doing is making much of a difference in their lives. For these children, the path to a healthy, godly adulthood is anything but smooth. It looks more like a Marine Corps obstacle course.
While I often doubt that I can help them, I do know that befriending them, teaching them, and just being there for them is changing me. That’s because spiritual maturity involves investing sacrificially in others and taking the long view.
At my worst, I’m tempted to stop investing for immature, selfish reasons. But spiritually mature people pour into others and trust God to make it worthwhile. One of the most transformative things that can happen to any of us is to have another person stay with us over time.
At my best, I’m asking questions like, “Where will Jason be when he is 18?” When I first met Jason as a 3rd grader, I realized that asking this question would keep me focused on his long-term good, not on his weekly ups and downs and my reactions to them. The question is not just about him, it’s about all the children and the philosophy behind our work with them. Jason’s now a freshman in high school, and it’s hard to say where he is going in life. The reality of investing in young people over the long haul is that there are no guarantees. But spiritually mature love is not about guarantees; it’s about imitating Jesus and laying down our lives for others.
Since publishing The Juvenilization of American Christianity, I’ve been asked a lot about spiritual maturity: “What is it?” “How can we help each other get there?” These are urgent questions for contemporary American Christians to ponder, and the questions have gotten me thinking about my own life too. Am I responding maturely to the challenges?
It’s a new semester, time to help forty freshmen and sophomores find their very first service learning placement. Meanwhile, I’m mentoring ten upperclassmen who are finding or completing their culminating internships. Sometimes the many meetings involved seem tedious or trivial. But then I remember that it’s a privilege to have even a small role in their lives during these crucial four years of leadership development.
By God’s grace, I keep placing myself in situations that challenge me to invest in others over the long haul. It’s not glamorous and there are lots of reasons to give up. But to my surprise, beauty and joy can be found there too.
Image by Darlene. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post written by Tom Bergler. Tom is the author of The Juvenalization of American Christianity and professor of Ministry and Missions at Huntington University. His work on this subject was recently featured at Christianity Today.