In the story of the transfiguration, Jesus takes his friends high atop a mountain to share with them an unfiltered expression of his glory. And yet, glorious as it was, they didn't remain there. Instead, they returned to the valley. This is an important lesson for those of us who, day in and day out, walk with students and witness their great desire to experience more of the Lord. While "mountaintop" experiences can be an valuable part of the Christian life, most of our relationship with God isn't lived out on the mountaintop. How, then, do we spend time with him on a daily basis? We do this through Spirit-led prayer and community, to be sure, but we experience his presence in these things most vividly and assuredly through the Bible.
As John Frame has said, "God's written word has the same power, authority, and divinity as the divine voice from heaven and the word of the prophets and the apostles." In light of this glorious definition, youth pastors have everything to gain, for ourselves and our young friends, when we open up God's Word as a community and experience the glory of Jesus.
Nothing Better to Offer
Doing youth ministry in New York City means you're able to work alongside some interesting and accomplished lay leaders. For a teenager to sit across from any one of them is an enriching experience. Nevertheless, as a team we're aware that the friendship and "common sense" wisdom we provide won't be enough to sustain the next generation "when the days of trouble come" (Eccl. 12:1).
Our first prayer isn't that our students will grow to become well-rounded individuals but re-created ones. Therefore, parents, pastors, and lay leaders must joyfully prepare in advance and make the most of the opportunities involved in ministering to youth.
Know God's Word
Youth leaders must be able to speak God's truth into the given circumstances of a student's life. If you're ready, this can occur spontaneously while riding in a car, playing Settlers of Catan, or taking part in a service project. No formulas. Just two people listening and responding to one another, their stories made sense through his.
Of course, there's no shortage of helpful methods for learning Scripture. One that's shaped me personally is regular group meditation. By "meditation" I mean part rote memorization (chapter and verse) and part prayerful imagination. Beginning on my own, I like to prayerfully consider a cluster of verses based around a particular biblical topic—say, the church.1 Over a week or so, a brief conversational narrative begins to form in my mind that sufficiently explains the topic in a way that's both orthodox and also unique to my personality. My primary purpose is to know God better through his text, then to share it with others doing the same thing. Once I can distill from a cloud of ideas one or two pithy thesis-like statements, I know I've spent transformative time with his Word and am ready to share and discuss with my leader friends.
Sharing is as an act of fellowship. It encourages accountability to the task and is an opportunity to learn from others. As I'm shaped by my time in Scripture, I'm sustained in the valley, and my functional trust in Scripture increases. When we experience and model rich biblical thinking, the incomparable wisdom and power of God's truth is made apparent not only to ourselves, but to others as well.
Know God's Story
At the transfiguration Peter, James, and John witness for the first time what we never want to take for granted: that Jesus is the central figure in the story of redemptive history and therefore the central figure of our lives. Eventually they understand their own cultural narrative through him and interpret every problem—big or small—through the lens of his resurrection. So might our students.
Of course, we're able to see what that inner circle was only beginning to comprehend—that the glory of Jesus is greater than our own expectations for our lives. Youth communities that continually place the stories of students within the ultimate story of God may radically transform identities and usher teenagers into lives filled with grace, hope, and purpose.
In the Valley with Him
I first met Davis when he was 15. Though he'd grown up in the church and professed faith in Christ, he recognized a difference between the more realized faith of certain friends and his own. Convicted by their joy, he began to wonder: What more can I do? Still, however, having had no recognizable "mountaintop" experience he walked hesitantly, believing he didn't possess the willpower to "center his life on Christ." Then he heard from Scripture that God's glory was already being displayed through him in ways he took for granted.
In Philippians 2, Paul exhorts the church at Philippi to unity as he repeats a single word: any. "If there is any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy," he writes, "complete my joy by being of same mind, having the same love, being of one accord and of one mind" (Phil. 2:1). Davis discovered in this word that even the smallest amount of God's grace is evidence enough to move forward, to be confident in faith, to do the work of ministry. Realizing Christ is already in the valley alongside him, Davis understood the onus wasn't on him to have some spectacular experience. Recognizing God's work, Davis has reflected God's grace ever since.
This wasn't only freeing for Davis but for many around him as well—even for the pastor. As a newly appointed Bible teacher I learned to trust that when the Lord shapes me through my own careful meditation on Scripture, he uses that process to shape others. As youth leaders, we must understand how our students struggle and think biblically about their lives. In doing so we can walk together through uncertain and often unstable terrain and, because of Christ, move forward with the surest footing and friendship.