Welcome to Ryley Writes, a collection of thoughts, stories, and work from deep in the heart of Texas.

Youth Ministry: A Love Story

shoutout someone's iPhone and whoever's idea it was to give a bunch of teenagers a power washer to clean a playscape as a service project 2/10 do not recommend guys

shoutout someone's iPhone and whoever's idea it was to give a bunch of teenagers a power washer to clean a playscape as a service project 2/10 do not recommend guys

So far, the theme of this blog since I graduated, if there's been one at all, has been God Having Me Do Stuff I Did Not Plan On Doing.

One of those big Stuffs he's had me do is youth ministry.

I've never been actively against doing youth ministry, don't get me wrong. I just never planned on getting involved in it. I've still never planned on it, actually; never felt this strong call to it or sought out opportunities.

Instead, youth ministry just kind of keeps happening to me. I look up every now and then and there's a group of middle and/or high schoolers staring back at me expectantly, and, well, I guess I better take care of them or something.

Around the summer after my freshman year of college, Bannockburn Baptist Church, of which my dad was the pastor at the time, launched a satellite campus in Dripping Springs.

His best friend (and my "second dad"), Clay Barton, was (and is) the pastor, and his son James and I filled in as leaders during the early stages of BBC Dripping Springs' youth group. We co-led lessons on Sunday mornings and bused carloads of teenagers to Whataburger on Sunday nights. They were good kids and it was a good gig, one I was a little sad to relinquish when I headed back to school in Virginia in the fall.

Then last summer, I moved to Colorado for the summer as staff on a Christian guest ranch. A few weeks in, the director approached me about partnering with the teen program leader, Patrick, as a co-leader on busier weeks.

I didn't really know a thing about the program, and Patrick seemed kind of squirrelly to me, but I did know that A) I hated waitressing, B) most of the teen activities I'd seen so far were outside and being outside was why I was living in Colorado in the first place, and C) the teen and children's program leaders got to sleep in 30 minutes longer than the rest of the staff because they didn't have morning chores.


I jumped in with both feet, and was surprised by how much I ended up liking it. Not just the aforementioned benefits; but the kids themselves, and the way that interacting with and befriending and pouring into them felt like more than just a job.

Patrick turned out to be one of the funniest, smartest, and kindest people I've ever had the privilege of knowing. He was a lifeline for me all summer, and he is going to be the president someday. Together, we got the chance to lead a new batch of teenagers every week; and unlike any other means-to-an-end role I played on the ranch, the conversations and ridiculous activities we shared with them made a tangible and fulfilling impact.

(It also, if nothing else, opened my eyes to the blessed treasure-trove of stories that is youth ministry. "You can't make this stuff up" is, like, the theme of working with teenagers. You never know what they will say, you never know what they will do, and they are capable of making even the most benign situations infinitely weirder than you thought possible. I am still cashing in on the infamous whitewater rafting story, which I would tell now but it really deserves its own blog post.)

As the summer came to an end and I returned to the "real world" off the ranch, my time spent working with the teen program was the first and favorite thing I relayed to friends and family about my summer job. Still though, it didn't spur me to continue in youth ministry after the fact.

When I wound back up in Texas in March, I visited Bannockburn Dripping Springs straight out of the gate.

I wasn't necessarily intending to go there — I had a few churches I wanted to visit, and one in mind where I thought I'd end up — but I wanted to see the Bartons, and I craved a little familiarity. My brain was still in the hazy, out-of-body kind of stupor that comes from moving your life a few thousand miles down the road in the span of two weeks. It had been a whirlwind.

The moment I walked through the doors of our little church building, though, I felt at home. And it took all of 10 minutes for the youth pastor, David, to tap me on the shoulder, introduce himself, and say he'd heard that I used to help out with their youth group and was welcome to jump back in anytime.

It felt less like a jump than a heavenly shove, but the point is that once again I landed in the midst of a bunch of teenagers. Call it "third time's the charm" or whatever you want, but finally, I began to think, huh, this seems sort of like a pattern. Maybe I should pay attention to this.

And for three months, I have. I've led Bible studies and exchanged text messages and cheered at games and driven miles and soothed hormonal rages and doled out hugs and laughed a lot and sung allllllll the Justin Beiber along the way. The names of the kids in my youth group are the last written in my prayer journal every morning before I say "amen." Occasionally, occasionally, they can be the worst — but they're still my favorite, man.

Psalm 37:4 says, "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart."

Never in a million years would I have thought that the desire of my heart would be, say, spending a sticky Wednesday night playing kickball with cranky middle school boys; or sitting on the floor while a dozen girls flex their braiding skills on my hair for the entirety of a Sunday school lesson; or sacrificing a little extra sleep for "Are you awake? I need to talk to someone," texts.

But it's funny how, instead of bending God's will to the desires of my heart, delighting myself in him — which is nearly impossible not to do, if you spend any time with him at all — has meant the desires of my heart softening and aligning to his for me.

For whatever reason, in this season of life, God desires that I be involved in youth ministry.

And while he could just tell me what it is and hand me the task and order me to carry it out, because he’s, you know, God and stuff,

He’s generous instead.

And I love that.

I may never have gone this route on my own, but I love the God who mapped it out, and I love that he’s given me a genuine love for it.

At the end of the day, if nothing else, I hope the teenagers he’s entrusted me with see and know and experience that.

(And that they continue giving me enough story material for a decent memoir someday. Kidding! I’m not kidding.)

Good Vibes

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