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Committing to Low-commitment Students

By Guest Contributor March 31, 2015

By Kyle Rohane

“Am I the only one here?” she asked as she stepped out of her car. The only other vehicle in the parking lot was the church van, waiting to be filled with high school volunteers. I had spent the last few hours vacuuming sand and throwing out wrappers crammed between seat cushions from the previous weekend. So many students had shown up for lake day last weekend that we had to borrow vehicles to make sure everyone had a ride.

This weekend we didn’t expect as large a group—an afternoon of volunteer work at a homeless shelter isn’t as exciting as a day at the lake. Yet a solid group of students had committed to help. I glanced down at the sign-up sheet in my hand, filled with names and emails of our regular attenders. But as we waited in that hot, empty parking lot, no more students arrived. At lake day, over 40 students showed up. This weekend, we only had one.

That was one of my most frustrating experiences as a youth worker, and I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar. High school students are notorious for making bold commitments but never following through. The more difficult or uncomfortable the task, the more last-minute texts we receive about sudden illnesses, forgotten homework, and family “issues.” So we find ourselves frantically calling adult volunteers to fill in, or worse, we’re forced to cancel the events altogether.

How can we teach unreliable students the importance of following through on their commitments?

We could offer rewards. When I was in youth ministry, I got prizes (mostly candy) for memorizing Bible verses. And if my youth group could make it all the way through our 30-Hour Famine without caving in to our hunger, a pizza party was waiting on the other side. The follow-through rate was always high, but I’m not sure we understood the point of the event. Rewards and incentives work well—until students are asked to commit without a tangible prize at the end. Prizes are great for behavior modification, but not for heart transformation.

A better way to teach students to keep their commitments is by keeping our commitments to them.

When a student doesn’t show up to play in the worship band or help set up for an event, our gut reaction is to cross their name off our list of reliable volunteers and to never ask for their help again. And that would be the best solution if our primary commitment were to running an efficient program. But it’s not. In youth ministry, our most important commitment is to growing our students as disciples. That means showing students that we believe in them even when we probably shouldn’t. It means keeping our expectations high so they’ll keep reaching up to meet them.

follow through_quote1What would have happened if Jesus had written off his disciples the first time they failed to follow through on their commitments to him? For one thing, we probably wouldn’t know who Peter was (and even if we did, we sure wouldn’t name our kids after him). When Jesus predicted that his followers would abandon him, Peter talked a great talk: “Even if all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29). But when push came to shove, Peter discarded his commitment to Jesus not once, not twice, but three times—in Jesus’ greatest time of need.

Jesus could have crossed Peter’s name off his list of disciples and found someone more reliable to lead his church. Instead, he did two things: First, he kept his own commitment to Peter and the rest of humanity by laying down his life for those who had abandoned him. Are you willing to make huge sacrifices for your students—even the ones who are unreliable, noncommittal, and flakey? Students learn commitment by watching us commit to them, even when it hurts.

Second, when Jesus had risen from the dead, he pulled Peter aside. Three times, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter said yes. Jesus didn’t roll his eyes and say, “Yeah, right.” He responded by telling Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Even though Peter had been unreliable in the past, Jesus still believed in him. He placed great expectations on Peter’s shoulders. This time Peter rose to the occasion. He went on to lead the early church with amazing dedication, even to his death.

It may take more than a second chance—or a third, or a fourth—for your students to follow through on their commitments. But when we commit to their growth by believing in them and asking for their help again and again, they’ll receive a reward more meaningful than candy or pizza. Your trust will strengthen your relationship with them (something students crave more than anything). It will grow them as dedicated disciples. And the minute they follow through and serve alongside you, they’ll form a bond with you that can last forever. Nothing cements a relationship quite like serving next to each other for the sake of the kingdom.

CC Image courtesy nikki on Flickr.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More