I asked this question a lot as a youth worker, but I asked it way too early in my career. I wanted to know immediately what I only deserve to know four years from that moment.
Making a difference should not be a short term goal. Making a difference is long term work. The key word in the question, “am I making a difference?” is making. It’s ongoing.
How do you get there?
Regardless of your endeavor, you have to show up, consistently. You have to show up regardless if you see any fruit. Jesus shared a parable and it started with showing up.
Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. Matthew 13:3
You make a difference every time you show up and sow a seed, but sowing requires patience.
I’m no farmer, but I suspect the farmer doesn’t get too disappointed if he or she wakes up the next day and does not see the harvest. Sowing is hard. Sowing means breaking ground so the seed can be sown.
The sowing of the seed, the word of God, comes from you showing up week after week, month after month and year after year, even with those students who’s “ground” is hard and seemingly impenetrable.
It’s these students I took the most joy in sowing into because they could give nothing back. The action itself was worthwhile.
It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
The action of showing up, in hard times, builds credibility and is the beginning of making a difference.
Do the work
Showing up is only part of making a difference, you also have to do the work. The work is speaking, planning and building relationships but it’s also discipline, parent meetings, staff meetings and 50 other things.
“Do more than belong: participate. Do more than care: help. Do more than believe: practice. Do more than be fair: be kind. Do more than forgive: forget. Do more than dream: work.” ― William Arthur Ward
Your students will
see you fail as you do the work. Show them how to fail well.
see you succeed as you do the work. Show them how to succeed well.
see you weep as you struggle. Show them how to struggle well.
The work needs to be done, but as the work is getting done, students are observing how you respond to conflict, respond to small crowds, failed events and family issues. How you do the work is just as important as doing the work.
Savor the process
Destination disease is a real thing. Looking for results all the time is exhausting. You have to enjoy every part of the process in making a difference or the work becomes drudgery.
Every kid doesn’t have to get saved every week for you to make a difference. An adult that shows up regularly in their lives is making a difference.
If I learned anything as a youth pastor, it was to look around the youth room and enjoy watching students engage with each other, watch leaders loving on kids, listen to the band rehearse, to be present in this moments because they are gone all too soon.
Celebrate the progress
Having been in a few churches 5 years or more, I got to watch middle school students become seniors. Graduation Sunday was one of my favorite days because I rejoiced at the time I had with these students, at least the ones who didn’t show up just for graduation Sunday.
I would become thoughtful and grateful while putting together the slide show. I’d watch this kids grow, overcome challenges and have a fun in the process.
Graduation Sunday shouldn’t be the only time we celebrate students for their accomplishments. I loved doing award ceremonies and handing out trophies for leadership and service. I made a big deal when a kid went on their first mission trip or camp.
Equally, I made sure to affirm students when I caught them practicing what Christ taught them. If I saw them being kind, I said something to them about seeing them grow. If I caught a picture of them serving I made sure to post and tag them in it.
Celebrating the progress students make, no matter how small makes a big difference.
So, back the main question, “Am I making a difference?”
If you’re providing a safe place for teens to share.
If you’re preaching the gospel.
If you’re leading students to be faithful followers of Christ.
If you’re showing up.
If you’re doing the work.
You’re making a difference.
Eventually all these kids grow up. The call you to ask for advice. They ask you to marry them. They ask you if you want to get together for dinner.
20 years later, long after your last youth meeting, you’ll discover you’ve made a difference.