Photo Credit: Jeremy Rodriguez
Sitting in my office at Gateway Fellowship knowing this is my last week as a youth pastor is so surreal. Selling a house, transitioning three different ministries, and saying goodbye to so many people I love has given me little time for writing though there is much to write about. Last Wednesday was my last time leading youth group as a youth pastor. Tonight is a church-wide farewell dinner for the Derbyshire family. If you are wondering why we have cause for rejoicing, the following is the story of the revitalization of a student ministry.
In 2013, I took over the youth ministry of Gateway Fellowship as their part-time youth minister. This once prosperous and fast-growing church in one of the fastest growing cities in America had been crushed by church splits, hostile business meetings, and had seen hundreds leave. The once proud youth group of over 60 teenagers now had less than 10. A church that used to have over a hundred children running around now had an average age of about 55. Yet, far more grievous to me than the lack of people and organization was the lack of passion for God’s Word that ran rampant among the young people that remained.
So began a five year ministry of revitalizing God’s work among youth from what I can only describe in hindsight as spiritual ruins. The church, though it did have a dear heart to see young people saved and changed, was burned out by its decline and the constant volunteer needs of a floundering youth ministry. For years, teens were graduating high school never to be seen again. Teens groaned and turned off as soon as God’s Word was opened. There were often more students in the youth band on Wednesday Night than were in the seats in front of them. Even worse, the blatant irreverence and disregard for worship songs, of any style, displayed by most students absolutely nauseated me. Only the Holy Spirit could change hearts as calloused as these.
My wife, a gifted worship leader, had to shut down worship music entirely. Instead, I preached to students for an hour every week. We took five teens on a mission trip to do a VBS camp for a church in Dominica, the first overseas mission trip in Gateway’s 70 year history. We began a small college ministry out of our home. Christ-centered exposition of scripture set out to help students of all backgrounds know and articulate the Gospel in their own words. Discipleship crept back into the lives of students and their parents.
Change was slow at first, but it came. A spirit of reverence for God’s Word returned in the small youth ministry and growing college ministry. After remaining dormant for a year, worship music was reintroduced with a renewed spirit of awe for God. The church saw a wave of high school and college students baptized. High school graduates stopped disappearing and began to form the backbone of the church’s workforce. Bible teachers were trained. High School seniors began planning sermon series with me and teaching their own youth group to great effect. Attendees of business meetings waited eagerly to hear reports of what kids were saying about Jesus.
Four years into the ministry at Gateway, my senior pastor tasked me with taking over our dying children’s ministry. Discouraged Sunday School teachers, at times, had but one child in their class. Program directors complained of a lack of interest and declining attendance. Talented children’s workers’ spiritual growth was declining because they always served during the Bible Study hour. Our children’s church time hosted only five children 1-6 grade with 200 adults in the sanctuary.
I set to work with a discipleship group for children’s volunteers and began a new outreach ministry on Wednesday nights. Gospel formation became the main goal as children were called to repentance and to make decisions for Christ (read some of their stories in an earlier blog post). I began preaching children’s sermons from the same text my pastor was preaching in the main service. This time, change came quickly. Kids began to make decisions for Christ. Visiting families stopped leaving. A declining ministry that had baptized 2 kids in the previous five years combined has now baptized 11 in the last six months.
When Rezwana and I announced our calling to Apollo last week to all the children, youth, parents, and volunteers, there were 90 people in the room. There are some who would like to credit my wife and I with the revitalization that has happened and for the first two years (when not much happened), that may have been true. However, Rezwana and I really just poured into a small group of Godly leaders who were able to minister to a large group of people. That is when God sent us more. For the past couple years, it has not been our house that students spent the night hanging out together, but others. It has not been my phone ringing off the hook with young people needing advice, but my ministry partners. When a young person begins making poor choices and falling away, by the time the news gets to me, they have already been confronted by two or three of their friends. God was always the Lord of the harvest. All we had to do was make the Word of God central and get out of the way.
As Rezwana and I finish the beautiful task of filling people in to our past roles, purchasing a new home, and starting another semester of seminary, we can do nothing but gape at the hand of God behind it all. Tonight will be a wonderful night of bittersweet rejoicing. We are all sad that the Derbyshires are leaving Gateway, but excited do fulfill God’s calling on an even greater scale. Though we have formed attachments, lifetime friendships, and seen so many saved for Christ, the people here know I was never preparing them for me, but I was preparing them for Jesus. He is not leaving, but is still the head of both Gateway Fellowship and Apollo Baptist. At the end of it all, Rezwana and I are sad to leave, but excited to obey.
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