I recently met up with a friend from high school. This was a guy I shared Jesus with 18 years ago. We were juniors in high school (yes, I’m that old). At the time, he was receptive to the Gospel and I did my best to disciple him. He joined my church’s youth group and we even formed a little rogue small group on the side. He was full of passion and questions. As often happens to high school friends, we grew apart when we moved away to college. At first we talked periodically and then lost touch for many years.
Fast forward the tape 17 years, and I found myself sitting across from this old friend at Starbucks, listening to him narrate the tale of his life. It hasn’t been a smooth journey. He made a mess of things–very nearly destroying his family and himself. And yet, in the midst of his destructive behavior, he couldn’t get away from Jesus. He couldn’t get away from the conversations we had in high school, 17 years ago. The seeds that were planted simply wouldn’t die.
To use his own words, he wasted many years of his life running from God and living for himself, but in the end, when his eyes were finally opened to the train-wreck he was headed for, he returned to Jesus. He confessed his betrayals and sins to his wife and friends and by grace they responded with forgiveness and accountability. Now, a few years beyond this breaking point in his life, he is thriving in his faith. He’s engaged with a good church and he and his wife are working through marriage counseling. He told me that finally, after two years, they’ve graduated to monthly sessions.
What amazed me about this story was the time it took for this prodigal to come home. It took years for the dormant seeds that were planted to grow. There’s a lot of life that happens over 17 years! How often I’ve assumed that a student is done with Jesus after only one 1 or 2 years of wandering. How many times have I been wrong? How many times did I give up too soon?
As a student pastor, I constantly remind myself and our volunteer small group leaders that student ministry is a long-term investment. This conversation at Starbucks was a taste of my own medicine. We can’t predict how the words of grace that we speak, on behalf of Jesus, will play out in the lives of those we invest in. Mentoring a teenager in faith is incredibly powerful, but we often can’t predict how long it will take for our words to take root. In the case of my friend, it was 17 years.
I can’t help but wonder how my friend’s journey might have been different if we had stayed connected. How much pain could have been avoided if someone had been speaking love and truth into his life during his wandering? We must find ways to stay connected and invested in the lives of our students in life beyond high school.
Sometimes the seeds we plant will remain dormant for years, sometimes for decades, but the planting of these seeds matters. What we as student pastors, volunteers, small group leaders, parents, teachers and mentors say and do in the lives of students is hugely important. Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Never write a student off. We never know when seeds are lying dormant, waiting for the right conditions or stresses to spring to life.