A Royal Priesthood

Priesthood of ALL Believers?

I get a lot of different responses when I tell people I’m interested in pursuing youth ministry as a vocation. I get responses along the lines of:

Oh man, you must be some sort of saint!
Are you going to do that until you become a
real pastor?
Aren’t middle schoolers the worst?

I often find myself either apologizing for the plight of the pre-teen or offering a psychological defense of their strange, awkward adolescent years. Most of the time I smile and shrug my shoulders. From the outside, working with young people is some sort of insurmountable challenge to conquer, a strange calling, or some sort of penance.

Recognizing we belong to a priesthood of beautiful, oddball, hyper, reflective, shy, and outgoing believers means that we are all doing ministry together. Every single one of us.

Yet shouldn’t church be a space where all feel welcome to be who we are, a place where we can celebrate the oddities, hilarity, and absurdity of life? Especially the odd, hilarious, and absurd in the life of our youth? Church is where we all collectively come to meet God, not something to tide the kids over until they “grow up.”

Recognizing we belong to a priesthood of beautiful, oddball, hyper, reflective, shy, and outgoing believers means that we are all doing ministry together. Every single one of us.

Regardless of whether your title is “director” or “leader,” you are a pastor to young people. And pastoral ministry doesn’t happen you try to impart wisdom on unsuspecting victims, but when you work together with those you pastor. The pastor is not meant to “do stuff” for people. According to William Willimon, pastoral care is “the reestablishment of broken relationships among people and between people and God” (Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 175). We do church and faith together before God.

Bringing Our Burdens

Recently at youth group, we had eight middle school boys and three girls. It was tiny, yet wild. It was one of those evenings where you walk away after wondering, “What just happened?”

We read Matthew 11:28–29, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The plan was to look through magazines and find pictures that reminded us of the burdens in our lives, and some that reminded us of restfulness. Then we would make a collage of each and talk about what we saw.

We started the discussion by talking about burdens, with examples from their lives. The unanimous chorus was, “SCHOOL!” I paused, and wondered aloud, “Oh, that’s interesting. What about school is a burden?” I was trying to dig deeper, to the underlying reality they were naming.

This led to a long tangent focused on every teacher who had ever wronged them, followed by a lament about homework, tests, and ways to seek revenge. “Okay, this is valid and important, but what does this mean for you in relationship to each other?” We never quite got there.

What we did get was a long silence where one boy loudly dropped the F-bomb, followed by uncontrollable laughter. The evening quickly devolved into madness.

Gifts of God, People of God

The activity, though well intentioned, did not succeed in the way I had planned. The “burden collage” we made had, strangely enough, a picture of Jesus, and someone had put multiple pictures of knives on the collage to symbolize “rest.” I stopped and talked with one of the kids who was in the midst of cutting out pictures of alcohol. At the end of the hour, all I saw around me was a mess and a failure.

It was time for pizza and they all raced each other to get seats. My co-leader walked in with the pizza and soda; loud cheers erupted.

We stood around the table, and my co-leader tried to start a camp prayer and forgot the words halfway through. He turned to the group and asked if anyone remembered the words. The same kid who dropped the F-bomb earlier in the evening jumped up and down saying, “I do!”

This perfectly imperfect young man led us in prayer, helping us connect to God by singing a tune based on the Jaws theme song. And as we all sat around the table, they took turns filling the cup of their neighbor, and passing the plate of pizza around. We broke bread (and sauce and cheese) together and continued laughing and celebrating each other.

Making Connections

As I walked out the door that evening, after picking up the little pieces of magazine someone had so carefully cut and placed all around the youth room, I realized this prayer tonight was the reason we do ministry with young people. This night wasn’t a failure at all.

The things I thought weren’t “important” like their struggles at school, the immense pressure they feel to be doing everything, their drama, or their obsession with the newest app—these are important components of their reality. These are their lives.

The things I thought weren’t “important” like their struggles at school, the immense pressure they feel to be doing everything, their drama, or their obsession with the newest app—these are important components of their reality. These are their lives. It is vital to see their reality as real, for all their joys and frustrations. And the prayers we pray together, though sometimes silly, help us to see God in our lives. Our practices together speak to our shared reality in Jesus.

Come as You Are

If we hope to tame our young people so they fit our idea of church, we will miss incredible opportunities to see their leadership potential, and validity at all stages of life. We cannot discount them because they are loud, energetic, easily distracted, require patience, and sometimes curse loudly (and honestly, are people over fifty really all that different?).

We have the opportunity to create spaces for young people to do the leading. They can, and will continue to meet the expectations we set for them. If we believe that all young people are good for is games and pizza, then for them all church will be is games and pizza. We need to engage and honor the value of the life and spirituality of our young people right now.

How do we expect young people to connect to God if the adults are doing all the talking? Praying together, in any and all forms, is a way of entering into relationship with God. When we say we have a priesthood of all believers, it doesn’t mean that at some point we are good enough to become a member and are worthy. It means we belong as we are, blemishes and all. Even the youth who curses in church; the ones who talk loudly during the service or run loose in the hallways. Our salvation is not dependent on our understanding or right action, but on God, who is constantly drawing us closer into the life of the Trinity.

Expectations of Priesthood

When we say we have a priesthood of all believers, it doesn’t mean that at some point we are good enough to become a member and are worthy. It means we belong as we are, blemishes and all.

As youth ministers, we have the amazing privilege of living life with young people in their journey of understanding and knowing the incredible love of Christ. We know that some of the most insightful conversations are with young people. Their perspective is refreshing and honest in ways we don’t find everywhere. Yet for some reason, we still wait for them to be something else—older, more mature, more acceptable—before asking them to be leaders.

Asking young people to pray, to read Scripture, or to take part in the life of the church is vital to participating in Christ’s ministry to the world. Andy Root confirms how “it is in persons sharing in each other through sacrifice, intercession and confession—in other words, through sacraments, prayer, and preaching, given to us by our brothers and sisters, that we encounter the living Christ among us; this is the church community” (Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, 122). This is especially true for our young people.

As youth workers, we are called to challenge the expectations that working with young people is something “only a saint would do” or “isn’t real pastoral ministry.” One of the ways we can do this while also building up the church is by demonstrating how capable young people can be. How can we begin lifting up the young people in our congregations as full-fledged leaders of our church?

 


Julia Boudrye is a dual degree student (M.Div/MA Christian Education and Formation) at Princeton Theological Seminary. She likes to watch The Office, drink coffee and quote The Office.

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