I’ve had a few experiences with “tough-to-love” students recently in various venues. Whenever a kid like this enters your midst, there is often pressure from leaders and students to “do something.” Mostly they are aggravated by how the “tough-to-love” student is behaving. I thought I would share how one of my youth pastors growing up “dealt” with one of the “tough-to-love” kids in our youth group. We’ll call him Andy (I changed his name to protect his identity).
Andy was one of those kids who was difficult to deal with in our student ministry. His parents were both committed Christians and you could tell that he had read a great portion of the Bible. This is normally a great thing, but you have to know Andy. Andy was a skeptic and more often than not when the youth pastor opened up the floor for discussion Andy would inevitably point out a flaw in the youth pastor’s message (like he said “Noah” when he meant “Moses” etc.) or he would rebut what the youth pastor had said with his own take on various passages of scripture. To be clear, Andy was a know-it-all and he knew a great deal, but he didn’t know Jesus. (Later Andy’s youth pastor would say, “I prepared the youth lessons and then I went back again to see what Andy might say so I could be prepared.”)
Andy also used to like to play games and pranks while the youth group was meeting. His youth group met in the church’s old sanctuary. Andy would often get dropped off early for church and slip into the baptistery or side door entrance. He would wait until the worship music had started and he would poke his head out and make funny faces at the group behind the youth pastor’s back. Andy was a clown.
Andy also hung out with the “wrong” crowd at school and would often drink on the weekends and even throughout the week. Actually, because Andy had some influence and aggressively recruited others to his lifestyle, it’s probably more accurate to say that Andy “was” the wrong crowd. Andy wasn’t just a social drinker, he drank alone on many occasions, Andy was a teenage alcoholic and on a few occasions he showed up to his youth group buzzed. Andy was a drunk.
I guess there are lots of ways to deal with a kid like Andy. You could kick him out. You could tell him not to come back. You talk to him in a condescending way. You could do your best to make him feel uncomfortable so he will leave on his own… Or you could do what David our youth pastor did. Since David was one of my mentors growing up I have a little more insight into how he handled the situation than most.
Every week that David saw Andy at church he would say, “Hey Andy I’m so glad you made it tonight!” (and he meant it). David invited Andy into a special discipleship group that met in his home on a week night throughout the summer and was genuinely pleased when he showed up. David prayed for Andy (I know this because I was there on more than one occasion where I heard him). David talked with Andy’s mom about how to best love and encourage him. David encouraged some of the kids in the youth group to reach out to Andy. Some of these were even the kids that Andy made fun of at school.
The summer that David hosted the bible study at his home we all began to see a change starting to take place in Andy. At the end of the summer just before Andy and his family moved off you could tell that he was different. He stopped drinking (this was in large part because his dad caught him), he started a prayer group at church, and he went to all his friends and told them he had changed.
Even though he moved, Andy kept up with David and the youth group through regular mail (this is back before e-mail, text messaging, facebook, etc.). He graduated high school and went on to college to become a youth pastor. He went through a few more “tough-to-love” stages. He was a hypocrite and a self-righteous Pharisee… but at the age of 24 years old Andy finally met Jesus in a real and life changing way. I know this because… you see, I’m Andy.
I am the man I am today in part because of the attitude of my youth pastor and a friend (that I persecuted mercilessly). They weren’t willing to give up on me or just consider me an nuisance. They loved me and demonstrated Christ’s love for me in their actions and attitudes.
Romans 5:7-8 ESV For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– (8) but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
I didn’t know the depth of this verse as a tough-to-love kid until I saw it in my Youth Pastor, David and my friend Brett (who I used to make fun of incessantly). They loved me in Christ when I gave them every reason not to love me.