I just found out that my former youth pastor passed away after an all-to-lengthy battle with cancer. Let me tell you about him.
Youth pastors occupy an odd place in the spectrum of ministerial positions. Many end up elevated to Personality Cult levels by their young charges, but at the same time, they are watched with skeptical eyes, always searching for that Greatest of Adult Sins: Hypocrisy. Nothing will cost a youth pastor his or her standing faster than being branded a hypocrite, and it is a charge that most teenagers will find unforgivable.
John came to West Lynchburg Baptist Church following in the footsteps of a youth pastor who had achieved that Personality Cult standard, and many of the older kids were prepared to despise him immediately because he wasn't the One Who Had Left. But John was made of stronger stuff. He was a Vietnam vet, after all, and yet one of the gentlest of souls. He was laid back and easy-going, engaging in conversations with us from the beginning, making sure that we understood that he was listening to us. Whether or not it was deliberate, it was the perfect formula: Every teenager, more than anything else, wants to be listened to.
John did not coddle us. He challenged us. He would not let us take anything for granted. It wasn't enough to show up to youth group and spout the appropriate phrases and Bible verses, he was constantly questioning us: WHY do you believe that? Is that what you really believe? Defend yourself. He was the Devil's Advocate in the best sense of the phrase, making us really think about our beliefs and refine them. He assisted us through that transition from childhood to adulthood, from believing what our parents and elders had always taught us to understanding and refining our own beliefs so that by the time we went out into the world, our beliefs were OURS. We knew what we believed, but more importantly, we knew why.
The greatest lesson that he taught us was to question everything. It isn't enough to repeat what you hear, you must consider the source, consider what is behind it and evaluate everything. This sounds subversive and, I suppose, in many ways it was, but he was a child of the '60s and had absorbed the lesson that Questioning Authority was sometimes necessary. Some parents were less than delighted that John encouraged their children to ask uncomfortable questions, but many, mine included, understood what a healthy approach this was.
By the time I went to college, I was not ready to fall for the latest trend. I knew what I believed and why, and this made me comfortable and self-confident when it came to meeting people who didn't share my beliefs. They were no threat to me, after all-- I knew what I believed!-- and I learned a lot over the years from some very interesting people by engaging with them, frequently with the same questions that John and posed to me: Why do you believe that? What are the ramifications of your belief? Have you considered these alternate approaches? It lead to some wonderful friendships and long, late-night conversations with people who I might have otherwise avoided because they didn't believe what I did.
And John never ducked the difficult questions. In youth group we discussed rock music and what effect it might have (a big concern in the late '70s and early '80s when burning and smashing albums seemed to be a national pasttime). We talked about dating-- not just "Don't have sex" but love and relationships and the importance of spirituality and family and, yes, sex. We talked about drugs and friends, crime and politics, theology and the importance of standing up for what you believe in.
Every teenager should have a John in their lives-- an adult who loves and cares and forces them to think for themselves. And most of all, someone who isn't their parent who says to them, "What you have to say is important, and I am listening."