From Fear to Hope: The Yuck of Youth Ministry

What If We’re Wrong?

One of the most generous, most visionary, most loving, and most successful people I know in ministry has a recurring fear. Every time the ministry is about to launch something, even if it’s just launching the Sunday School year for the hundredth time, she has nightmares that no one will show up. She worries that all of our planning, all of our hard work, all of our faithfulness will be for nothing.


The Yuck of YM

I do not think that she’s the only minister to have these fears. And it’s not just a fear of failure or of looming disappointment, though these fears are certainly there. Rather, it’s the fear that, despite our faithfulness, something will go wrong. It’s the fear that, though we have done everything we’re supposed to do, life will intervene or it won’t be enough. It’s the fear that, maybe, just maybe, God isn’t real and God’s promises don’t mean a thing. It’s the fear that God has abandoned us, or, maybe, we’ve abandoned God. Maybe we’re on the wrong path. Maybe what we thought was right, wasn’t. Or maybe we’re inadequate for the task. Maybe what we thought was a call, wasn’t.

But sometimes, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, God is calling us to stay in the messiness of failure, disappointment, inadequacy and the just plain “yuck” of life because in that very “yuck” lies something very, very good.

The truth, of course, is that life does intervene. And sometimes our best efforts are not good enough. That vital volunteer gets sick. A beloved kid who seemed to have everything together overdoses on painkillers. The weather turns ugly on the very day we were going to hold a big outdoor kickoff event.

Stay in ministry long enough—stay alive long enough—and, despite our best efforts, despite our faithfulness, something will go wrong. 

Life’s Surprises…

I imagine this is how Joseph felt when he learned about Mary’s pregnancy. We do not know much about Joseph. In fact, while Mary has a conversation with an angel and sings a prophetic song of redemption, Joseph never says a word.

We mainly know Joseph through his actions and through a brief description of him, here in Matthew 1: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Because Joseph was faithful to the law. Joseph was faithful. Not only to the law, but also to his soon-to-be wife. He could have shamed her publicly, could have even called for her death by stoning. He would have been within legal rights. But he chose to “divorce her quietly.” Joseph was faithful.

And yet, despite his faithfulness, his soon-to-be wife was pregnant and the child was not his. The dreams he had for their life together were derailed. So he wanted to end it quietly. Walk away and pretend nothing had happened.

…Lead to God’s Deliverance

But God wanted him to go further. God wanted him to stay in the midst of the disappointment, in the midst of the confusion, in the midst of the messiness. God wanted him to trust that, just on the other side of this impossible situation, a hope beyond his imagining was waiting.

Unlike the unexpected birth of Jesus, I do not think that God causes some of these wrong situations. I do not think a young person overdosing is something conceived by the Holy Spirit. I do not think that God puts horrible things in our lives or derails our ministries with failures. But I do believe that God’s promises for hope often come not in spite of, but in the midst of these very wretched situations. And sometimes, it is in these impossibly messy moments that God is, in fact, birthing something new.

God Redeems the Yuck

Sometimes it might be healthy to leave a bad situation, especially if that situation is abusive—for instance, an abusive staff relationship in a church. But sometimes, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, God is calling us to stay in the messiness of failure, disappointment, inadequacy and the just plain “yuck” of life because in that very “yuck” lies something very, very good.

Paul must have experienced this at some point. He writes this to the church in Rome about hope:

“I consider  that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18–25)

Hope from Within the Yuck

Indeed, we cling to that patience in this Advent season, this season of waiting in which our knowledge of Jesus’ coming in the flesh all those years ago is run ragged through the reality that it’s been two thousand years since he rose and we’re still waiting for everything to be made right. But it is that very enfleshment, that very incarnation, that gives us something Joseph never had.

We know, or at least we deeply desire to believe, that even death cannot contain our God. Even a criminal’s crucifixion could not stop the hope that arrived like a thunderbolt in a clear blue sky in the person of Jesus Christ.  And so with Paul, and with Joseph, we wait, in the midst of the “yuck,” in active hope, and proclaim what we barely dare to trust:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39)

About the Author: Marcus Hong

Marcus Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God. He’s also the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. Marcus loves movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, and, alongside his brilliant wife Sarah, has his hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.