What John teaches us about youth ministry

There’s a legend about John the apostle that’s tucked away in a book you may have never read—especially if you’re a children’s or student minister. Let’s face it, musty second-century sermon manuscripts aren’t top-of-shelf reading material for those of us who spend our days shopping at Costco for Goldfish crackers, leading early morning discipleship at Chick-fil-A, sanitizing toys in the nursery, or ordering pizza for Wednesday night gatherings. But let me tell you a secret: If you’ve missed this story, you’ve missed a treasure.

At the conclusion of one of his sermons,[1] the second-century pastor, Clement of Alexandria, gives us a beautiful and early account of generational ministry. The story begins shortly after John, the beloved disciple, was released from prison on the isle of Patmos. By this time in John’s ministry he was an old man. Most evangelical scholars believe John wrote the book of Revelation from Patmos in AD 95–96. Even if the disciple was a teenager when he followed Jesus, he would now be in his 70s. He’s likely an octogenarian.  

Clement begins his story by telling us what John would do after his release from prison:

After the tyrant’s death [likely Clement is referring to the Roman emperor, Domitian], John returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus and used to go, when asked, to neighboring Gentile districts to appoint pastors, reconcile churches, or ordain someone designated by the Spirit. Arriving at a city nearby [probably the city of Smyrna in modern-day Turkey], he settled disputes among the brethren and then, noticing a spirited youth of superior physique and handsome appearance, commended him to the appointed pastor with the words: “I leave this young man in your keeping with Christ as my witness.”

Now that he’s in his later years, John serves the church as an itinerant preacher and traveling advisor. He moves around from church to church, sitting on ordination committees and helping church leaders settle disputes—not all that different from what a retired pastor might do today. As a wise senior saint, John was also on the lookout for young talent. And he found a handsome and spirited young man in the church at Smyrna. Seeing leadership potential, he commended this youth to the local pastor for training. Then, when John returned to his home church in Ephesus, the pastor took the young man home, raised him, and when he had confessed faith, baptized him.

Maybe the young pastor had an underdeveloped theology of discipleship. Maybe he was burdened with a particularly challenging church; we do know the church in Smyrna had experienced the trauma of heavy persecution (Rev. 2:8–10). Clement doesn’t tell us the local pastor’s motives. He just says that after the young man was saved and baptized, the pastor “relaxed his oversight.” And at that point, things went sideways. Clement described it this way:

Some idle and morally lax youths corrupted the young man with lavish entertainment and then took him with them when they went out at night to commit robbery or worse crimes. Soon, he joined them and like a stallion taking the bit in mouth, he dashed off the straight road and down the cliff. Renouncing God’s salvation, he went from petty offenses to major crimes and formed the young renegades into a gang of bandits with himself as chief, surpassing them all in violence and bloody cruelty.

The young student fell into the wrong crowd, and this bad company corrupted his good character (1 Cor. 15:33). It’s a story everyone in youth ministry has experienced. Leadership gifts in a young person can be both a blessing and a curse. The Holy Spirit can use charisma and confidence for good, but, if the young person chooses to indulge their sinful nature, that same potential can be twisted for great evil. More privileged kids, like the prodigal son, will chase a party and popularity. A neglected young man, like this one in Smyrna, may join a street gang.

Responding to a youth who has strayed from the faith

How should we respond in that moment when a young person begins to turn away from the faith? Certainly, the fallen youth bears some responsibility. But can we say each prodigal is just a “bad seed”? That’s what the pastor in Smyrna thought.

Time passed, and John paid another visit [to Smyrna]. Then, the apostle said, “Come now, pastor, return now the deposit that Christ and I left in your keeping . . .  I am asking for the young man and his soul.”

“He is dead,” groaned the pastor in tears.

“How did he die?”

“He is dead to God. He turned out vile and debauched: an outlaw. He is in the mountains, not the church, with a gang of men like himself.”

The rest of the story makes clear that this pastor’s “blame-the-kid” approach to a straying youth isn’t the right one. But allow me to ask the question again: How should we respond when a young person begins to turn away from the faith? Is it a time for self-reflection? Should we ask, “What did we do wrong? Was there something missing in our youth ministry model?” Perhaps. But I find John’s more active response to be much more challenging.

The apostle tore his clothing, beat his head, and groaned. “A fine guardian I left for our brother’s soul! But get me a horse and someone to show me the way.” He rode off from the church, just as he was. When he arrived at the hideout and was seized by the outlaws’ sentries, he shouted, “This is what I have come for: take me to your leader!”

When John approached and the young leader recognized him, the young man turned and fled in shame. But John ran after him as hard as he could, forgetting his age, and calling out, “Why are you running away from me child—from your own father, unarmed and old? Pity me child, don’t fear me! I will give account to Christ for you and, if necessary, gladly suffer death and give my life for yours as the Lord suffered death for us. Stop! Believe! Christ sent me.”

Think about that for a moment. As soon as he heard about the straying son, this 80-year-old pastor mounted a horse and rode into the mountains to chase him down! It reminds me of what our Lord taught us in Matthew 18:10–14:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Clement tells us that the young gang leader “stopped, stared at the ground, threw down his weapons and wept bitterly.” He flung his arms around the old apostle and begged forgiveness. John assured him that he’d found forgiveness from the Savior, and the Father rejoiced!

Brothers and sisters who serve in children’s or student ministry, this is your mission. Remember this story the next time you’re stacking piles of cotton balls for a preschool craft. Remember John the Apostle the next time you’re playing knockout with the middle school boys. This is your mission. You’re carrying the good news to the little ones, and you’re chasing them down when they stray. Believe this good news. And call the kids in your care to believe, because Christ sent you!