I had my first experience leading a small group of fifth grade guys last night. I’ve led lots of small groups in the past in a variety of ages, but fifth grade is definitely one of the youngest I’ve had to deal with so far, and definitely the most hilarious yet frustrating. As a teacher, it was hard for me to try to get through the material that we had to cover in our small group, especially when I mentioned Abraham and the three guys I was with immediately started talking about Abraham Lincoln. But thankfully I’ve been reading a few books at the same time as I’ve been here on this internship that I could see coming into play as I watched these fifth grade boys make fart noises and talk about aliens when our lesson dealt with the call of Abraham.
I’ve been reading Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy, and in the last chapter I read he tackled the image Jesus evokes in “throwing pearls before swine.” Rather than interpreting this in light of people being swine who are not worthy of the pearls of the Gospel, Willard says the point is that we are giving people truths that are of no use to them at this point. Just as pearls serve no purpose for pigs, so the truths of the Gospel message and the kingdom are not understood by certain people at certain times, and thus to communicate those truths to them when they don’t understand is to cause confusion and possibly anger.
So as I looked at these fifth graders, sitting upside down on the couch as another student read Genesis, I found myself questioning what my role as pastor and small group leader is to these boys. Do I force them to sit up, stay quiet, and take in biblical truth when they have no comprehension of what we’re talking about? Or maybe they do and they’re just misbehaving and I need to “lay down the law” a bit with the group? But in doing so, do I risk coming across as bitter, legalistic, and lacking in the grace and love that so characterized Jesus?
To this, I found myself recalling what I’d read previously this week in Contemplative Youth Ministry, as well as several conversations I’ve had this past week. Ultimately, their spiritual formation and their relationship with Christ is not my responsibility, in that I am not the one that causes spiritual growth to occur. Only God through the Holy Spirit causes spiritual growth. My role then is not to compel listening nor to force attentiveness, but rather to love these students and to be present in their hilarity and joy while still extending the truth of what we are teaching in how I communicate and interact with them. As fifth graders, they certainly can comprehend the story of Abraham and God calling him to leave Ur. But do they get the point of it, how it applies to their lives? I’m not sure they can. So my role then is to communicate the story to them, to present to their imaginations and hearts the reality of a God who would call Abraham friend, and to show them truth and grace in how I interact with them every week.
Seeing immediate life change as a result of a 30 minute small group time every week is not going to happen most of the time. But these students are just entering student ministries, and if they stick around, they have eight more years in student ministries here, during which their identities and spiritual lives will be formed. It takes much more patience than I think most people are willing to invest, especially if I consider what it must feel like as a youth volunteer to watch your fifth grade small group stare at you with glazed over eyes or, even worse, to be more interested in farting than in the truth of Scripture. I must be present and patient with my students, looking for long term spiritual formation rather than immedate spiritual highs. And I must instill this same patience in my youth volunteers, helping them to see the long presence that is required as we bear witness to the reality of God in the spiritual formation of our students.