As I write this I'm traveling home from a Youth Specialties convention that was just held in Dallas, Texas. "YS" (as it's commonly called) is a youth pastors' conference that has tons of seminars for youth leaders to help them become more effective at ministering to teenagers. I've been teaching at these fabulous events for over a decade and look forward to it every year.
One of the reasons I love YS is because it's always a great opportunity to connect with youth pastors of all shapes and stripes. These leaders range from mainline to conservative, small church to large church and rural to urban.
My YS experiences have been defined by laughter, learning and, at times, controversial conversations. It has been a joy to wrestle through tough issues with others who are in the midst of ministering to the next generation.
One of the richest conversations I've ever had happened at a YS convention in Pittsburg four years ago. This dialogue didn't happen during or immediately after the session I was teaching that weekend. It took place as I walked down the street next to a younger youth leader whom, up to that point, I had never met.
To the best of my memory the conversation went something like this:
"You're Greg Stier aren't you?"
"Yes" I replied.
After introducing himself to me and shaking my hand cordially he shared with me that he was from a more liberal stream of the youth ministry world. He then said, "I've heard a lot about you in my circle" with a twinkle in his eye.
"All bad?" I asked.
"Pretty much," he said with a half smile on his face.
Knowing that evangelism (my primary focus in ministry) is not the most popular subject in some youth ministry circles, I asked, "Well then, you probably already know what I'm about. After all a guy who leads a ministry called 'Dare 2 Share' is not that hard to figure out. So, let me ask you a question...what are you about?"
He replied, "What do you mean?"
"What matters to you? What is your ministry priority? What are you about?" I asked.
He thought for a second and replied,"I'm about the kingdom of God."
Hard to argue with that. That's a good thing to be about!
Seeking clarification I asked, "And, from your perspective, what is the kingdom of God about?"
"Taking care of the poor," was his quick reply.
"Great! I'm all for taking care of the poor," I affirmed. "But what about the Gospel?" I asked. "Where does that fit in?"
He thought deeply and replied, "That is the Gospel."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He responded, "Well, Jesus fed the poor. The disciples fed the poor. And we are called to feed the poor and when we feed the poor we are the hands and feet of Jesus. We are living the Gospel. That is the Gospel we preach, not with our lips but with our lives. That is the core of the kingdom of God."
I thought for a second and asked, "Have you ever been poor?" (I could tell this guy had never seen a day of poverty in his life.)
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Have you been poor by American standards? Have you gone without food? Were you raised in a high poverty area? Have you ever lived on food stamps? Were you raised in a high crime rate area? That's what I mean by poor?" I responded.
"No, I haven't," was his honest reply. "Why do you ask?"
I answered, "Because I have been poor. I was raised in apartments and have lived in a trailer court. I was the result of a one-night stand, never knew my biological father, was raised by a single mom who was too proud for government assistance. I spent my childhood years in the highest crime rate area of my city, wore hand-me-downs and was grateful for every meal. We didn't have a lot of stuff growing up and scraped and scrapped for everything we did have. I was raised American poor, which is way better than 3rd world poverty but is poverty nonetheless."
By this time we had stopped under the overhang of a restaurant to hide from the gentle rain coming down. He was listening intensely so I continued, "And if you would have asked me as an eight year old kid, the year someone introduced me to Jesus, if I could could choose between having all the food I ever wanted, a big house to live in, all the toys I could ask for, a college education someday and our family's bills completely paid off OR I could have Jesus, I would have picked Jesus in a New York minute."
I explained to my younger youth ministry friend that poverty wasn't the absence of money, but the absence of hope. As an eight year old child, Jesus gave me both security and significance. Through Jesus I had access to a heavenly Father who would never leave me or forsake me like my biological father did. Through Jesus I had a purpose for this life and a home in the next. I explained to him how my relationship with Jesus made me feel like the richest kid on my block.
My new friend was quiet, absorbing every word so I finished my point.
"Yes, I was grateful for those who gave us food and clothes and helped us out of poverty. I was thankful for the church that took us in and helped to meet our needs. But it wasn't anyone's financial generosity that made me feel rich, it was Jesus. The rest of the clothes and food and financial help were simply the Ginsu knives, the 'but wait there's more' bonus prize to the kingdom of God I was experiencing. It was Jesus himself, delivered to me through the Gospel message, who was the one who made me truly rich in spirit, hope and joy."
I gently put my hand on his shoulder and said, "Brother, you have to be careful talking about poverty like you know what the heck you're talking about. Because, if you've never been poor, you don't. You also have to be careful about equating the kingdom of God with just giving someone food or providing for their physical needs without preaching the gospel to them. Because to those of us who have been poor and who are now saved what you are saying just sounds kind of stupid."
Bracing for a philosophical beat down from this obviously intelligent young youth pastor he surprised me by saying, "I've never thought of it that way. You have given me a lot to consider. Thank you."
Beside being blown away by his humility I was excited by his openness. It gave me hope that this current and coming generation of youth leaders were open to a truly holistic message of Christianity that encompasses mind, body and soul. It gave me hope that these young leaders can learn to serve the poor on every level, through acts of social justice, empowerment and, of course, evangelism. After all, Jesus himself said, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, beause he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" in Luke 4:18.
May the big example of Jesus and the little story I just shared inspire you to deliver someone from poverty today. Deliver them by giving them bread for their bodies and the Bread of Life for their souls!