Note: Go back and read the last entry in this series before reading this one.
There I was, all of 20 years old, officially the unofficial youth pastor (or unofficially the official youth pastor; it's hard to know which) at my first night of youth group, and I had two kids. Middle schoolers whom I didn't know from Adam.
Initially, I couldn't even find them, because they weren't where they were supposed to be. They were down in the game room. You might think, "well, what else would you expect from middle schoolers," but that they were middle schoolers wasn't the reason. The reason they were down in the game room was because it had been weeks, at least, since they'd had any kind of teaching or, even, a leader down in the youth area. Basically, they just came each week to hang out because it was better than being at home. [And, man, I don't even know how to feel about that. I didn't then, and I still don't now. Just... how horrible is that, to have a home life that is so unenjoyable that you would rather come and just be ignored at church with nothing to do than to stay at home (because, sometimes, it was only one of them there).]
Now... You might think that the problem here was that the youth group was practically non-existent (however, we did have a few more, maybe 10 (including the two from Wednesdays), that would come on Sunday mornings, kids who had to come because their parents made them), and that was a problem, but that wasn't the problem. No, the problem was that I didn't have any of the prejudices held by the church at large and didn't care about the "acceptability" of the teenagers who came.
So let me give you some history:
My church was started as a mission of another church around 1915. At the time it was founded, the neighborhood it was planted in was a fairly well-to-do, up-and-coming middle class neighborhood. Big Southern houses and all of that. I think it probably reached its peak in the 50s and, by the 70s, was on a steep decline. The "founding fathers" of my church had all lived in the area around the church when it started; by the 80s, all of their families (and, yes, there were old men in the church, deacons and such, who had grown up in it) had moved to the outskirts of town to get away from "urban blight." [The actual definition of that term has to do with buildings (and that was true: once stately homes in the area around the church were falling into disrepair), but, when they talked about it in my church, it had to do with people.]
As the members moved farther away from the church, fewer and fewer people from the actual neighborhood around the church attended it. So, where it had once been a church that people walked to on Sunday morning, it had become a church that people drove to. And, sure, that's how churches are now (and were in the 80s), but churches didn't start out that way. Protestant churches in the US, I mean. But I digress... The point is that the church was still a mostly upper middle class/lower upper class congregation when I walked down the steps to the youth room in 1990. The people in the mile or so radius around the church weren't welcome there, and they knew it. [Which isn't to say that anyone would have been turned away (despite the fact that we had "guards" at the doors), but no one from that area, having come to the church once, would have ever come back.]
The real problem, I suppose, was that the church hired the wrong guy when they hired me. I mean, they didn't hire someone who was going to play their game. I'm sure they thought they had, but they should have known; I'd given them plenty of clues. The biggest one was that I refused to be a ministerial student despite the fact that they tried to bribe me to do it then tried to extort me to do it. They were very disappointed that I was majoring in English (so was my college faculty, except for the English department, who had tried to coerce (force) me into math). But those are other stories. I think they forgot that, although I grew up in the church, I was not ever one of them. I was part of the "hired help," and my family was, at best, lower middle class (and I'm not sure we were always that).
However, with their stated desire of hiring someone to revitalize the youth group, they definitely hired the right guy, and that's what I set out to do. [The issue here is that their stated goal was incomplete. It should have been "to revitalize the youth group with 'our kind of people.'"] And I did it by focusing on the neighborhood around the church. Because why? They were kids, and that's what I was there to do: minister to kids. I didn't care if they were rich or poor or black or white or, probably, even if they had been Martian, but I never had a green-skinned kid show up, so I guess we'll never know about that.
To make a long story short, we'll just say that I succeeded. Within a year, I was running over 30 kids on Wednesday nights and, by the end of two years, more than 50. Most of those kids were from lower income homes, and more than a dozen of them were black. Almost none of these kids had parents who went to the church. Or any church. And, now, we arrive at the problem: I thought I was doing a good thing. The right thing. But I was causing some problems higher up the food chain; I just didn't know about them.