My life changed forever one afternoon in 2006 as my car sat at a red light beside a McDonalds across the street from San Diego High School.
Three thousand students go to school there, 90% of them do not have a regular or meaningful relationship with a local church. The congregation where I served as youth pastor sat just eight blocks away. Several years before, I approached the football coach and asked if he would be open to having a team chaplain. I explained that we could do pre-game meals, a motivational pep talk, and be available for students on and off the field. He responded by saying, “Sir, we were 1-9 last year. Prayer couldn’t hurt.” That year they had 18 academically ineligible players on the team who could not keep a 2.5 grade point average. It takes discipline to keep you grades that low in this school district. You need an accountability partner making sure you’re not turning assignments in and not going to class.
On this particular afternoon, I was getting ready to pick up football players for the optional pre-game meal and chapel service that we put on for them at a nearby church. Suddenly, before I could do anything, the bell rang. This sea of multi-racial faces can pouring out into the intersection. I couldn’t drive or I would have literally some of them over. That’s always a bad way to start a campus ministry – with distrust and lawsuits. So I had to just sit there in my car watching all these faces go by. The first thought I had at that moment brought great clarity for me. It went something like this, “These kids are never going to accidently stumble into the well-endowed Presbyterian stone castle I work at down the street,” I said to myself. “We need to go to where they are, to meet them on their own turf.” I’m glad Jesus did it that way and did not wait for us to find our way to heaven on our own. The word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1). My second thought hurt to admit but followed from the first observation. “If I bring any more of these urban kids into the youth group, there will be great debate inside the church about whether they should be there.” I delivered on my promise to grow the youth ministry, but some parents privately questioned why I had to do it with those kids.
At that moment, I heard a still small inaudible but unmistakable voice that did not come from me.
It asked, “Who will go for us? Who will reach these kids?” Immediately I started to cry, raised my hand in my heart, and whispered, “Here I am LORD, send me.” That night after the football chapel and game concluded, I went home to my wife. We were eighteen months married at the time, had a mortgage, and live in the expensive land of Southern California. Presbyterians do buildings and budgets pretty well, so with a Masters degree in Divinity, I had a good youth ministry job with a solid salary, medical benefits, and a little retirement each month. “I’ve got a great idea,” I told my wife. “I’m going to quit my job and go after the kids that not enough people are reaching.” Without hesitating, my wife said, “I think that sounds fantastic sweetheart.” “Thank you, God” I thought to myself. I didn’t know what she would say. No sincere Christians would have given her any flack if she said, “Let’s pray more,” or “Are you sure you heard?” She could have even found support for saying, “You’re hearing voices in your car? Let’s make an appointment with a good shrink and I’ll support you through the process.” But instead she was willing to risk it all and step out in faith because she could tell that God was up to something.
Fishers of Men and Women
When Jesus called Peter to leave everything and follow him, he said, “Follow me, and I’ll make you into fishers of men and women.” I find this comforting because it says that Jesus is willing to do on the job training. He will make us into fishers of men and women if we are not already there yet. We just have to be willing to leave behind what we think our lives are supposed to be about and what we think we are good at. Then we let Jesus make us into what he had in mind when he created us. One important step in following Jesus and becoming a fisher of men and women is to realize that fish usually travel in schools. (Rimshot! Thanks, I’ll be here all week). You may be groaning now but you will never forget this important truth that so many youth ministries overlook. Many congregations and youth pastors spend the majority of their time caring for the caught fish in the tank instead of heading out into the oceans that are teeming with uncaught fish. Some churches and youth ministries actually fight over the few fish that are already caught and miss the millions out in the oceans. In my home of San Diego County, for example, there are over 400,000 middle and high school students in public schools alone. Public schools are the last place left in our culture where everyone gathers on a regular basis. God has created an incredible opportunity for churches if we can learn to love and serve schools well.
It can also happen by crossing the street and coming alongside a public school in meaningful ways. Several years ago, Crawford High School in San Diego reported having one student from every country in African represented in their student body of 1,600 kids. In America’s cities, the nations have literally come to us. As a church, are we willing to go to them? This is the challenge Jesus issues to the church when he calls Peter to fish differently and become the leader of this new movement. Immediately Peter left his boat to follow Jesus. He began catching dead people so they could become alive again. That’s a much more rewarding vocation than catching living fish that die after you’re done with them. Nothing is more exhilarating than watching kids in front of their friends in a public school raising their hands saying “I want Jesus in my life.” That’s the best. It can’t be beat!