by JD Thomas
We’ll have to travel back to when I was a skinny kid…kind of an Adam’s-apple-on-a-stick, entering junior high. Here’s a bit of my backstory…
Growing up in the church I was comfortable. I was the “good kid” in my family, trying to please my parents and not getting into too much trouble. Life wasn't too crazy or stressful as a little kid.
So, when God eventually made the Gospel clear to me around the age of 9, I understood what Jesus did and why I needed a savior, but in reality, the way I viewed my life after accepting Jesus and how I lived on a day-to-day basis didn’t really change much.
I was still the good kid, just trying to do what was right in my parents’ or teachers’ eyes, and have fun with my friends.
Then middle school hit and I was suddenly part of our student ministry at my church. I loved being part of the student ministry. I truly enjoyed being there every time the doors were open.
It wasn't obligation, or pressure from parents or youth pastors, I just loved being there - that’s where my closest friends were and real community happened. At the time, I didn’t realize how important or beneficial that would be in my life.
Through my student ministry, I started to get a taste of what living for Christ and making Him Lord over every area of my life looked like - not all at once, but in little pieces and over a period of time.
God gave me a desire to simply be present, and that’s all it took to buy into what was happening.
I didn’t have to have a step-by-step plan or life-map written out, I just needed to be present and teachable.
In high school, there were two men God used in great ways to grow me closer to Him: my two youth pastors, Paul and Patrick.
I owe so much of my desire to grow, my maintaining of spiritual disciplines, and my love for Jesus in the early years of my faith, to the way God used these men and put them in my life at the perfect time.
Patrick led a small group I was in during my 9th grade year, which played a huge role in my greatest growth spurt up to that point.
A group of about 10 freshmen met at his house on a weekly basis, where we bonded and played countless hours of Tetris on his N64, went through the Bible and some good curriculum, memorized scripture, and pushed each other towards Jesus.
Patrick had a knack for asking tough questions, and for making sure we truly believed our answers, not just reciting jargon or things we had heard in church.
When someone asks you how you are doing and you give them the simple answer, “I’m doing really well,” then you’re met with, “why?” – it can be really frustrating, but also make you think, “am I doing well?” Or, do I just say that as an easy answer?
Once, Patrick asked me why I say “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a prayer. As a 9th grader, I was stunned and taken back. It made me think about why we say certain things.
Now, sure, that first example is a very trivial one, but it shows you how Patrick made us think about our answers to general questions and to questions about our faith.
That’s just the kind of guy he was – always challenging us, always pushing us, and never believing that just because we were young we couldn't think for ourselves or make a difference to the people around us.
The second man I mentioned God used to grow and shape me was Paul. My relationship with Paul didn’t really kick off until my 11th grade year.
One day, a close friend, who lived on a big plot of land right next to a wooded walking trail, ran away from home.
A couple friends, a few parents, Paul, and myself showed up to help look for this friend of ours. Paul and I ended up being a “team,” searching through one part of a walking trail, in hopes to find and help our friend going through some tough times.
As I spent that time with Paul, looking for our friend, getting to know him better, I realized he had stepped away from whatever he was doing to come out to the woods late at night in search of a kid he truly cared about. I realized I wanted that. I possibly even needed it.
I think we all do.
I wanted a Paul in my life, and I knew that I wanted to be a Paul to someone else.
After that night, (we found our friend, okay and unharmed), Paul and I started getting together regularly to talk about life, Jesus, school and everything in between.
A close friendship formed that has been kept up to this day. Paul listened to me and the thousand questions I had, he challenged me to push harder and harder toward Jesus, and I knew he cared.
Honestly, I can’t remember any specific lessons that either of these men taught, or things they preached on Wednesday nights. I know those lessons had an impact on me, and I confident that many things I do today are because of different disciplines they helped instill in me and many truths about the Bible they shared with me.
So, I wouldn't say for a second that what you share with a student doesn't matter, but I would say that, as a student, knowing that Paul and Patrick truly cared about me is what made me want to hear what they had to say.
And that’s why I love working with students.
Building those relationships and earning the right to be heard by the students is my favorite part of my job.
I’m a relational guy, that’s who God made me to be, and I hope that comes through in everything I do.
I care about the lives of my students, the ones that society would expect to be hanging around other Christians and the ones that society would tilt their head at if they were to see them hanging out with us Jesus freaks. And, I hope my students can really see how much I care.
I know it takes time, and that’s been one of the hardest parts of starting as the new guy here, but I also know that if myself and our other leaders don't start with that, then kids don't really care to listen.
I’m here today because Patrick and Paul cared and poured into me.
It’s something as simple as investing in the life of one kid that can cause ripples for many years to come. And I’m eager to continue the investment that they began in me, and by God's grace, to see it ripple into the lives of kids here.