Guidance along the Way
Everyone would agree that young people are in need of guidance from those outside of the family unit as well. Along the pathway of life they are influenced by countless leaders: the teacher at school, the music instructor, the leader of the youth club at church, the minister who teaches catechism. Many more could be named! But do they also receive pastoral guidance? I hope and trust that this is indeed so.
Pastor – Shepherd
What does “pastoral guidance” really refer to? For many years this concept has been illustrated with the use of the biblical image of a shepherd. We know that the word “pastor” also means “shepherd.” According to the Bible the task of a shepherd is manifold, the most important aspect being his care, protection, and guidance of the flock. In more recent studies, this pastoral image seems to be more in the background. It appears to have been replaced by the image of the men of Emmaus, whom the Lord Jesus Christ led in a pastoral conversation about his resurrection (Luke 24). The emphasis is then placed upon the fact that pastoral guidance resembles a meeting in which different people speak together about faith or religion.
It is my conviction that it is possible – and even necessary – to tie these two images together. The Bible itself provides reference for this. It is a defensible thesis that the Lord Jesus died as the slain shepherd who gave his life for the sheep (see Matthew 26:31ff.; John 10:11ff.). After his resurrection he searched for his wandering sheep, to comfort them in their grief, to heal their spiritual wounds, and to entrust them with a new task (see Matthew 28:7ff.; Mark 16:7ff.; John 21:15ff.).
What does this double image of the good Shepherd and the men of Emmaus mean in a practical sense, specifically when it comes to our youth? I will deal with this question in three points.
A Pastoral Heart
In the first place, it requires pastoral workers with the heart of a shepherd. By the somewhat vague term “pastoral workers,” I mean in the first place the office bearers: the minister, the elders, and the deacons. Because they have been called to this office – and because each office is by nature pastoral – it can be expected that they have a shepherd’s heart for the entire flock, and so also for the younger members of the church. Some congregations even have one or more special elders to care for the youth of the congregation, and there is nothing wrong with this. It can be expected that this “youth elder” will have a heart for the youth.
But this does not take away from the task of the other consistory members. They should also keep an eye on the youth when possible and necessary. Let me broaden the scope here for a moment. There are others in the congregation besides the office bearers who work with and for the young people. I think of the leaders of the Sunday school, the youth clubs, etc. Although they are not generally office bearers, it should be expected that they too have a pastoral heart for the children and the young people who are entrusted to their care.
What does a pastoral heart look like? This question leads me to the second aspect: pastoral guidance along the way.
In light of the history of the men of Emmaus, I would first like to say that, in every way, pastoral guidance is about searching. The risen Christ was the great Shepherd in search of two wandering sheep in the midst of their unbelief and doubt. Likewise, the guidance of our young people is about meeting them where they are. This does not mean that all the attention should go to the youth who are living “on the edge”; it should also include those young people who are faithful church members. Pastoral care reaches out to those who are turned away, those who have critical questions, those who speak easily of “faith,” and those who seek grace and forgiveness with upright hearts.
How should the pastor seek them out? He should begin by holding back, by seeking primarily to listen. The Lord Jesus did not immediately inform the men of Emmaus who he was. His first concern was that they would tell him what was in their hearts. Through a well-chosen question, he literally broke their hearts open. This is how all good pastoral care begins – through listening, listening, listening! Listen to the youth: listen to their sometimes half-baked conversations and to their gnawing doubts, perhaps even about the Reformed confessions; listen to their joys, to their griefs, and to their concerns. No matter what, listen!!
I am afraid that one of the saddest reasons some young people among us have abandoned the church is that nobody really listened to them at crucial moments. We didn’t know what they were busy with. We didn’t know how near to death they were stumbling… We did not really ask, nor did we truly listen!
Does that mean that as pastor you have to take whatever is said by any number of critical young people? Of course not! The Lord Jesus let the men of Emmaus have their say. They were truly allowed to say everything. But then the Scriptures were opened! Biblical pastoral work comes to a moment that the Scriptures are opened and explained. We seek answers to the things that our youth take upon themselves. Indeed, as simple human beings we do not have the answers available immediately. As an elder, you will sometimes simply have to say to a young person, “I have no answer at the moment. But I will open the Word and pray for enlightenment, and then get back to you.”
I want to emphasize this point: Please admit it when you don’t know the answers or can’t clearly defend your opinion. Don’t beat around the bush with a stream of words. Even worse, don’t become self-righteous! Young people will quickly see through this. On the other hand, an honest admission that you need to think something over will usually gain respect. This will show our youth that their questions are taken seriously – and further, that the elder needs light from above to do so. It is only with an open Bible that admonitions and warnings may be given. The Lord Jesus did this in a surprisingly sharp manner with the men of Emmaus. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25).
So it is also in the pastoral care of today. Let us be honest: it is perhaps more difficult these days to warn and to admonish. Yet the Lord requires it as part of the pastoral care done in his name, also among young people. Even they need to be warned about the dangers that threaten–from within and without so that they may stay on the right track.
It is my experience that when we honestly listen, and when we use the Word to point out dangers or to admonish, we will find more of a listening ear among the youth than we expect. Most young people just want us to deal honestly with them.
We have come to the third aspect of pastoral guidance along the way. Pastoral care for young people also means that they be protected, armed, and equipped. The biblical image of the shepherd makes this clear in various ways. A shepherd carried a club or a staff to keep wild beasts away from the flock. The great Shepherd has won for his flock the battle against the threatening powers of darkness (see John 10:11ff.; Colossians 2:13ff.). Should this image not also stand central in the pastoral care for youth in our time?
How can we strive for and with our youth? We must first of all know who the enemies are. In this case they are the influences affecting today’s youth. This requires that we come to know the things with which our young people are toying. Perhaps that is not easy, since we as preacher or elder have so many other obligations. This is exactly why it is important to assist one another. There should be communication between consistory members and those in the congregation who give leadership to the youth. Such leaders may well come upon things about which the minister and elders have little or no idea. These communications can also be of help in figuring out how best to care for certain young people, and what is important to bring up in the preaching.
Now I want to admit that I am becoming less and less impressed with the many programs that are available for pastoral care. Life does not allow itself to be compressed within any written plan. Still, they do contain some material useful for the pastoral care of youth. For when the waves of the spirit of the times sweep high against the church, it is first of all the youth who get drawn away!
This article was translated by Angela Blok.