Memorial Day: Reflections from a former youth pastor

Jake McCandlessAttendance numbers, professions of faith, baptisms and sexual purity commitment cards showed I was leading a successful student ministry years ago. Yet I'm not sure I prepared my students for what was ahead.

In the process of planning a family outing over Memorial Day weekend last year, my mind went to the true purpose of Memorial Day—remembering those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. I thought back to the prior Veterans Day when my daughter had come home from school with a packet of song lyrics for a Veterans Day program.

Excitedly, she informed me what the word veteran meant—"someone who fought to keep us free." I was proud to hear this being taught.

But I had just watched the movie "Hacksaw Ridge," so simply referring to a veteran as one who had fought and served in the military didn't seem strong enough. These were men and women who left the life they knew as a teenager, were thrust into grueling training, and then faced one of the most challenging situations humans ever encounter.

At a young age, our military men and women have witnessed life-altering scenes. They have had to push their bodies and minds in ways the rest of us have been able to avoid.

My daughter snapped me out of my thoughts by asking about some veterans I knew. I began with my grandpa and uncles. Then I rattled off a list of senior adults in our church, picturing those who had stood when I had recognized them in the worship service prior to Veterans Day. I then listed a few younger people in our church who had served. Finally, I added personal friends I knew who had gone into the military.

I was about to stop when it dawned on me that a number of students from my time as a youth pastor were serving or had served. All of them had spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The kids I once chased with Laser Tag guns and encouraged to stuff their mouths full of pickles during game times had faced the same unimaginable situations our senior adult war veterans had faced, with stories that are sadly similar.

My first youth pastor position began in 2000 and went well. The youth group grew in attendance and depth in the Lord. Several were saved. A few made commitments to missions and ministry. We even made an impact on their high school. I poured my life into those students.

But my efforts focused on the "then and there." We decorated the youth room in a cool way and spent a lot of time discussing dating and waiting until marriage. Most of the youth night talks encouraged them to live out their faith at school, reach their friends and be unified.

Yet none of these helped those students go into the deserts of the Middle East.

I needed to have armed them with truth and biblical principles such as: God is still God when your friend gets blown away by an IED; God cares about your struggle with PTSD; and it is worthwhile to stay true to your convictions even when it seems like there is nothing to live for.

I had no idea that the war on terror was ahead of us, but that is no excuse because we are warned in Scripture that there will always be challenges to our faith.

I'm so thankful, despite my shortsightedness, God has worked in and through those brave men and women. They have gone against the odds and returned to Him. But statistics tell us that many students who grow up in our churches soon leave the church, at least for a season. The reasons vary. For some, it's the partying at college, the difficulty of making a living, an atheist professor or the challenges of serving our country.

Whatever causes the youth of our churches to depart from the faith, I wish I had looked beyond the youth room, ski trip and high school. I wish I hadn't focused only on the temporal moment but, rather, had better prepared them with the tools to remain faithful to God amid the rigors of life that loomed ahead.

Jake McCandless, former pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, Ark., now is executive director and speaker for Prophecy Simplified (www.prophecysimplified.com) and author of "Spiritual Prepper: Tapping into Overlooked Prophecies to Prepare You for Doomsday." 

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