Aren Rennacker serves as Youth Director for the Southeastern California Conference. Previously he served as youth and young adult pastor at SECC churches in Oceanside and Calimesa. His passion is to empower both youth and youth leaders to experience the Gospel in new and relevant ways. Aside from ministry, Aren also enjoys basketball, a good story, and a fresh bowl of oatmeal. He married his lovely wife Paige in 2020.
I love working with young people. There was a time this may have been commendable, but in reality, it’s now purely self-interested. I love working with young people simply because young people teach me so many things—especially about God.
Like the time I was a youth pastor in San Diego and charged with coaching our middle school basketball team. I was ecstatic—what better way to connect with the kids than over our mutual love for my favorite sport? Only I had forgotten one thing: These kids grew up with the ocean in their backyard. They spent their summers, weekends, and lunch breaks sunbathing and boogey boarding.
They weren’t ballers, they were beach bums.
It showed. And yet, we had a season coming up, and it was my order as God’s missionary to teach them a proper zone defense.
During one practice I whistled them in for a huddle. They put their arms around each other, eager to hear what revelation I’d been given.
“Our team identity must be defense,” I said intensely. “And we must finish every defensive possession with a…?” I waited for the answer.
One kid enthusiastically answered. “Hug?” “No,” I sighed. “That would be a foul. Does anyone want to try again?”
Please understand, this is not a hard question. In basketball terms, it would be considered a lay-up. That should have told me it was too much for them.
A second child spoke up. “I know! A smile?”
I took a moment to compose myself. The rest of the team watched me, waiting to see if they’d gotten it right.
“The answer is a rebound,” I said.
“Ohhhh,” they replied.
We didn’t win a single game that year. However, I did learn something I’ve never forgotten: Sometimes the game is more fun when we see our opponents as worthy of a hug too.
There was also the time I was driving home a pair of brothers and I asked them that age-old question:
“So, what do you guys want to be when you grow up?”
“To be honest,” the older brother began, “we want to become famous rock stars.”
Immediately the protective alarm sounded in my head: Ask about their back up plan! Ask about their back up plan!
Yet, for some reason, very different words came out of my mouth: “I’ve seen how talented you guys are. I believe you can do it!”
Before I could course-correct, the other brother responded from the backseat. “Wow, Pastor Aren. Nobody’s responded that way before. They always just ask about our backup plan. Thanks for believing in us.”
Lesson learned: Sometimes we just want to know somebody believes in us.
By the way, do you know what those brothers are doing now? Have you heard of the musical group The Jonas Brothers? Well, that’s not them. I don’t think they became rock stars. But at least they knew their youth pastor was cheering them on.
One more story: I was preparing my ministry calendar one year when my youth asked if we could plan a combined vespers with the other Adventist church in town. I was dumbstruck by the request. You see, when I was in youth group, we thought of other churches as our rivals. They had their room, their songs, their pastor…and we had ours. Let’s keep it that way.
Then I became a youth pastor to Gen Z students, the welcoming generation who think everyone should belong. It turned out, where I saw rivals, they saw new friends. Against my better judgment, I agreed to their plan. The vespers was a beautiful success.
Lesson learned: The Spirit of God still thrives on bringing people together.
There’s this theme running through Scripture we might miss if we don’t look closely. In times of uncertainty, God often chooses young people to help lead the rest of the group forward.
We see it in Miriam, crafter of the genius plan to save her brother Moses. (Exodus 2)
We see it in David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, slayer of Goliath and King of Israel. (1 Samuel 16)
We see it in Josiah, King of Judah at age eight, he eventually helped rediscover the Scriptures and bring spiritual revival. (2 Kings 22)
We see it in Naaman’s young maid, taken against her will, and yet the voice who brings her master to not only be healed, but saved. (2 Kings 5)
We see it in Joseph, rescuing the people after he was given vision to not only see what had passed, but also what was still to come. (Genesis 47)
And we see it in Jesus’ hand-picked group of disciples. They were young, unkempt, and unqualified. All they had to offer Jesus were a few fish and willing hearts—and Jesus anoints them to build the Christian Church.
Of course, they didn’t call it the “Christian Church” back then. They called it “The Way.” God quite literally entrusted a group of young people to be the voice that would show the rest of the world The Way.
The longer I work with young people, the more I’m convinced that God still does.
There will always be a chorus of “Kids these days” critics, ready to point out every perceived flaw in our youth. I’ve come to believe much more in the power of seeing the best each generation has to offer. For our young people, that means letting them know that they bring something new and needed into our world. They may still have plenty to learn, but so do we.
My hope is for us to reserve generational judgment and instead focus on spending time with our youth, getting to know them for who they are, and offering our support. Let’s be who we needed the elder generations to be for us when we were growing up. Of course, I do have to warn you: You may find yourself getting more out of it than you put in. In fact, I’d be on the lookout for new lessons learned, surprising things said, and maybe even an unexpected hug.
Author - Jon Ciccarelli
January 28, 2021