Youth leader James Alviani shares his heart…
Becoming a Christian at age 15 my pastors gave me all the support and encouragement I needed to grow in my relationship with God – and to figure out his calling on my life.
A youth leader at 18, I attended a large youth conference resulting in my ambition to replicate that conference in our church so we could also do something great. I didn’t realise that God wants us to get his vision and dream for our place, rather than copy other ministries.
I worked furiously to ‘make it happen’ fuelled by sermons I heard about ‘dreaming big in God’ and ‘having a vision to change the world.’ But I lacked the maturity to understand the difference between my ambition and God’s vision and heart!
Blinded by ambition
At times it was probably comical as I conducted the Friday night youth program. With a handful of kids I tried to set up chairs and make the music perfect to replicate that feeling and atmosphere of that conference. No matter how hard I tried, it just wasn’t happening. The sad thing was that as I worked, stressed and laboured, the real needs of the youth weren’t getting met. They just needed someone to love them and spend some time with them.
Sadly I was too busy and couldn’t see it. Youth leaders and pastors around me did what they could to gently help me see that it wasn’t working. I was blinded by ambition to be someone great.
I held onto my ambition for years. Sometimes I would come close to relinquishing it but ultimately would pick it up again after attending a conference or visiting a church which seemed to reinforce the ‘dream big/change the whole world’ message.
Then I married Briony and moved to her church with fresh hope to see something happen there. With the greater resources of a larger church I thought I could really make it. Again I worked furiously developing a youth program and cramming as many people as possible into our events. My team of high school aged leaders was given various tasks which they carried out well. Finally I thought I was getting somewhere.
But I didn’t realise how exhausted I was making myself. Ambition is a harsh taskmaster. I found I would dread running Friday nights because of all the pressure I put myself under. Once the night was finished I was elated that I would have seven whole days until the next event. I couldn’t see that this was so far from how the Lord intended ministry to be.
In Matthew 11:30 Jesus illustrates that working alongside him is meant to be easy and light. In my religious pride I was ‘burdened’ and couldn’t see it.
Over time as youth leaders moved on to university many ended up leaving the church altogether. That’s when I realised something was wrong. What’s the point of running slick, entertaining events if all we ever teach the youth is how to ‘do tasks’? The nights may be fun and entertaining, but once the youth reach university age we could not possibly compete with the entertainment of nightclubs and concerts. I learned that a ministry based on an entertainment culture does not build lasting fruit.
I started scaling back the youth program. I saw that more than anything youth just needed ‘family.’ We began to simply spending time with the kids. Doing things together that everyone could enjoy, such as BBQs, playing basketball and opening up our home, we found that the ones God was drawing stayed. As we relaxed and laughed together, conversations about faith and God would just flow. I was starting to see how true discipleship happens not through big events but simply by sharing in one another’s lives like Jesus did with his disciples.
Despite this newfound approach there was still an ambition I had within me for ‘something great’ numerically in our church. I expressed my frustrations to my pastor that we needed to be doing more to win the lost and grow as a church. He wisely responded by telling me to forget about programs and spend more time in prayer!
I had always struggled to pray consistently. Now I asked God to guide me to some teaching on YouTube that would help me pray more. That request was one of the best things I could have done! I came across a sermon by the late Myles Munroe entitled The Purpose of Prayer.
As he talked about prayer my spirit started to burn. The depth of revelation within that message is too vast to explain quickly. No single message has impacted me more. I saw for the first time that the purpose of church isn’t to get as many people as possible to come into a building for a weekly service and then one day we all die and go to heaven. That the whole message of Jesus and the early church is that heaven is coming down to earth and transforming it.
The church’s purpose is to pray for and facilitate that transformation. God wants souls saved and lives changed, but not so we can cram them all into a building to make a big event. It is so we see whole suburbs and society transformed. The kingdom is not established on earth through entertaining events but through relationship, discipleship and the prayers of the church.
Finally I could rest and enjoy youth ministry without my ambition. We can only take up God’s kingdom agenda when we fully lay down our own ambition. We spent a year building up a kingdom family of 30 or so young believers and seeing them flourish as they became true disciples. It was so fulfilling to see our young disciples growing in their own journey with God.
Then God did something astonishing.
Late last year someone approached us asking if they could take a busload of local at-risk-kids to our youth group and church every week. At first I was apprehensive because I didn’t want to go back to my old ambitious ways and lose the togetherness we had.
However I realised that this was God’s will and purpose. The team of young kingdom disciples God had built up was ready to reach out and make more. Without us realising it, God had prepared us for a harvest. People kept approaching, asking to help.
Now we have more kids at our events than I ever got when I was trying to ‘make it happen.’ More importantly, we’re seeing more kids come to Christ and encounter God’s power because I’m not locked into the general church structure of music, chairs and a 30-minute sermon. We have fun together, we allow for some spontaneous games and bonding, then someone shares and we break into groups to talk and pray for one another.
Assignment not ambition
My assignment today is to simply provide a place where local youth leaders and church elders can meet with kids from the surrounding community. The kingdom of God is colliding with the kingdom of darkness and miracles are happening. The more I pray and ask for God’s kingdom to come to our little patch of earth that he has given us in Perth the more the harvest and harvesters come in.
When I was driven by ambition I needed to be the one everyone gathered around to hear. Now I am happy to facilitate the many amazing volunteers coming and making a difference in these young lives. Recently we had four youth leaders from four local churches come together to minister to the youth. I am learning to lay down my idol of ministry and find significance in seeing God’s kingdom come to earth.
In our time as youth pastors, Bri and I have seen many other youth pastors come and go. Many we talk to are stressed or burnt out. Many are driven by the need to copy big successful churches rather than finding what God has called them to be. I don’t think ‘big churches’ are wrong, but I don’t believe other ministries should try to copy them. Many are locked into the music/offering/sermon model which just doesn’t reach many of the kids and people in our communities.
I don’t judge such churches – I was the most ambition driven person around! But God by his grace has slowly worked it out of me. I believe God is going to do something new in Australia. Church is going to look different. Instead of gathering around entertaining communicators, churches will become equipping centres for believers to rise up and march out to bring God to their communities. God’s power was never meant to be contained within buildings!
There is much more power when I pray for unchurched kids from the community than when praying for someone at altar call time. God gave his power to transform the earth, not build a conference or church ministry around and then write a book!
It hasn’t yet become fully clear what God is doing among us in our church. But I do know it is something new and it’s very fulfilling to be a part of it, partnering with him in seeing his kingdom come to earth.
One key in this journey is the freedom to be open and honest – this helps me deal with the ‘unpacking.’
James Alviani is youth pastor at Freeway Church, Kwinana, WA and King’s College chaplain. A graphic design consultant with a heart to use his talents for the kingdom, James’ Church Media Resource (CMR) organisation – http://churchmediaresource.com – assists churches on their kingdom journey. Link: JamesA@thekingscollege.wa.edu.au