Garden Dirt and Cheeto Dust

by Adam VanderStelt, Youth Leader at Trinity Church in Grandville, MI

Written October 2020

“I’ve got to be honest. If I want to have fun, I’ll just call my friends and order my own pizza,” said Sam as he sawed away at an overgrown sumac tree, “But this is something I don’t do on my own.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean I don’t think my friends and I would just decide to do something like this.”

We were clearing 10 years of weeds and garbage out of our new friend Kathy’s garden. It used to be her mother’s, but Kathy inherited it when her mom died of cancer early in life, when Kathy was in her teens. It had fallen simultaneously into disrepair with Kathy.

“Are you telling me you guys figured out how to order pizza and have fun without me?” I ribbed Sam.

“Yeah, we did,” he shrugged nonchalantly, “But I really like doing this. This means something.”

Well there you have it, I thought. Youth ministry clearly has shifted from what it was when I was a kid—from isolated church basement ministry, to relational ministry, to here in this gross overgrown garden— to what I might label “disciple while serving” ministry.

“I’m kind of glad we’re not doing the group thing in the basement anymore. No offense, but it just seemed so forced sometimes, like we had to be friends,” chimed in Elise, a typically tough-to-crack teenager. “Plus, I’m just more interested in doing my faith and not talking about it all the time,” she added.

“Gotcha.” I chuckled, easing a familiar inner tension that arises every time I ask myself what is youth ministry. Most of these kids have heard Bible lessons and stories their whole lives. Most Bible study nights are full of yawns and eye rolls. And every fun game I tried from the book has never, in fact, been any fun.

Thinking abnormally fast on my feet, I formulated a better response.

“Why does what we’re doing right now seem more meaningful than just talking about our faith?” I asked.

It got quiet. Oh no, I thought. They’ve spotted me trying to casually sneak a meaningful question into their fun.  As you were, weird, churchy Bible guy.

“This is like that whole ‘faith without works is dead’ thing, from the Bible,” said James, passing by me, dragging a rusty garden fence he’d unearthed. I was floored. This was the first non-snarky thing this kid has ever said to me.

Kathy came out of her house in tears, so I began walking over. Last month, she walked into her house that she shared with her sister to find she had died on the couch alone while Kathy was away. Unearthing the family garden was also revealing the deep family wounds she’d covered with loneliness, television and cheap gas station food.

Before I reached her, one of the shy homeschooled girls, Faith, put a hand on her shoulder, and listened, fully attentive, to Kathy’s heartbreak. And then she led Kathy in prayer. Kathy cried and hugged her, covering Faith in Cheeto dust from her days-old blouse. Faith was beaming.

“Well, this is different,” whispered my co-leader, as she stuffed another bag full of trash.

“Yes it is,” I nodded.

This is what I am sticking with for now in this weird time: disciple while serving. I can’t bring them in the building, and from what I’ve found out, they didn’t love being in there anyway. I’m scheduling service events around our community, sneaking in a meaningful question once in a while when they don’t suspect it and worrying a lot less about trying to make interesting the same stories and values they’ve heard countless times. 

Here’s the weird thing. It actually works so much better for us. This challenging time is making resilient followers of Jesus who are eager to get in the garden dirt and the Cheeto dust and throw their hearts and hands into his Kingdom work.