Who was the first Christian youth worker? If you’re thinking strictly in terms of the modern profession, then the answer may lie in names like George Williams, who set up the YMCA in the 1840s, or Hannah More, who set up a kind of Sunday school over 50 years earlier. But if you want to think of the question another way - in terms of who first engaged with young people in a way that looks something like modern youth work - then you need to go further back. Actually, a lot further.
In the Bible, there are quite a few characters who could potentially be convincingly labelled as forefathers of modern youth ministry. Paul mentored Timothy; Jesus worked with a group of disciples who may well have been mostly teenagers - so that’s all around 2,000 years ago. Thinking even further back, it’s possible that Elijah was working with Elisha at quite a tender age, and the prophet Samuel certainly engaged with David while he was still in his teens. But even before that, there’s one story of youth mentorship which not only seems to be the first clear example of such a relationship, but I believe also has something important to say about how we approach youth ministry today.
We probably all know the early story of the prophet Samuel: the boy who has been sent to live in the house of God, hearing the call of God in the middle of the night. The first couple of times he hears the voice, he goes scampering in to see Eli, his priest and guardian, and is sent back to bed. The third time, Eli realises what’s going on, and instructs Samuel to return to his bed, and reply to any further call with those famous words: “speak, your servant is listening.” The rest is Biblical history.
I think I’ve often overlooked the significance of what Eli does in this moment. Faced with his impressionable ward as an ironically ungodly hour, his actions in this famous story are part of what enables Samuel to reach his destiny as one of Israel’s greatest leaders. Here’s a few things I notice, which I think have something to say to our own practice among young people today:
1. God uses mentors and leaders to reach young people.
This story illustrates the way in which God positively uses leadership structures, and specifically how his more mature followers can shape and guide those who are younger in their faith. God could have simply announced himself to Samuel directly and by name: “Samuel, it’s me: God!” Instead, he allows Eli to guide his young apprentice towards him gently. I think we should be encouraged that God wants to use those of us who work with young people as mentors, role models and spiritual guides. He could disciple young people without us - but he chooses not to.
2. Even Eli doesn’t get it right first time.
If you think about it, presuming that Eli and Samuel are the only two people around, it’s quite surprising that it takes the priest so long to figure out what’s going on. Yet the fact that God actually has to call Samuel four times before getting a response should be some comfort to us. It demonstrates not only that those of us working with young people can be slow to spot where God might be working in their lives, but also that God has great patience with us all!
3. Eli points Samuel to God… and then gets out of the way.
It would be easy for Eli - once he realised that God himself was speaking - to have thrust himself into the centre of this moment, returning with the boy to the room where he had been sleeping. As a great prophet himself, surely he was better placed than Samuel to recognise and respond to the greatest voice of all? Yet he does the opposite, giving the boy some instructions about how to connect with God, and then empowering him to do so. I wonder how often we truly do this in our work with young people? Do we trust them to build a relationship with God directly, rather than becoming a kind of High Priest proxy on their behalf? Surely the simplest definition of youth ministry is the practice of introducing young people to God, so perhaps we need a little more of Eli’s confidence that this is enough.
It’s this final point which really speaks to me as I consider our modern approach to youth ministry. I know I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about making God continually ‘fun’ for young people, and at times I know I've pulled back from inviting young people simply to spend time in God’s presence - as if doing so will send them spinning away from him, bored. The story of Eli and Samuel shows us how preposterous that idea is. God wants to meet and know our young people directly, not just through us. How can we possibly imagine that a fun relationship with us is a substitute for a life-changing relationship with him?
The first youth worker understood all of that, I think we’d do well to follow his lead.