By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
McMINNVILLE — As John Templeton reflects on the past few months, he is awed by the way God has used these hard days as a time of transformation.
Exhaustion has turned into excitement. Frustration has been replaced by fruitfulness.
Despite the difficult circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Templeton has seen the Lord do a tremendous work in the student ministry at First Baptist Church, McMinnville, where Templeton serves as associate pastor and student pastor.
More than a dozen young people — nine students and four children — have made professions of faith since April at FBC.
“I don’t think I could sum up the excitement I have for what God is doing in our ministry with words,” Templeton said. “I am continually blown away by His faithfulness and His desire to see people come to know Him.”
Templeton admitted there have been moments — a large number of them, in fact — when he worried about the potentially devastating impact of the pandemic on FBC’s student ministry.
“I’ll be honest, this was the most exhausting time in the 15 years that I have been doing ministry,” he said. “I wish I could say that it was a breeze, but in all transparency, there were times of doubt, depression and anger.
“For those of us who are in ministry, we are in the people business,” he said. “We need people, we need community; they are why we do what we do. And when you take that face to face option away, it becomes much more of a challenge to do ministry.”
But Templeton and the other youth leaders at FBC found creative ways to stay in touch with their students, and the results were seen in a long line of new believers coming to know the Lord.
Whether it’s been hosting live events that were streamed online or simply encouraging youth to engage with a Bible app, Templeton has stayed involved in the lives of his students.
Tennessee Baptist Mission Board youth specialist Jay Barbier said he has been thrilled to see Templeton remain determined and dedicated to making the most of these challenging days.
“John has been doing such an amazing job staying active with his youth throughout this pandemic,” Barbier said. “He has kept such a great social media presence, preaching and teaching the Word and making it available for his students and area wide churches. And as soon as he could, he started back with activities to keep youth engaged. We know this works because students are getting saved.”
In addition to the list of new believers, Templeton said he has witnessed God at work in the lives of the other youth at FBC, too. He said he has seen students grow in their faith and “go all-in” for Jesus.
“(Seeing these things) never gets old,” he said. “Never.”
Although the pandemic created some large hurdles for student pastors nationwide — after all, social distancing and quarantines aren’t exactly the recipe for a thriving youth ministry — Templeton kept moving forward, Barbier noted.
“God called us to live with reckless abandonment, and that’s what I’m watching (Templeton) do in McMinnville,” Barbier said.
“He is doing whatever it takes to reach people with the gospel.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic, when most churches (including FBC) suspended on-campus gatherings, Templeton reached out to some other youth leaders around the country. Together, they began hosting a biweekly online service, called “The Hangout.”
Weeks later, Templeton and another fellow student minister also began hosting live services on Instagram, called “The Living Room.” The services included worship and a message.
During this time, Templeton said he saw the Holy Spirit stirring among the FBC youth group.
“The weeks of quarantine really reignited our students’ passion for Jesus,” he said, “and their desire for community and they are willing to do what it takes to continue.”
As was the case with most churches, FBC made the difficult decision to cancel most of the camps and trips that were planned for the summer months. However, Templeton found an alternative.
“We felt the overwhelming need to give students the opportunity to get away from the stressors of life and have an intentional weekend focused on God,” he said. “So, we found a place in the mountains … and planned our own camp.”
Templeton said there was initially some concern that a low number of students would attend the camp. Those concerns were quickly wiped away.
“God showed out and we ended up taking 38 students,” he said. “What God did that weekend was way beyond amazing.”
Templeton said the camp, along with many other events that have transpired during the pandemic, have been watershed moments, spiritually, in the lives of many of the students.
“The changes we have seen in students are things only God could do,” he said.
“I never thought a camp where we had to take temperatures, social distance and take extra precautions would turn out like it did, but God always exceeds our expectations,” he said.
Barbier said Templeton was certainly not the only youth minister who has encountered moments of frustration during the pandemic. “I’ve honestly seen many churches grow weary during this time, and that’s understandable,” Barbier said.
But Templeton said he now realizes that God used the time as a period of growth — growth for him, personally, as a leader, and growth for the youth ministry as a whole.
“Everything we do — the time we spend in prayer, the time we spend planning and the time with students and families — has to be laser focused on meeting the goals that you have set for your ministry,” he said.
Barbier said Templeton is one of many youth pastors from around the state who decided not to let the pandemic prevent them from serving their students.
“The youth ministries in Tennessee that are staying connected and doing life with students while tough times are upon us are winning at ministry,” said Barbier. “They are being the hands and feet of Jesus.”