This story is borrowed from Richard Jacobson, author of the book Unchurching, which you can listen to for free at unchurching.com. You can listen to his Ted Talk there as well.
Circumstances Richard did not initiate made him a youth pastor at one point. As he sought God about how one leads youth, God told Richard he could give only what he has. What he has is a profound experience of relationship with God.
As a result he planned an event, a day of experiencing God. He began hyping that day. “God will speak to you,” he told the youth. He would then emphasize: “No, you don’t understand! GOD, God himself, is going to speak to you!”
That was basically his message for several months, building them up for this great experience of God.
People began hearing about it, and more youth were coming to the youth meeting. The other pastors heard about it, and they asked him what he was expecting the kids to experience. The one question, Richard told me, that they could not get themselves to ask outright, though he was sure they were thinking it, was “What if God does not show up?”
Richard told them he had no backup plan. He was putting all his eggs in one basket. He did not want those to kids to know about God, but to know God.
Finally, the day came. Richard admitted his fears. He pictured a newspaper headline: “Youth Pastor Wrecks the Faith of Entire Youth Group.” Nonetheless, he stuck it out. He took the kids to a park in the morning, and he sent them into the woods. “Don’t come out,” he said, “until God has spoken to you.” He also told them to be alone. If they ran across another youth, there were to nod a silent greeting, then go opposite directions.
They were out there a long time, and Richard was crying out to God. “You have to come through, Father. I know you want them to know you. You have to meet them.”
In the afternoon, the kids began filtering out of the woods, one by one. Most said they heard God call them to the mission field or to become a pastor. He assured them that was a good thing, and that if the call was real, God would confirm it down the road. Then he would tell them, “That is not what I was talking about. Go back.”
The terror increased until, finally, one boy came running out of the woods, a look of complete shock on his face. He sprinted to Richard, shouting, “God spoke to me.”
Richard answered with a smile, “I told you he would.”
The young man grabbed Richard’s shirt. “No, you don’t understand! It was really God! He really spoke to me!” It was so real that they were trying to convince Richard!
Richard eyes filled with tears as he told me, “As more came, I asked them, ‘What did he say?’ Every one of them answered the same thing.” Then he paused for effect. I had a good idea what he was going to tell me.
He said, “He told them, ‘I love you.'” Then his voice choked up as he said, “What else would he tell a kid that has no experience of him? Of course, he told them that. It is the first and primary thing they need to know.”
We love him because he first loved us.–1 John 4:19