What Can Eli Teach Us About Calling and Youth Ministry?

How can Eli’s experience can help youth ministers discern the call of God upon the youth they serve?

Recently, I was speaking with some students about what it means to be called by Jesus to ministry. I did with them what I have done for years, I began to speak about those throughout the Bible who were called by God. This was an attempt to have them identify with a call story and a leader in the Bible who was called by God. As we did this exercise, I saw the call story of Samuel in a different way. We often only look at Samuel because that is who God was calling in the story, but what about Eli?

The Prophetic Call of Samuel

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli. And word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent.

It happened at that time as Eli was lying down in his place (now his eyesight had begun to grow dim and he could not see well), and the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was, that the LORD called Samuel; and he said, “Here I am.” Then he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The LORD called yet again, “Samuel!” So Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he [b]answered, “I did not call, my son, lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, nor had the word of the LORD yet been revealed to him. So the LORD called Samuel again for the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli discerned that the LORD was calling the boy. And Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down, and it shall be if He calls you, that you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Then the LORD came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.” —1 Samuel 3:1–10

In the above Scripture passage we see Samuel being called by God in the house of the Lord. Samuel doesn’t know that God is calling him until the third time when Eli is also clear that it has to be God calling the boy. Here are three lessons about Eli from one of the first “youth ministry lock-ins.”

You cannot just be in the house.

Both Eli and Samuel lived in the house of the Lord. They worked there day and night but that is all they did. As youth ministry leaders, we sometimes live in the house of the Lord but we cannot be so comfortable in the house of the Lord that we don’t get to know the Lord of the house. We can be like Samuel and Eli, so focused on doing the work that we neglect the relationship that is the reason for the work. We cannot just be in the house.

You have to expect what God hasn’t done before.

The passage says that the Word of the Lord was rare in those days. They didn’t expect God to speak because God hadn’t spoken often. However, God did speak and not only once, but God spoke three times to call Samuel. In youth ministry, we have to expect the unexpected from God, that when we least think it will happen God can surprise us. Eli didn’t expect God to speak, and even told Samuel twice to go back to bed. On the third attempt, Eli realized that God was doing something that had not been done in a long time. We have to expect the unexpected from God.

You cannot always expect God to be calling you.

Eli was the leader and the teacher. God has a word for the land but God decided to use Samuel and not Eli. As the youth ministry leader can you be strong enough to know when God is calling you or when God is calling past you? What if God doesn’t want you but God wants the students you are leading? Can you support them in their pursuit for God and trust that your job is complete with them getting closer to Christ? Sometimes in youth ministry God sets us up as the guides to point to the path for the students to lead the way.

What lessons can you see in the call story of Samuel?

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Russell St. Bernard (@PastorRuss09) is the youth minister at Reid Temple AME Church’s north campus in Glenn Dale, Maryland, and the founder of After the Music Stops, a full-service youth ministry resource company dedicated to assisting leaders and parents as they serve their students. This article originally appeared in Youth Ministry Hindsight: 5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started.