by Zach Below
Currently, I am sitting at a makeshift desk in a small dorm room in Knoxville, TN. I just finished a 6 1/2-hour drive in a 15-passenger van with 9 Jr. High girls. Outside my door, I hear the scream of a little girl. Then I remember that girls are not allowed in the dorms and realize that the scream is actually coming from a Jr. High boy who is sprinting up and down the hallway for some reason.
My wife is 400 miles away. My kids are 400 miles away. Tonight when I talk to my 5-year-old, he will want to know why I would choose to leave him for a week. I will give him a few reasons that are worthy of satisfying a 5-year-old, but I need to answer the same question in my own heart as well. Why in the world am I at a Student Conference in Tennessee with a bunch of Jr. High girls?
The easy and unsatisfying answer is that I am a youth minister and it is my job to take Jr. High students to conferences. The day that becomes the totality of my answer is the day that I resign from ministry. It’s much bigger than that. It has to be to pull me away from a family I love and invest in the lives of students I will only know for a season of life.
So…here’s my reason. I believe that when Jesus uses His church, it has the real and tangible power to alter the direction of a person’s life. I’m talking completely changing the outcome of someone’s future! It feels like an overstatement and there were times in my life I probably thought it was, but I’ve actually witnessed the power of this change firsthand multiple times.
So in light of that reality, how should we structure our youth ministry? I believe there are two things that the entire church has to do as they play their part in this amazing process of life transformation in students. If I find myself getting pressed to do some program or event that doesn’t fit into one of these two categories, it’s an easy pass. If it fits into both, we are on to something.
Create Spiritual Memories
The majority of my greatest memories from childhood and my teen years are permanently attached to the church. There were ski trips, retreats, and being taped to a tree while playing capture the flag (not okay anymore so please don’t do!). We zip-lined across lakes, dove into pools of oatmeal, and watched friends be baptized in lakes, horse troughs, and oceans. If you removed every memory I had that was connected to the church, the most critical parts of my life would be gone. The formation of my deepest friendships would be gone. The roots of my personality would disappear.
Why do we plan big production events? Why do we go to the trouble of crazy lights and smoke machines in worship or plan crazy games? Because we are creating spiritual memories; standing stones in a student’s life where they can look back and remember that some of the most fun they had, some of the most creative things they were a part of, were and are attached to their journey of faith. Honestly, it’s not where the deep spiritual formation necessarily lies, but it is where it lasts.
Grounded in Relational Growth
Spiritual memories are empty without intentional relational growth. It’s amazing to me that I am not the only leader with our group at this conference. Two female small group leaders took VACATION TIME from work to come and spend it with these 9 girls. Why? Because relational growth is where the good stuff is. Sure the spiritual memory will last forever, but the spiritual formation will come from the leaders in their lives; the ladies willing to show up over and over again because they get the importance of pouring into their few.
Spiritual memories that aren’t grounded in relational growth are a lot of fun, but will result in students without any roots, without any spiritual depth or backbone. Relational growth without spiritual memories will run the risk of ending up tired and boring. And God is anything but boring.
The same concept rings true for Adult Ministry, Small Groups, and church ministry as a whole.
So why am I in Knoxville, TN, with 9 Jr. High girls while my family is 400 miles away? Because I have no doubt that this week will be a standing stone in their lives, a lasting memory that is grounded in relational growth with the leaders who gave up their time to tag along. I want to give a very sincere thank you to those leaders who aren’t paid to travel with students but are willing to give up their pay to do so. It blows my mind every time!