My congregation, Grace Presbyterian Church, just returned from an annual canoe trip. This is a tradition that comes to us from one of the parent churches of our merge. I wasn't able to attend last year, so this was my first time. A newbie, I was. And I'll admit, I was anxious. I don't canoe very well and I hadn't kayaked in awhile. I was sure my skills on the river would irritate seasoned members. And I didn't know what kind of "spiritual leadership" might be needed.
The trip was inter-generational, ages 8-68-ish. I have years of experience camping with youth but none in this context and none since I've been the pastor of a church. However, I was quickly reminded of so many wonderful truths of good ministry. Here are five things I have learned from youth ministry - and was reminded about on this past trip.
We do not all consume the same information -
and therefore, do not have the same reference points.
Until last Sunday, I didn't know anything about Roulette Doritos – a bag of Doritos that contains both regular Doritos and Hot/Spicy Doritos so you never know what you're gonna get until you put it in your mouth. At this point in my life, television that I consume doesn't try to sell me Doritos – or Monster drinks or Twizzlers that you pull apart like string cheese. But the television, apps, video games, and social media that the group of 7th grade girls I got to know this past week are sold very different things than me.
The junk food industry is driven by the youth culture. It may a simple thing, and maybe I'm making too much of it – but the people to whom I minister are not always like me. They don't see the world the way I do – not because of some deeper belief system but because they watch and consume different types of information and media.
I try to remind myself that the “people in the pews” aren't thinking about church all week long. I try to remind myself that the “people in the pews” haven't spent as much time thinking about faith and religion as much as me. They don't get paid to do this. In the same way I knew nothing about Roulette Doritos, there are myriad things that my parishioners think about that I haven't thought about. Good ministry to any age seeks to know people, their interests and their choices.
Nothing is better at creating relationships than a road trip together.
Being in the car together is a special, unique opportunity to listen in on conversations that I might never get to have. Sometimes the students forget I'm there and they begin to talk - about their friends, about their interests, about their fears, about their hurts and insecurities.
But the thing is - I am still there so I try to sprinkle a question or two to keep conversations going. I don't add pressure or judgment, just a question to help us all think deeper about this, or gain clarity about that. I was grateful for the reminder to cultivate conversations.
We all worry if we will be accepted and loved.
On the two hour ride up, all of the insecurities of middle school emerged – will people accept me and love me. All of the sharing centered around information – I like this kind of music; I'm friends with so in so. Let's listen to Blood on the Dance Floor... no the Beattles... no Nirvana. ("Hey did you know that Nirvana's lead singer killed himself?" One asked.)
By the car ride home, there was no concern about being accepted or loved. Instead, we were a cohesive group. And they all decided to sing along to Disney songs – Prince Alli Fabulous He, Alli Ababwa... These budding young women turned back into kids. The truth is - inside us all is a id hoping to be accepted and loved.
Campfires hold a little bit of magic.
We all look good by the light of a fire. We're warm and relaxed. We talk about the beauty of fire and of the night sky. We offer to roast marshmallows for one another. We eat s'mores slowly – enjoying every bit of the sticky, sweet, and crunchy. It's hard to pull ourselves away from a fire shared among friends or strangers.
I remember a fire pit at one of my parishioners home a few years back. My husband and I stopped by impromptu. We ended up making dinner, eating outside and ended up around their fire pit. A couple years back, we set up a fire pit at church for the solstices and the equinoxes. It was so much fun. The kids brought gliders to play with at the summer solstice. We lingered around the warmth at the winter solstice. I had forgotten how comfortable folks feel around a fire.
Small group conversations create depth in our spiritual lives.
This past week's canoe trip with my congregation has taken me full circle. Traditionally, in youth ministry, at the end of the day, I would gather my group together and talk about the day. What went well? How'd you do? And what do you think about the things of God that were shared or experienced that day?
Where I held these small group conversations among youth in my previous life, we held them inter-generationally this past week - an 8 year old beside a 13 year old, beside 33 year old, beside a 63 year old – all answering questions about their day on the river. Small group conversations, among any age(s), create depth in our spiritual lives. In an inter-generational context, the littlest learn from the eldest and let's be honest, the eldest learn from the littlest.
Intentional small group conversations like these at the end of the day camping can be employed in parish life - at the beginning of meetings, during prayer time in worship services, or even occasionally around tables at fellowship time. Asking folks to talk about their faith in small groups enables us to learn the language of faith from one another.