Most youth leaders have experienced it…the “mountain top rush” of a major event. It might take place during summer camp, a short-term mission trip, or a mass convention (such as the Youth Gathering). Teens embrace the excited, charged atmosphere of being surrounded by other believers and steeped in God’s Word. They might sing loudly, rush to fill Bible studies, and encourage one another as they discuss struggles of life and faith back home. As the activity draws to a close, students may even vow to take what they’ve learned at the event back home and there keep the spiritual fire burning.
However, too often it doesn’t take long to forget about those well-intentioned promises. Our sinful selves take over the second we hit our front doors. The Bibles and backpacks are piled into a corner, school and sports commitments demand attention, and the excitement felt in the chapel service (or on the mountain/in the village/in the stadium) is eclipsed by the routines of twenty-first century teen life. Admittedly, as youth leaders it’s easy to let this slide. After the exhaustion of planning for and leading group trips, taking a break and resuming “normalcy” is tempting. It is important, though, to realize that these experiences are opportunities to kickstart a new season with fresh strength.
Rather than rolling to a stop, we should be excited for the Holy Spirit to keep working and building the momentum of key moments. By establishing an action plan in advance, leaders can capitalize on the energy of a major youth event and use it to propel further spiritual growth among teens. Most significantly, leaders should recognize that it isn’t their efforts that maintain momentum but directing teens to rely on God’s strength and trust His power to work in and through us.
Grow Before You Go
There are always plenty of boxes to check off prior to a youth event but planning ahead should include mentally preparing students to see the event as part of a journey, rather than an end. Remind teens at the outset that they will be expected to continue to participate in spiritual practices and develop after the activity. Provide them with specific expectations of elements to be aware of during the trip or event, and what they will share when it’s finished. Give students direct elements to look for, such as new spiritual truths they hadn’t realized, times where stepping aside can help identify sin that has become the norm and recalling descriptions of activities.
During the event, encourage them to meet new people and gain perspective from the experiences of others. Have teens make post-event goals for themselves such as regular attendance in worship, joining a Bible study, journaling, daily prayer, or devotion time. Encourage students to recall, though, that they are not alone in their efforts. Though they will stumble and fall sway to tempting distractions, in the end it is God who works to make all things possible. When our strivings fail (and they will), we can always return to the comfort that we are made Holy in His eyes through Christ, who comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.
Basics of “Beyond”
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
Attending camps or conventions can feel overwhelming and tiring, but it’s important to keep the big picture of continual spiritual growth in mind. While these events can be places where lots of exciting learning takes place, it is in going back home that the resilience of their identity in Christ will be tested. These events are impactful, but youth should be remined that the every day, every week faith activities are even more important.
During and at the end of a major event, remind students of the commitments and responsibilities discussed prior to departure, and invite them to add steps for accountability. Have students pair up with one another to have specific prayer partners that they can check in with regularly following the event. These partnerships can be chosen by students or assigned by leaders, according to the group dynamic. Having older congregation members can be another great method of accountability. Have older partners pray for and encourage “their” teens before, during, and after the event.
It’s also helpful to remind students of goals and encourage them to bring back ideas and thoughts to home congregations. Within a week of the event, try to have a time when students can share brief reports of their experiences with the congregation. Allow teens to communicate with the rest of the church their thoughts and encounters from the activity. Have students use written or electronic notes to keep track of things they can use and share with others. At or near the end of the trip, meet with the group and devise steps of an action plan that they can implement to recall and use what they’ve learned. Pray for guidance and support as the group returns.
Follow it Up!
During major events, the hearts of our students are like fertile soil. In these environment, they become receptive to the seed of the Word of God, but we want to pray for that seed to be watered and continue to grow. There are plenty of rocks and birds of sin and pressure from the outside world that would keep the seed from continuing in growth. We seek to keep students active and accountable, but also direct them God who gives faith, insight, and genuine development.
After the thrill and energy of a massive activity, it might seem mundane for teens to return to the routine of the home church worship service. Remind students that God is present in the Word and Sacraments, and that we abide in Him and He in us everywhere we go. The same Jesus who was with us on the mountaintop is the same Jesus who is with us in the valley, bringing His means of grace for us. When they fail to live up to some of the commitments they made to a faithful life, point them to confession and absolution in the cross of Jesus.
As continued follow-up, encourage continued study with specific Bible studies and devotions that tie in with the themes of the event. Check in weekly with students to assess how they are doing and how they can be supported in prayer. Be sure to maintain and support those relationships that developed during the event as well. Maintain the impact of the journey by allowing the event to be the start, and not the end, of life-changing memories.
Continue to nurture and support the teens in the group, whether or not they were able to attend the event. Invite students to participate again, or to come to the next experience. Activities are opportunities for camaraderie and group bonding as well as personal growth. Of course, in all things, pray before, during, and after the occasion. Recognize that God is at work in everything we do. Ask the Holy Spirit to work in both big events and small ones back home. God is ultimately doing the work, and we are blessed to be used as His vessels for the next generation.