My grandmother, Leona, lived on one side of a duplex in Lincoln, Nebraska. Every summer my sisters, three of my cousins, and I would stay for one week with Grandma. The week we stayed with Grandma was a time to build deeper friendships with each other.
The best place in Grandma’s house was her basement. It was a huge, unfinished basement–dark, dank, and creepy–with antiques, books, and more piled high. We loved playing in that basement. We would play hide and seek for hours.
One day, while we were playing, we knocked over a stack of old wool blankets, revealing an old chest. We were amazed. In our minds, it was a hidden treasure chest Grandma had kept hidden. We slowly opened it and found beautiful old dress-up clothes and hats. We put on the clothes and imagined the people who wore them. What was their story? Who were they, and how were they connected to our Grandma? Our imaginations went wild. As we continued to dig through the chest we noticed that there was a shelf on the bottom that required a key to open. We sat for a long time and talked about what might be under that shelf–golden coins? Jewels? A pirate’s treasure? Maybe all of those things and more.
Later that day, my cousin Brian told Grandma that we had found the chest and asked if she had the key. She told us that the chest had been given to her by her great-great-grandmother. She thought some of the clothes belonged to the family of King Rupprecht of Prussia, a very distant relative. She couldn’t remember what was underneath that shelf, but she thought she might have the key.
She opened her buffet drawer and took out a ring that held many keys. We tried each key in the chest. Every day, we kept trying every key. We couldn’t wait to find out what King Rupprecht might have hidden in the bottom of this chest–secrets we were about to discover. To our dismay, none of the keys worked. For years after that, we searched for the key to open the next layer. We never found it. We always wondered what was under that shelf.
My grandmother has long since passed away, and the treasure chest is gone. But I remember how intense the desire to open the next layer of the chest was each time we went to Grandma’s house. We couldn’t wait to jump out of the car and head toward the basement and the chest, hoping that this time, we would discover what lay beyond the dress-up clothes. We had a deep thirst for digging deeper.
When I think back to that story, it reminds me of the same kind of longing I have for the youth in my church. I want them to have the same passion about digging deeper into the Word and developing a thirst for God as we had about opening the shelf in that old chest. Some of you may be striving for the same thing with your youth, and asking the question, “How can I develop a ministry to youth that gives them a lifelong thirst for God?”
As a teacher of the faith, my greatest desire is to introduce young people to the Savior and share how He can rescue their soul. I want my desire for Jesus to be their desire for Jesus. The avenue through which I know how to do that best is meeting them where they are–no matter at what level they are developmentally, socially, or spiritually–through relationships and storytelling.
I am called to be on their journey, to guide them with keys in hand to the treasure chest that is the Word of God.
An important part of walking beside them on their journey is sitting in the presence of the Holy Spirit to nurture the thirst in my own heart–to build up my own relationship with Jesus. Nurturing my own soul is central to my ministry. Letting the living Word work in my heart and developing stories of faith to share from my own walk with Jesus makes my ministry “real.” Real ministry to youth gives them a true connectedness to the incarnate Christ–a relationship with the Savior.
Providing opportunities for young people to experience and explore their faith walks and their relationships with God is integral in stimulating their thirst for the Savior. Cracking open the treasure chest of the living Word of God and pulling out the stories that speak to their hearts as well as to their crises helps them see the Word come to life.
We took the clothes from Grandma’s treasure chest and became part of the story. But it was all play. Giving youth a desire to dig deeper into the Word where that great story, when opened up, can intersect with their story more than putting on play clothes, is encouraging them to clothe themselves with Christ. “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12-14).
The youths’ stories can then be shared with others by building relationships through community. God exists in community. He quenches our thirst for Him through the connection of others. As young people who are created in the image of God, they are called to live and mature in community. The biblical history of the people of God is a covenant community. Covenant is intentionality and responsibility in being together in relationship. God wants us in face-to-face relationships with others. In Acts 2:42-47, it says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers… All who believed were together and had all things in common; Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Building relationships through community, in teaching the faith and the nurturing of youth, gives a greater sense that in Christ, “me” is connected to “we” and that “I” is a part of “us.”
A youth ministry program that develops a lifelong thirst for God gives youth the keys to dig deeper into the treasure chest, to explore the Word by themselves. It equips them to open up the treasure chest and take in its contents on their own, to take the treasure that is in their hearts and declare the story to others. To let them know, that through Christ they are a royal priesthood called to declare the treasure, more royal than King Rupprecht, leaving behind more than an old chest full of clothes. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).